Laois 2-27 Antrim 2-21
Antrim will have to start all over again as their defeat to Laois on Saturday afternoon means the Saffrons will make a return to the Joe McDonagh Cup for 2022.
Darren Gleeson’s side just gave themselves far too much to do in the second period as they trailed by 11 points after 40 minutes, but somehow managed to catch fire and got to within two by the water-break.
Antrim enjoyed a numerical advantage when first, Laois full-back Laois Sean Downey was sent to the sin-bin on 45 minutes and then Ross King was shown a second yellow, but Antrim were unable to make this count.
Having worked so hard to return to the race for the Liam MacCarthy Cup, Antrim’s stay in the top tier of Championship hurling lasted 140-plus minutes .
They will now have to regroup, rebuild and try to bridge the gap down at a lower level thanks to the snakes and ladders system that is employed – a scenario that Gleeson insists makes little sense.
“The only way that teams like Antrim, Laois, Offaly, Carlow, Kerry or Westmeath are going to improve is by playing against the top teams consistently,” he stressed. “How we get that structure, I don’t know. It’s easy for me to say it’s the wrong system, but if we won it (the game) would it be the right system? I still don’t think it would be.
“Antrim and Laois need to be playing at the highest level all the time. The up and down nature of it is no good to them.
“The cynics will say that if you’re not good enough then you shouldn’t be up there. Rome wasn’t built in a day, it’s a process – maybe two, three or four years – at that level.”
Laois were All-Ireland quarter-finalists just two years ago and they tore into the game, going 0-11 to 0-4 ahead by the water-break with PJ Scully landing a peach of a point. The Saffrons rallied with three points in-a-row but Laois responded in kind and finished the half strongly with a bullet of a goal from Paddy Purcell on 33 minutes helping them into a 1-17 to 0-10 advantage at the break.
The Midlanders hit three of the first five scores after the break with Scully landing another sideline, but Antrim got the goal they needed to ignite their challenge as Ciaran Clarke’s deft flick put Eoin O’Neill in to find the net on 44 minutes.
Downey was sin-binned for trailing down Conor Johnston, but Enda’s Rowland was equal to the penalty from Neil McManus.
Antrim did get a second major boost after King was shown his second yellow for a wild swipe on Aaron Crawford with O’Neill again the man to find the net and help Antrim to within two.
However, the water break allowed Laois to reorganise and with Rowland on top form, they restricted Antrim to points and Purcell hit the sucker punch 10 minutes from time.
Scorers: Laois: P Delaney (0-3), C McEvoy (0-1), F Fennell (0-1), J Kelly (0-3); P Purcell (2-2), C Dwyer (0-1), PJ Scully (0-11, 7 frees, 2 sidelines), W Dunphy (0-3), R King (0-2).
Antrim: K Molloy (0-3), N McManus (0-4), J McNaughton (0-2, 1 free), Conor Johnston (0-1), C Cunning (0-2), C Clarke (0-8, 7 frees, 1 65).
Subs: E O’Neill (2-0) for M Bradley (HT), S Elliott (0-1) for Conor Johnston (59).
Referee: Sean Cleere (Kilkenny).