Wexford hurlers edging closer
THE WEXFORD Senior hurlers may still be searching for a win over one of the big guns to move them on to the next level, but Sunday's trip to a resplendent Páirc Uí Rinn showed that they are edging closer as fancied Cork needed to put in a big effort to secure the sole promotion place as Division 1B table-toppers in the Allianz League.
And with a home quarter-final against Kilkenny to look forward to this coming weekend, Liam Dunne's side should take the many positives from a game which proved that his players are more than capable of mixing it with the best.
The pace of this contest on an immaculate surface was nothing like Wexford had experienced in any of the previous rounds, but collectively they stood up to the test and their tally of 1-20 would have won most games. Seven points down early in the second-half, they thundered back into contention with six scores on the trot before Cork called on all of their superior experience of the big stage to push on in the closing stages, inspired by the brilliance of ace attacker Seamus Harnedy.
An uncomfortable 90 seconds for netminder Mark Fanning near the end of the first quarter had yielded two goals, but that wasn't a signal for heads to drop as the visitors gave as good as they got for the remainder of the game in an another very encouraging display. They will go into Sunday's knockout clash as rank outsiders and should relish the prospect of having a crack at the Cats at this early stage of the season.
The injured Ciarán Kenny and the unavailable Ian Byrne were replaced in the named starting line-up by Willie Devereux and Paul Morris, and the early signs were promising as Wexford immediately got to grips with the hot pace on the finest day of the year for a match to date.
Cork's Conor Lehane started at left half-forward on young Liam Ryan but quickly alternated with full-forward Seamus Harnedy, and this duo did a lot of damage as they accounted for a combined 1-8 from play.
A very good solo point from Liam Og McGovern showed that Wexford hadn't travelled down to be walked all over, with ace Cork free-taker Patrick Horgan replying twice before Paul Morris equalised after Conor McDonald was fouled following the first of a few fine catches.
Even better followed in the seventh minute when Diarmuid O'Keeffe won a Cork puck-out and fed Shane Tomkins whose superb low pass was controlled by Jack Guiney. The big Rathnure lad showed a clean pair of heels to Stephen McDonnell, making ground before planting a low shot past Anthony Nash for a 1-2 to 0-2 lead.
Wexford still held that advantage seven minutes later (1-4 to 0-5) after Paul Morris picked off two points from play, the first after a fine tackle by Harry Kehoe and the second from a Diarmuid O'Keeffe handpass.
Brian Hartnett, Patrick Horgan and Seamus Harnedy had responded for a tricky Cork forward unit, and they hit the front for the first time after Mark Fanning was penalised for over-carrying and Horgan drilled the 20-metre free to the net.
Wexford hadn't recovered from that blow just 90 seconds later when a long Anthony Nash free wasn't dealt with by a jittery Fanning, and the scramble which resulted ended with Conor Lehane forcing the sliothar over the line from close range to make it 2-5 to 1-4 for the home side.
Cork had extended their advantage to five points by the interval (2-10 to 1-8), although it was nip and tuck as the ball was sprayed fast up and down a perfect playing surface. Three of the next five scores went to the home side, with a pointed free from Paul Morris plus Liam Og McGovern's second from play bettered by efforts from Patrick Horgan and two beauties from Seamus Harnedy who was really on fire.
Jack Guiney won his own puck-out and set up Harry Kehoe who made it 2-8 to 1-7 in the 28th minute, and Diarmuid O'Keeffe then flashed a rising shot just over the bar after good work by Liam Og McGovern.
Cork went in at the break ahead by 2-10 to 1-8 after Horgan converted a '65 and a free late on, but Wexford could be happy with their overall performance with the exception of that brief spell when the goals were conceded.
Bobby Kenny prevented a possible third goal with a block on Horgan in the 33rd minute, and the underdogs might have been even closer but for seven wides and a further three shots hit tamely into Anthony Nash's grateful hand.
McGovern was a loss on the re-start although his replacement Podge Doran, returning from injury, did very well, while P.J. Nolan also came back after a long lay-off for clubmate Shane Tomkins who couldn't continue. Another welcome sight was to see Eoin Moore getting a full 35 minutes under his belt as he replaced Liam Ryan in the half-back line.
It looked ominous though midway through the third quarter when Cork had stretched their lead to 2-14 to 1-10, with a couple of Paul Morris frees amid efforts at the other end from Conor Lehane, who did a lot of damage out on the half-forward line, Seamus Harnedy, Lehane again and Stephen Moylan.
Wexford's best spell was just around the corner though as they really put it together between the 44th and 52nd minutes when they picked off an impressive six points on the trot. Morris, on his way to becoming the second Ferns player in seven days to hit double figures, availed of a crossfield P.J. Nolan pass to register before Diarmuid O'Keeffe, now at left half-back, reduced arrears to 2-14 to 1-12.
Morris (free), Jack Guiney from an Eoin Moore clearance, Morris (free) and Lee Chin from long range left the minimum between them and the Cork supporters were getting visibly restless.
The men in red showed their composure and undoubted ability though as they never panicked, instead regaining control as Patrick Horgan ('65 and free), excellent substitute Alan Cadogan (two) and Horgan from play picked off points after moving up a gear from the 54th to the 64th minutes (2-19 to 1-16). Cadogan's first point was the best score of the afternoon as it came following a marvellous first-time crossfield pull on a hopping ball by Stephen Moylan which completely changed the direction of the attack.
Diarmuid O'Keeffe got the first Wexford point in over 12 minutes which was cancelled out by Seamus Harnedy before Paul Morris hit his tenth point, from a free.
The game was gone from Wexford at that stage though, with Conor Lehane and Paul Haughney adding to Cork's tally before Podge Doran hit a brace of consolation scores. Alan Cadogan and Patrick Horgan (free) closed the scoring for the winners, with the latter a costly affair as it came after Bobby Kenny received a straight red card for a foul on Cadogan which will keep him out of Sunday's quarter-final and may cost him his place in the long run given the keen competition with so many injured players on the way back.