Laois rise to the occasion to relegate Antrim in an absolute thriller
Laois 2-27 Antrim 2-21
Antrim were the favourites but Laois were the classier team.
In what was a do-or-die, win-or-bust game for both of these counties, it was the Laois players who rose to the occasion as they preserved their All-Ireland senior championship status for another year and in turn, relegated Antrim to the Joe McDonagh Cup.
It will be a bitterly disappointing blow to the Saffrons who will go straight back down to hurling's second tier having won the competition last year, however they could have no complaints here with a 14-man Laois looking sharper, fitter and smarter on the ball.
Laois looked home and hosed when they led by ten points at half-time but it had all come a cropper by the second water-break when the lead was back to two and to give Antrim even more momentum, when corner forward Ross King was sent off for a second yellow card.
But Cheddar Plunkett's team dug deep, they kept their calm and if there was one man who exemplified this sharpness, it was their speedster of a wing forward Paddy Purcell. The rangy Rathdowney-Errill player scored 1-1 in a blistering first half showing and just when things were starting to look ominous for his team, he stepped up yet again with what turned out to be a decisive and momentum-shifting second half goal.
It was far from a one-man show by Purcell with PJ Scully shooting the lights out inside. The Borris-Kilcotton player is one of the sharpest shooters around when he gets going and he scored them from all angles on Saturday, nailing frees, slicing over two sidelines as well as three crucial scores from open play. If Purcell and Scully were the finishers, then Cha Dwyer is the wrecking ball that makes this Laois forward line tick. Dwyer is a powerhouse of a ball-winner and all you'd have to do is ask the Antrim defenders how many bruises they have to know how hard he tackles. The Ballinakill player hit a number of wides but it was his hard-tackling that set-up Purcell's match-winning goal.
Laois 1-17 Antrim 0-10 Half-time.
All of the Laois forwards are on form in what has been a tremendous half of hurling for Cheddar Plunkett's men.
Paddy Purcell (pictured) has 1-1 and he has caused Antrim no end of problems. pic.twitter.com/EohZbxIX4t
— GAA JOE (@GAA__JOE) July 10, 2021
To Antrim's credit, they didn't go down without a fight with Eoghan O'Neill and the dangerous Neil McManus keeping them in the game but with Padraig Delaney mopping up, with Enda Rowland stopping bullets and with Jack Kelly making good decisions, Laois had enough.
After a disappointing League campaign, they'll be delighted to book their place in the draw for the next round of the qualifiers while in contrast, Antrim's exceptional League form will all feel a little hollow tonight.