The 2021 GAA season is still barely in its infancy, but the handful of supporters that were allowed into O'Moore Park in Portlaoise didn’t just witness one of the best games of the year, they saw perhaps one of the most enthralling contests that has ever taken place in this stadium.
When James Duggan fired in his goal after just 20 seconds of the second half of this Leinster Under-20 clash, Laois led by 15 points, 3-17 to 0-11. Westmeath had looked sharp up front up to that point, but defensively they were no-match for the free-scoring Laois attack, which seemed capable of scoring with every possession.
No-one could have imagined what was to follow. Senior star Josh Coll replied with an excellent goal on the next possession, and gradually Westmeath took over, even though it looked as if time might run out on them as they still trailed by six points with a little over five minutes remaining.
That five minutes will live a long time in the memory of anyone who was fortunate enough to see it. With tension rising, Westmeath started to rack up some incredible points. A glorious block from Charlie McCormack set up Shane Williams, Ciarán Byrne and Pearse Weir Norris traded points, David Devine chipped in, then a truly magnificent goal from Coll followed a point from the Delvin man to give Westmeath their first lead of the game.
With their championship lives flatlining, Laois produced a heart-stopping goalmouth scramble that ended with Duggan firing in his third goal of the night, but the drama was still only unfolding. Westmeath won the next ball, Josh Moore tried to drive at the Laois defence, but was pulled down a few metres outside the arc.
With every Laois player bar two between him and the goals, Jack Gillen somehow crashed the sliotar through the packed traffic into the roof of the net, rousing a cheer that a thousand supporters would do well to match.
What a score last night from a magnificent game of hurling in the Leinster U20 Hurling Championship— Laois GAA (@CLGLaois) June 30, 2021
After extra time the final score was Laois 4.33 V 4.27 Westmeath
The score of the game, of the week, month & year coming from James Duggan#laoisgaa @gaaleinster #wherewebelong pic.twitter.com/ow0EXY5v9O
They needed to hold out for one more play, but didn’t manage it and conceded a 60-metre free, which turned out to be the first dead ball chance for midfielder Tomás Keyes all night. Unfazed, the Camross man stroked the ball between the posts to tie it up at 4-22 to 3-25 and send the game to extra time.
Once the game restarted, Laois briefly hit the front before Westmeath came again. A high ball was broken down in the square and Owen McCabe showed bravery and awareness to get in between two Laois defenders to whip the ball to the net, and when Moore followed up with a point, Westmeath led by three.
Somehow, with their legs exhausted and their lungs bursting in the incredible heat, Laois found another surge. Thep Fitzpatrick and Tadhg Cuddy both started the game but had been taken off. They came back on to contribute four crucial points, while Keyes doubled his 60-minute tally from 0-4 to 0-8.
Nobody could have imagined this finish after Laois burst out of the blocks in an incredible fashion. They conceded the first score to Eamonn Cunnane but fired in goals with their next two attacks, Gearóid Lynch and Duggan both on the mark. By the first-half water break they led by 2-11 to 0-06, and seemed like the only question was how much would they win by. A final answer of six would not have been outrageous, but the manner in which they got there certainly was.
LAOIS: Lorcan Fitzpatrick; Danny Brennan, Alan Connolly, Ian Shanahan; Padraig Brennan, Ciaran Burke (0-01), Niall Coss; Tomás Keyes (0-08, 0-04 frees), Thep Fitzpatrick (0-04, 0-01 free); Cathal Murphy, Tadhg Cuddy (0-06, 0-04 frees, 0-01 65), Gearóid Lynch (1-02); Mark Hennessy (0-02), James Duggan (3-05), Ciarán Byrne (0-05).
Subs: Bryan Bredin for Fitzpatrick (48), Rian Edwards for Brennan (56), Pádraig Rafter for Cuddy (59), Conor Walsh for (60+2), Eddie Critchley for Lynch (66), Fitzpatrick for Duggan (73)
WESTMEATH: Conor Lynch; Liam Moran, Feichin Óg Brennan, Sean Leech; David Hickey, Charlie McCormack, Adam Bate; Mark Cunningham (0-01), Josh Coll (2-02); Shane Williams (0-04), Luke Moore (0-02), David Devine (0-01); Eamonn Cunneen (0-08, 0-04 frees), Jack Gillen (1-08, 1-02 frees, 0-03 65s), Owen McCabe (1-00).
Subs: Jack Gallagher for Devine (48), Pearse Weir Norris (0-01) for Brennan (54), Rory Keyes for Williams (60+2), Andrew Shaw for Cunningham (full-time), Conor Regan for Hickey (73)
Referee: Richie Fitzsimons (Offaly)