WEXFORD 1-20 WATERFORD 0-18 DERMOT CROWE AN incredible match before a rapt audience at Nowlan Park, more than we could possibly have wished for, ended with an epic Wexford victory last night. There have been a few of those down the years. This will live with the best of them.
After hanging on to Waterford's coattails for much of the first half, trailing six points at one juncture, they made an heroic recovery. Larry Murphy replaced an injured Adrian Fenlon in the 23rd minute and proceeded to radically alter the course of the match.
He moved in on Tom Feeney, who had been lording it, while at the other end Ken McGrath and John Mullane were in scoring overdrive. But the pattern changed utterly following Murphy's introduction. His ball-winning ability caused consternation in Waterford‘s backline.
Waterford will reflect morbidly on this and wonder what hit them. It is not the first time they have had a crowd entranced with the beauty of their hurling and then left them equally baffled by a seemingly incorrigible yen for squander. .
In spite of winning the Munster championship, they remain an infuriating enigma, a torture to follow, but it would be unfair to dwell excessively of where they went wrong. Wexford, once invited, took a vigorous grip on the match and caught fire. Waterford simply couldn‘t live with the heat.
So into tomorrow night's quarter-final draw go last night's outsiders, who not long before were to be seen downcast and downtrodden in Croke Park after a crushing loss to Kilkenny in the Leinster final. "There's a great character in this squad," said manager John Conran afterwards.
"They were galled after the Leinster final. We wanted to prove we are better than that. That was no different than we expected from this Wexford team. But, you question a Wexford man's spirit and you see what they're all about."
They looked in serious trouble during much of the first half, however, as Waterford's attack thrived, especially the rampant Ken McGrath and John Mullane. And at the other end Wexford's forwards struggled in vain to get any decent change from a Waterford backline that had a marked advantage in inches and pounds.
The rain came down during the opening 15 minutes before clearing and at times it looked as if Willie Barrett might lose control as players slipped on the greasy surface and mounted a few spectacular pile-ups. But even before the sun came back out the play had the audience entrapped.
Most of the wizardry emanated from Waterford. McGrath and Mullane looked capable of beating Wexford on their own.
In the first minute they almost had the ball in Wexford's net when McGrath's shot came off the far upright and Dan Shanahan nearly scrambled the rebound over the line. But they were soon on the board, Fergal Hartley picking out Mullane who fired over a point off his left side after three minutes. Mick Jacob levelled within a minute.
Six minutes in Declan Ruth beat McGrath to a the ball but lost balance while trying to clear and the Waterford centre-forward ran through to score from a tight angle to restore their lead. McGrath would end the half on four points, more than his combined total from Waterford's previous three championship games.
Flynn made it 0-3 to 0-1 with a free after a rampant Mullane was fouled and as the rain continued to fall Codd replied from a place ball. Then Waterford, slicker in attack, began to assert themselves. By the 17th minute they were 0-6, 0-2 up after three unanswered scores, two of them from the in-form McGrath.
Fenlon burst through to stop the scoring tide but soon Waterford were in full flow once more with a sweeping move seeing Shanahan, highly prominent in the early stages, pick out Mullane who finished smartly. Four points up 20 minutes in, they looked by far the more composed.
In the 23rd minute Waterford emphasised their dominance with a wonderful score from the ebullient Mullane who shrugged off Stamp's shoulder challenge before scoring from a narrow angle. Five minutes later he worked a one-two with McGrath, who notched his fourth point of the game.
Six points divided them when Codd grabbed a vital Wexford score after a quick free had caught Waterford asleep while facing a free. He then added another to give Wexford further impetus approaching the break. By now, Fenlon having departed injured, Codd hurled at centre-forward.
More crucially, Murphy was on and giving Feeney problems. Wexford's cause wasn't helped by sloppy finishing, however, and by the half's end they had compiled a total of seven wides to Waterford's three. Fitzhenry rescued them two minutes before half-time with a good stop from Shanahan who outfielded Dunne and headed menacingly towards goal before shooting.
Then it all changed. Play swung down the other end where Murphy, causing aerial problems to a previously imperious Feeney, fielded bravely in the square, was fouled and Codd fired over the free.
Remarkably, given Waterford's authority, that cut the advantage to a slender goal. The danger signals were flashing when another high ball broke to Rory Jacob and he finished one-handed to level the sides. Waterford hit back with the final score of the half from Dave Bennett (0-10 1-6) but the script was becoming wearily familiar to Waterford fans.
Inspired by Jacob's goal, Wexford declared their intentions with three brisk scores in the opening minutes of the second half, two Codd frees, and the other resulting from an increasingly favoured high ball towards Murphy which broke for Jacob to finish.
"We were in the same situation during the Leinster final," said Codd when asked how they felt at half-time. "There was no point in panicking. We were happy to go in a point down."
Waterford, having blown a decent lead, were visibly distressed and highly grateful when Mullane sent over his fourth point to puncture Wexford's rising dander. They couldn't halt it fully though; Murphy fielded a puck-out, turned and scored to put them 1-10 to 0-11 clear.
Ken McGrath fired over another but Mitch Jordan, introduced at half-time, quickly replied.
It was an explosive opening 15 minutes and a free by Paul Flynn was followed by a fifth point by Mullane from play to bring the sides level, 1-11 to 0-14. Waterford looked to have weathered the storm, but their play had fallen ragged, illustrated by increasingly intemperate shooting.
As the match progressed, Wexford became more assured. Dan Shanahan put them a point down in the 56th minute but then they took off: Codd, Rory Jacob and Darren Stamp all scoring. With eight minutes left sub Tomás Mahon stretched their lead to a goal, Flynn replied, and Murphy scored a wonderful point - the man seemed to draw his inspiration from the heavens.
It never relented. Codd sent over a '65', Eoin Murphy replied, then Mick Jacob scored from play with two minutes left to restore Wexford's four-point advantage. Waterford tried desperately, having taken off both midfielders, but the final kick was wholly with Wexford.
Murphy, again, won a ball and laid it to the outstanding Rory Jacob, who closed off his account with 1-3. Sub Michael Walsh replied in injury time to reduce the deficit to four. Back came Wexford: Mitch Jordan driving over another Wexford score, the final one.
SCORERS - Wexford: P Codd 0-8 (4F 1 65), R Jacob 1-3, M Jacob 0-2, L Murphy 0-2, M Jordan 0-2, A Fenlon 0-1, D Stamp 0-1, T Mahon 0-1. Waterford: K McGrath 0-5, J Mullane 0-5, P Flynn 0-2 (2F), O Murphy 0-2, M Walsh 0-1, D Bennett 0-1, D Shanahan 0-1.
Wexford: D Fitzhenry; D Guiney, D Ryan, D O'Connor; D Stamp, D Ruth, L Dunne; L O'Gorman, R McCarthy; B Lambert, A Fenlon, M Jacob; C McGrath, P Codd, R Jacob. Subs : L Murphy for Fenlon (25), M Jordan for Lambert (36), MJ Furlong for McGrath (51), T Mahon for O'Gorman (55)
Waterford: S Brenner; B Greene, T Feeney, D Prendergast; E Murphy, F Hartley, J Murray; T Browne, P Queally; D Shanahan, K McGrath, D Bennett; J Mullane, S Prendergast, P Flynn. Subs: A Maloney for Queally (47). O McGrath for Mullane (51), O Kelly for S Prendergast (55), M Walsh for Browne (61).
Referee: W Barrett (Tipperary).