Lessons of Cats defeat leave Wexford primed for Dubs test – Liam Dunne
A 12-point defeat might appear like a very disheartening way to sign off in the Allianz Hurling League, but once the initial disappointment had subsided for Liam Dunne and the Wexford team, they located enough positives to add fresh energy to their championship preparations.
They have built on that over the last two months and now believe they are ready for the massive test that awaits them when they take on Dublin in the Leinster semi-final in Wexford Park on Saturday (7.0)
The 4-22 to 2-16 loss to Kilkenny in the league quarter-final in late March passed under the "business as usual" heading across the rest of the hurling landscape but Wexford saw it differently.
"We got a bit of a lesson from Kilkenny alright but then they give lessons to most teams when they're in the mood. The way we looked at it was that we were much better off testing ourselves against one of the big boys, rather than ending the league when the 1B games were over.
"That's why I always supported the idea of having four 1B teams in the quarter-finals. It gave us an extra game against top-class opposition – that's where you learn where you stand," said Dunne.
A clash with Dublin was on Wexford's radar since the championship draws were made last autumn and while Dunne didn't discuss it with his players until they had secured a semi-final date by beating Antrim, he was always conscious of the bigger picture.
Wexford were well fancied to beat Antrim and, just to make sure the feisty Ulstermen didn't get any idea about causing a shock, they were hit early and often.
They scored three goals in the opening 12 minutes, which fitted protective armour that enabled them to withstand Antrim's heaviest punches later on. Wexford won by 13 points (5-19 to 0-21), with 18 year-old debutant Conor McDonald and 30-year-old veteran Rory Jacob each scoring 2-2.
That neatly illustrated the developing balance in the Wexford squad, a process which Dunne has worked on diligently since taking over as manager in November 2011.
The rebuilding work was always going to be a lengthy project, not just in terms of finding and nurturing talent, but also in creating the right environment on which to move forward.
It has had its ups and downs – and there may be more to come – but Dunne (right) is convinced that the underlying base is solid.
"Lads have the right attitude and application on and off the pitch. They are learning fast," he said. "Among all the talk of the league structure, I never said we should be in 1A. We weren't ready for it but we're getting there now, getting closer to being ready for it. That was why I wanted to have a shot at a 1A team this year. We couldn't have got harder opposition than Kilkenny but the experience will stand to us."
It will need to, because having eased themselves smoothly on to the All-Ireland circuit last Sunday week, Wexford are now heading for the fast lane against the reigning Leinster champions.
Wexford drew with Dublin in Wexford Park last year before losing the replay in Parnell Park by eight points, having had centre-back Andrew Shore sent off after six minutes. That skewed the remainder of the game in favour of Dublin, who won by 1-17 to 0-12.
"The strange thing was that Dublin scored 1-17 in both games, with 15 men in Wexford Park and with 14 men in Parnell Park. The trouble for us was we managed only 12 points in the replay," said Dunne.
Wexford then watched as Dublin beat Kilkenny in a replay and then Galway to win the Leinster title for the first time since 1961.
"And only for a harsh decision that saw Ryan O'Dwyer sent off in the second half, Dublin might well have beaten Cork too in the All-Ireland semi-final," added Dunne.
Meanwhile, Wexford held Clare level in an All-Ireland qualifier, only to lose out in extra-time. It left Wexford frustrated by their bad luck against Dublin (first game) and Clare (normal time), yet encouraged by having come so close to both the eventual Leinster and All-Ireland champions.
A season on, they are ready for the first real test to ascertain how much progress has been made. Wexford's recent big win over Kilkenny in the Leinster U-21 championship has added to the sense of expectation in the county that it is pointed firmly in the right direction.
"We've got to be realistic as well. We don't have the resources others have. Our county board is up to its eyeballs in debt – it's just the way things are, so we have to make the best of what's there and get on with it.
"The response from the players has been fantastic, on and off the field. We have 35 in training and every single one of them is putting in a huge effort. Hopefully, they will get their just rewards."
He wants the Wexford public to get behind the team in a very special way on Saturday, creating an inspiring backdrop to their attempt to reach the Leinster final for the first time since 2008.
He told them: "Let the Dublin lads know that they're playing in Wexford Park. A fine summer evening, a big crowd and a real effort from our team should create a great atmosphere. We'll be ready."