Walsh Cup dream thwarted
AN IMPRESSIVE first-half was followed by a mediocre second period in a bitterly cold Páirc Uí Síocháin, Gorey, on Sunday last when Wexford's quest for a second successive Walsh Cup Senior hurling tournament final appearance was thwarted by the team which conquered them in last year's decider, Dublin.
Liam Dunne's young, experimental side held a deserved interval lead of 1-11 to 0-10 but paid the price for adding just three points after the break as the visitors edged home, aided by a soft goal from a free in the 50th minute.
Wexford were still holding on to the lead, albeit by the minimum margin (1-11 to 0-13), when Ciarán Kenny shipped a yellow card for stopping Mark Schutte in his tracks as he made a run towards the '21. It was fairly clear from Paul Ryan's approach that he was going to chance his arm and try for a goal, and his shot seemed to spin upwards off the stick of James Tonks before ending in the net.
It gave Dublin the lead for the very first time but it also prompted the only bit of inventiveness from the Wexford attack in the second-half as they hit back immediately with two points.
The first was a real gem as a Kenny clearance down the left wing was caught brilliantly by Gary Moore who turned swiftly and planted a beauty over the bar. Ninety seconds later a Richie Kehoe handpass set up Paul Morris for the equaliser, and hopes were high that Wexford had put that insipid third quarter showing behind them.
However, the game took another twist in Dublin's favour with 13 minutes left when wing-back Richie Kehoe collected a second yellow card for a foul on the influential Conal Keaney and the subsequent free was pointed by Paul Ryan to restore their lead.
Ian Byrne was off target from a placed ball which the wind carried to the right and wide before Ryan made it 1-15 to 1-13 from another free in the 64th minute. A good reflex save by Mark Fanning denied Eamonn Dillon a goal, while Wexford had a few chances late on which weren't taken.
Substitute Rory Jacob fired wide after a lovely low catch while Paul Morris miscued his pick-up from a scoreable free in the absence of his club colleague, Ian Byrne, who had been replaced six minutes earlier. Shane Tomkins went on to strike the tenth Wexford wide (Dublin had a similar tally) before Rhys Clarke was dragged back as he soloed through with just over 30 seconds of normal time remaining.
The free was outside the '21 but netminder Mark Fanning had started his run up to take it when he was sent back to man the posts. Instead Clarke acted on instructions to tap it over, presumably in the hope that another point would be secured in the seconds remaining to force extra-time. Referee John Keenan played an additional one minute and 17 seconds in total but that equaliser proved elusive and the reigning champions held on to set up a final date with Kilkenny.
Another decent, competitive game would have helped Wexford no end in advance of the National League but it's not the end of the world as the void will be filled instead by some challenge games before the journey to face Antrim in Ballycastle on February 16.
Wexford showed four changes in personnel from the team which routed N.U.I.G. at the same venue eight days earlier, with Ciarán Kenny, Andrew Shore, Richie Kehoe and Rhys Clarke starting in place of Liam Ryan, Eoin Conroy, Conor Devitt and Podge Doran respectively.
Thankfully the rain held off and the pitch was in fine condition, but it was still a very difficult day to play hurling given the biting wind and cold which wasn't easy on the hands in particular.
The sides posted a wide apiece before Wexford had an early tonic when Andrew Shore's crossfield ball to Gary Moore created an opening in the fifth minute. Full-forward Rhys Clarke saw his one-handed effort saved by Gary Maguire but he reacted sharply to the rebound and drove it to the net to give the home side a lead which they didn't relinquish until well into the second-half.
It was 1-6 to 0-4 by the end of the first quarter, with Ian Byrne contributing three points, two from frees, while Andrew Shore, Paul Morris and Shane Tomkins also got in on the act. Mark Schutte, Ryan O'Dwyer, Eamon Dillon and Robbie Mahon replied for Anthony Daly's charges who went into battle with eight championship regulars.
A hat-trick of Paul Ryan frees narrowed the gap considerably before Wexford responded with three points on the trot themselves between the 27th and 29th minutes. Another free converted by Ian Byrne was sandwiched in between two good efforts from play by midfielder Diarmuid O'Keeffe, leaving the locals with a 1-9 to 0-7 advantage.
However, it remained close as the boys in blue were responsible for the next three scores, from Ryan O'Dwyer, Ryan (free) and Eamon Dillon, before Byrne added a brace of late pointed frees to make it 1-11 to 0-10 at the break.
At that juncture it would have been hard to believe that Wexford would only add three second-half points because the attack was looking sharp and the ratio of chances taken rather than missed was favourable.
Dublin gained a stranglehold around the middle third of the field on the re-start though, with interval substitute Chris Crummey showing up especially well in the half-back line while Conal Keaney drove them on with a big third quarter display.
Yet for all that the visitors found it hard to turn superiority into scores as they only pulled back three points in the first 14 minutes, courtesy of free-taker Ryan and Keaney with a brace. Ian Byrne (free) and Paul Morris fired Wexford wides in that spell while the latter had a tame effort on goal comfortably saved by Gary Maguire.
That Dublin goal from Paul Ryan's free proved crucial and on another day it would have been kept out because it wasn't the best shot he has ever taken, far from it. Even after that Wexford had a few chances for points and a small thing would have changed the outcome, but while defeat was their lot the game will have brought the relative newcomers on a great deal.