Saturday 29 April 2017

Valuable lessons to be learned as Wexford hit first roadblock

Wexford players stand for the national anthem in Nowlan Park on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile
Wexford players stand for the national anthem in Nowlan Park on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile

Michael Verney

Ernest Hemingway once wrote that "man is not made for defeat" but if you learn from the experience and build for the future, you haven't really lost.

Optimism was the over-riding Wexford emotion leaving Nowlan Park on Sunday after a late Tipperary blitz left a keenly-contested League semi-final looking like a rout, but for an hour Davy Fitzgerald's side gave as good as they got despite being undermined by two first-half goals (one a result of a James Breen mistake, the other due to a refereeing error).

Their efforts will have surprised many. Only 12 months ago they were also-rans in the Leinster SHC as Dublin bludgeoned them by 13 points, but an 11-point defeat to Tipp shouldn't dent confidence after a remarkably progressive spring campaign which sees them back on the right road again.

Engagement

While some may argue that Fitzgerald's overboard antics, which saw him encroach onto the pitch and tussle with two Tipp players, are the first sign that the wheels may be coming off in the sunny south east, Sunday showed what they can bring to the party.

Tipp looked slicker in possession - and as reigning All-Ireland champions they should - but the Model men bossed the terms of engagement for large periods, with Shaun Murphy's sweeping role working a treat as they denied the Premier County's danger men the space to do real damage.

Murphy will be disappointed with his positioning for John McGrath's opening goal - he ran parallel to Breen rather than slipping behind to anticipate a possible mistake; as Fitzgerald said, "you can't leave the hole".

And yet, they had clawed their way back into the game despite two early sucker punches and trailed by just two points as a brace from Lee Chin and point from David Dunne put them in the ascendancy as the hour mark approached.

Wexford were poised to strike but Conor McDonald missed a crucial free to cut the gap to one and in the next play Dan McCormack picked up a break off Seamus Callanan to power through their defence before offloading to John McGrath, who finished expertly.

Within nine minutes it was lights out as Wexford trailed by 14 points in one of the harshest hurling lessons any team has ever been handed down. Concession of goals has been a problem in Fitzgerald's other inter-county jobs and the five on Sunday were attributed to "switching off".

Modern inter-county hurling is 75 minutes which doesn't afford a moment's rest, but for Wexford to even contemplate competing with Tipp at this stage of their journey, which is only six months old, is remarkable in itself.

Fitzgerald has called for "more time" regularly throughout the League as the expectations on Slaneyside mushroomed and his attack hit many teething problems. The goal chances which could have had them out of sight against the Cats in the quarter-final were nowhere to be seen - one of the difficulties when playing with seven defenders.

An inefficient use of possession and some rash scoring attempts also undermined the Model charge, with the pressure Tipp exerted when Wexford were in possession incomparable to anything Division 1B threw at them in February and March.

Far too often the game was played in Tipp's half-back line, with long ball down the throats of Pádraic and Ronan Maher like giving nuts to a monkey, but the carrot of hurling in the top tier next season and pitting themselves against the best each week is a huge incentive for a young, developing squad.

Handbrake

Fitzgerald was anything but devastated with the result and he'll be targeting the likely arrival of Kilkenny to Wexford Park on June 10. And after reportedly training 26 out of 31 days in January, the handbrake will be pulled in the coming weeks, with lessons learned from Clare's summer form last season.

Such a robust approach was needed "to get confidence and win games" and if Fitzgerald and Wexford can continue to keep learning on the job this rapidly, there's no reason why they can't leave a huge mark on the Championship.

Irish Independent

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