Rebuilding Royals keep comeback on right track
Meath 0-18 Wexford 0-13
WITH the other last-four clash already underway, Meath's players hurried out of their dressing-room under the Cusack Stand to catch a glimpse of what was coming down the tracks.
They had just taken another small step in their quiet rehabilitation, meeting their second milestone of the season by following up promotion to Division 2 with reaching the Leinster final. But, even before they saw Dublin's performance, no one was getting carried away.
"We're taking things very lightly," Seamus Kenny said afterwards.
There were holes, not least in defence in the first half when Wexford found gaps with an ease that might have surprised them. In the light of what followed in Croke Park, they would be fatal flaws in a Leinster final.
But, as they did against Wicklow, Meath adapted and improved to run out deserving winners with 18 scores.
The common consensus was that Meath were lucky to be just a point down at half-time (0-8 to 0-7). In the opening exchanges Daithi Waters picked up from where he left off in the win over Louth and was ruling the midfield area along with Rory Quinlivan.
And with that lack of supply, Meath struggled.
Even Stephen Bray, who would develop into the game's most influential player, misfired, fisting wide from close range. Eamon Wallace didn't flourish in the wide open spaces either, leaving Meath's threat blunted.
Meanwhile, Wexford found their rhythm, carving holes in the Meath defence and leaving centre-back Caoimhin King with an acre to defend on his own. Brian Malone raided forward for a score and Ciaran Lyng and Ben Brosnan contributed from play and frees to open up a 0-8 to 0-4 lead after 25 minutes.
But, as they often do, Meath hung in there. Graham Reilly got off the mark and Wallace pointed before Peadar Byrne's second of the half closed the gap to the minimum.
At midfield, Meath were moving much better with Conor Gillespie now curbing the influence of Waters and offering more cover to their half-back line.
Their revival got some help when Brosnan miscued a long-range free and followed that by missing a kickable one from in front of the posts and, though the game was still up for grabs at the break, Wexford weren't in as healthy a position as they could have been.
"Just towards the end of it we lost our way a little bit and lost a few phases of possession," Wexford manager Aidan O'Brien admitted.
"We missed a few opportunities that we could have done with. Meath got a few scores themselves, which meant that the game was quite close at half-time.
"I think we might have felt, with the possession we had, we were entitled to more of a lead.
"Obviously, there was one free in particular which we'd expect to nail every time that we could have done with.
"There was a chance which Adrian Flynn had when he came on to a ball from Ciaran Lyng and perhaps could have taken it further. It was a really great opportunity to score. Not taking them wasn't what you wanted. Nonetheless at half-time I was satisfied with the performance."
As they were in Aughrim, Meath were slow out of the blocks on the restart and Wexford stretched three clear. But the Royals responded again, kicking the next five points and carving open the game's first clear goal-chance before Reilly pointed when Bray seemed to be in a better position.
That period of dominance put Mick O'Dowd's side in the lead for the first time.
And while Wexford kept themselves in the game, Meath through the promptings of Bray, the relentless hard running of Reilly and the accuracy of Mickey Newman from frees, never looked back.
Wexford needed a goal to regain the momentum but Meath were in stingier form now. After a shaky start, Donal Keogan was now mopping up brilliantly around Kevin Reilly and Bryan Menton.
And even when Wexford did get a sight on goal, a heroic intervention by a diving Seamus Kenny slammed the door shut.
When the line was broken, Paddy O'Rourke was on hand. He pushed a stinging Lyng effort over the bar to keep Meath noses in front.
It seemed the little slice of luck that helped Wexford past Louth when a ball rebounded kindly off the post for the game's decisive goal, had deserted O'Brien's men.
O'Rourke's save sucked the life from Wexford as Meath nabbed five points in the last 10 minutes to return to a first Leinster final since 2010.
"It was good to get a win, in the second half we kicked on but it took us a while to get going," Meath boss O'Dowd reflected. "Maybe there was a bit of nervousness in some of our players or something.
"In the first half we knew we definitely weren't in the place we needed to be to win the game. I think we stepped it up all over the pitch in the second half."
"I'd say there's more improvement to come, or there will certainly need to be more improvement."
SCORERS – Meath: M Newman 0-9fs, G Reilly 0-4, P Byrne, S Bray 0-2 each, E Wallace 0-1. Wexford: C Lyng 0-5 (3fs), B Brosnan 0-3 (2fs), B Malone 0-2, A Flynn, R Barry, PJ Banville 0-1 each.
Meath – P O'Rourke 7; D Keogan 7, K Reilly 7, B Menton 7; P Harnan 7, C King 6, S Kenny 7; B Meade 6, C Gillespie 7; P Byrne 7, D Carroll 6, G Reilly 8; E Wallace 6, S Bray 8, M Newman 7.
Subs: C Lenehan 6 for King (41), J Sheridan 6 for Wallace (48), P Gilsenan 6 for Byrne (52), A Tormey 6 for Meade (60), B McMahon for G Reilly (70).
Wexford – A Masterson 6; M Furlong 6, G Molloy 6, R Tierney 6; B Malone 7, D Murphy 6, A Flynn 6; D Waters 7, R Quinlivan 6; PJ Banville 6, C Lyng 7, A Doyle 6; B Brosnan 6, R Barry 6, S Roche 6.
Subs: P Byrne 6 for Roche, J Holmes 6 for Doyle (55), K Gore 6 for Banville (60), C Carty for Quinlivan (67), K O'Grady for Brosnan (68).
Ref – M Deegan (Laois)