Paul Curran: Lilies show heart but Laois have edge
The two championship games at the weekend restored some faith in the championship format with two very competitive matches.
Derry had a one-point win against near neighbours Down and there was stalemate between Laois and Kildare in Tullamore.
The Ulster Championship is by far the most competitive of all the provinces and that is unlikely to change in the short term. Not all Ulster counties are contenders but all need to be taken seriously in the All-Ireland qualifiers, especially if one has to travel up north.
The Kildare v Laois game was always going to be a close affair. Both teams are of a similar standard but Laois for me have the better forwards and yesterday they really should have been able to close out this game.
They do play a defensive game at times and in the first half, while playing against a very strong breeze, they got their game tactics spot on. One might argue that Kildare made it easier for them by using the hand pass far too often when a kick pass long into Alan Smith and Eamonn Callaghan might have produced more scoring opportunities.
Laois were able to dominate around the middle, get their runners supporting the man in possession and quickly establish a firm foothold in the game. Sometimes the way teams set up now it is far easier to play against the breeze than with it and in the second period Laois lost their way a bit. The tactics which worked so well in the opening half were useless playing with the wind.
Kildare players simply filtered back and blocked off the spaces and this allowed them to run at Laois more often. It wasn't all plain sailing, with Donie Kingston having a super game and he got plenty of support from Evan O'Carroll, Ross Munnelly and Tom Shiel in particular.
Laois must have been very happy at half time, while Jason Ryan and his players must have feared the worst. A single point separated the teams at that point but in fairness to Kildare, they came out fighting.
A free from Eoghan O'Flaherty followed by a very well-worked score from Emmet Bolton quickly established a three-point lead and some badly needed breathing space but one always felt that Laois would create the chances with the forwards they have.
John O'Loughlin was very influential in the next phase of the game, winning two frees which were converted by Munelly on the right and Kingston on the left.
That left the minimum between the teams and he then burst forward to kick a lovely score off his left foot to level the game.
That came with 25 minutes to go and it looked like Laois had the game by the throat. But it was Kildare who found something extra.
Tommy Moolick, who had only been introduced as a second-half sub, kicked a sweet score to edge his team ahead again and that was followed by a Paul Cribben point shortly after to extend the lead to two.
Laois will have been happy enough to concede this point because it really should have been a goal - and possibly a winning goal. After some quality build-up play, Alan Smith spotted the inrushing Moolick, who collected a pass right in front of goal but couldn't steer his shot under Brody and had to settle for the point.
Laois really dominated after that and with supporters looking at their watches, Laois had managed to kick the next five scores with Kingston again in the middle of things. With time against Kildare and three points to make up, they threw caution to the wind and kicked the important scores to give them a second chance next weekend.
Kildare will be the happier team going into the replay, as they finished stronger, but they will need to be a lot better next week if they are to beat this Laois team.
Momentum can be a huge thing going into any game. Jason Ryan will know that his team only performed in patches and were wasteful in front of goal. That's something that has hurt them in the past and they will have to find something extra in front of goal the next day.
I like this Laois team. They have some terrific footballers, especially around the middle of the field, and if they can dominate again in this area and get Kingston on the ball, I think they will have too much in the replay.
In the Ulster Championship Derry got the better of neighbours Down in a defensively minded game but a competitive one none the less. Derry set up their system with numbers in the back line and set about frustrating the Down forwards from the throw in.
I don't particularly like this style of play but you cannot criticise management teams if that's they way they want to play and when it is successful. It was a game of patience for Eoin Bradley, who soldiered on his own up front for long periods of the game but he did cause some problems for the Down defence.
Down of course will be kicking themselves this morning after missing some easy opportunities to edge in front in the latter stages of the game. One felt that if they managed to get the lead they would have been able to see it out but poor decision making and shot selection prevented them from going in front.
Derry now face either Donegal or Armagh in the semi-final and that is going to be another day's work.
The games yesterday have in a way saved the championship and have highlighted the need for more competitive games.
A league-style championship with similar standard teams in each group with more games would bring the crowds back.