Monday 11 December 2017

Tomkins winner saves Wexford from exit

Struggling hurlers hit last three points to pip relegation-threatened Laois

Alan Aherne

Match-winner Shane Tomkins gets on the ball as Laois midfielder Patrick Purcell challenges during Sunday's close encounter in Portlaoise
Match-winner Shane Tomkins gets on the ball as Laois midfielder Patrick Purcell challenges during Sunday's close encounter in Portlaoise
Ian Byrne is challenged by Laois centre-back Matthew Whelan
Lee Chin tries to surb the aerial threat posed by Willie Hyland of Laois

The tight margins between progress and failure in the wonderfully unpredictable world of sport were evident before a sparse O'Moore Park, Portlaoise, crowd on Sunday when Shane Tomkins shot a precious winning point for Wexford in the last minute of added time to give them a very lucky win over Laois in Division 1B of the Allianz Hurling League.

Wexford 0-22 Laois 0-21

The Askamore man struck for his crucial fourth score when an Ian Byrne delivery broke into his path, with the sliothar sailing over the bar as the stopwatch read 37 minutes and 51 seconds. Three extra minutes had been announced and, while referee Seán Cleere did allow play to continue for a little longer, Laois - trained by Clonard's Ross Dunphy - were unable to create another opening and grab the draw their efforts would have deserved.

And just to underline how close Wexford came to crashing out, a share of the spoils would have seen them finish fifth in the table and facing a repeat clash with Laois in the relegation play-off.

Instead they have a home quarter-final contest with holders Waterford in store on Sunday week, April 3, but they will realise more than anyone that this was far too close for comfort.

Kerry had caused the big upset of the day by pipping Offaly by 2-18 to 2-17 in Birr, but they must still meet Laois in the first battle to avoid a possible drop to Division 2A. They finished level on four points with Wexford and Offaly who ended up third and fourth respectively on scoring difference, with each and every one of those points garnered in the runaway win down in Tralee of the utmost importance to Liam Dunne's men.

'A win is a win' as the old adage goes, and the players certainly dug deep and showed character to hit three unanswered points in the last five minutes to stave off another defeat. However, in terms of overall performance it was another big disappointment because the expected and hoped-for strong response to the home hammering at Offaly's hands simply wasn't there.

The other four teams in the group had handled Laois quite comfortably in the previous rounds, but we struggled to keep them at bay in the second-half as a 0-14 to 0-11 interval lead was gradually eroded.

The visitors struggled to win possession in the middle third of the field as the action wore on, with the sides level on four separate occasions before Laois showed their intent when free-taker P.J. Scully and Patrick Purcell put them 21-19 ahead with four minutes left.

Lee Chin was moved to centre-forward in one last throw of the dice, with Andrew Kenny coming on at right half-back and Shane Tomkins going to full-forward. Laois squandered three chances to put further daylight between the sides, with captain Charles Dwyer narrowly off target, and the margin was reduced to one entering the last minute of normal time when Cathal Dunbar exchanged passes with fellow substitute Eoin Conroy following a Pádraig Foley free before scoring from the left.

The subsequent puck-out was won on the right wing by Diarmuid O'Keeffe who had been introduced earlier at left corner-back in a straight swap with James Breen. He made ground before feeding Lee Chin who shot the leveller, but the Faythe Harriers man then sent a good chance wide after receiving an Ian Byrne handpass.

There was a brief moment of panic when referee Seán Cleere pointed the wrong way for a Laois free in rather than a Wexford free out after Willie Hyland grappled with Andrew Kenny. Thankfully he quickly realised his error and another long Pádraig Foley free led to a scramble around the 'D' before Conor McDonald managed to get away a head-high shot which was saved comfortably by impressive Laois goalkeeper Enda Rowland.

Wexford couldn't have left it any later to strike for the winner as Tomkins delivered when it was needed most, and no doubt they didn't realise how fortunate they were until the result in Birr was announced over the P.A. and the various permutations were worked out.

The team showed four changes from the Offaly debacle, with Andrew Kenny, Eoin Conroy, the injured Andrew Shore, and Podge Doran replaced by James Breen, Jack O'Connor, Ian Byrne and Paul Morris respectively.

O'Connor formed a midfield partnership with Aidan Nolan while Lee Chin started at right half-back, with Harry Kehoe's placing in the left corner proving the most notable aspect of the attacking sextet as Liam Og McGovern was given more freedom to operate outside him on the wing.

Only seven seconds had elapsed when John Lennon fired Laois ahead, and Willie Hyland doubled the lead after catching a puck-out over Lee Chin after Ian Byrne's long-range miss. Wexford had posted three of their twelve wides, one an over-hit pass while Conor McDonald then missed the target, before Shane Tomkins pounced on Matthew Whelan's failure to gather a short puck-out and got his side off the mark.

Harry Kehoe had a goal chance from a Jack O'Connor delivery in the fourth minute, but Ryan Mullaney managed a vital hook and the ball went harmlessly wide. A foul on O'Connor led to the leveller from McDonald before another ill-advised short puck-out was intercepted by the Gorey man who posted his sole score from play for a 0-3 to 0-2 lead.

P.J. Scully equalised after a grounded Liam Ryan overcarried under strong pressure, while Conor O'Leary made a smart save from Willie Dunphy after the attacker caught a high Charles Dwyer delivery in a tussle with Matthew O'Hanlon.

A late swipe at Paul Morris earned Tom Delaney a yellow card and was punished by Conor McDonald as Wexford edged 4-3 ahead in the tenth minute. However, Laois (who also hit twelve wides) continued to match the visitors stride for stride and enjoyed a four-minute purple patch featuring three points on the trot from Willie Dunphy, Charles Dwyer and Willie Hyland.

Wexford responded well though with six in reply. McDonald converted a free after Liam Og McGovern was fouled after winning a puck-out, while Ian Byrne added a brace from play with Aidan Nolan having a hand in both scores.

Byrne then hit the target from a midfield free after a throw by Charles Dwyer, while Shane Tomkins was satisfied with a point after another decent chance for Harry Kehoe was again foiled by a hook.

Wexford were motoring along nicely as Paul Morris made it 10-6 in the 24th minute, before P.J. Scully finally ended the barren period for Laois with a pointed free. Morris picked out Ian Byrne for another point after wides from Harry Kehoe and Conor McDonald, with another Kehoe effort which was gathered by the goalie leading to a long-range Laois point from Colm Stapleton seconds later (11-8).

Wexford came very close to rattling the net in the 30th minute when a Byrne handpass put Morris through on the right, but his shot was well saved by Enda Rowland and Harry Kehoe drilled the rebound off the butt of the far post. While Conor McDonald converted a free in the immediate aftermath, it could have been a lot worse for Laois.

And while they pulled back points through Charles Dwyer and P.J. Scully, they had another let-off in between. Once again Paul Morris tested Rowland with a shot from a Jack O'Connor delivery, and the rebound struck a Laois man who nearly inadvertently knocked it into his own net.

Conor McDonald also missed a scoreable free before Lee Chin set up Shane Tomkins for another point, with Paul Morris and P.J. Scully (free) exchanging late scores to leave Wexford 14-11 clear at the interval.

Scully had that gap down to the minimum just over two minutes into the second period after points from a free and play, with Laois opening on a very positive note as they picked off four of the first five scores.

Even though Liam Og McGovern briefly stopped the rot, the home side had drawn level on 0-15 each by the 43rd minute after another Scully free was followed by the equaliser from Willie Dunphy.

An Aidan Nolan shot from the left, after a Shane Tomkins handpass, had been expertly saved by Enda Rowland beforehand, while Conor McDonald didn't get enough height into a close-in free which seemed like a point attempt, and the netminder pulled it down to safety.

Diarmuid O'Keeffe came on at this juncture while Laois made a double substitution, and the home side looked the more likely to succeed midway through the half.

Midfielder Patrick Purcell gave them the lead before McDonald replied from a free, and a similar pattern followed as Stephen Maher edged Laois ahead again but the Gorey attacker responded from a placed ball (0-17 each).

Scully (free) and Charles Dwyer pushed Laois ahead by two with 16 minutes left, and it took a timely dive and pull to safety by Eoin Moore to deny substitute Ross King a goal chance. Seconds later Conor O'Leary saved smartly from Charles Dwyer who was off balance as he struck the ball, while the netminder also pulled down a Willie Hyland point attempt from under his crossbar.

Paul Morris and Aidan Nolan combined to pick out Ian Byrne for a vital point, and the leveller followed from McDonald after a foul on Shane Tomkins. Nolan then missed a good chance before Scully restored the Laois lead from a free, and another opportunity was squandered when McDonald's free from the left once again didn't have enough elevation and was blocked.

The situation looked very serious when Patrick Purcell made it 0-21 to 0-19 for Laois with nearly 66 minutes gone, but happily the game ended on a bright note for Wexford as they called on all of their collective know-how to somehow edge their noses in front.

Wexford: Conor O'Leary; Liam Ryan, Matthew O'Hanlon (capt.), James Breen; Lee Chin (0-1), Pádraig Foley, Eoin Moore; Jack O'Connor, Aidan Nolan; Ian Byrne (0-5, 1 free), Shane Tomkins (0-4), Liam Og McGovern (0-1); Paul Morris (0-2), Conor McDonald (0-8, 7 frees), Harry Kehoe. Subs. - Diarmuid O'Keeffe for Breen (44), Cathal Dunbar (0-1) for Kehoe (54), Eoin Conroy for O'Connor (61), Andrew Kenny for Morris (66).

Laois: Enda Rowland; Cahir Healy, Ryan Mullaney, Darren Maher; Leigh Bergin, Matthew Whelan, Tom Delaney; Patrick Purcell (0-2), Colm Stapleton (0-1); John Lennon (0-1), Charles Dwyer (capt., 0-3), Willie Hyland (0-2); P.J. Scully (0-9, 7 frees), Willie Dunphy (0-2), Stephen Maher (0-1). Subs. - Páuric Lalor for Delaney (23), Ross King for Dunphy (44), Ciarán McEvoy for Bergin (44), Brendan Reddin for Stapleton ( 55), Brian O'Meara for Maher (64).

Referee: Seán Cleere (Kilkenny).

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