Minors gave it everything
Electric Ireland Leinster Minor Hurling Championship: Kilkenny 3-13 Wexford 2-15
The Wexford Minor hurlers left everything they had on the field in a pulsating clash in Bellefield on Saturday.
And while it wasn't enough to snatch victory from arch-rivals Kilkenny in their second Tier 1 tie in the Electric Ireland Leinster championship, they certainly will have no reason to fear the young Cats if their paths cross again in the knockout stages.
The first three matches in this competition are effectively to decide which two teams receive byes to the semi-finals and avoid each other at that stage, with the other duo having to play a quarter-final against a Tier 2 or 3 qualifier.
In other words, it's all about learning in the clashes with Offaly, Kilkenny, and now Dublin at the same venue next Saturday, and in that regard the Wexford mentors will have picked up ample pointers as to where they need to improve before the knockout stage.
A one-point loss to our neighbours is always difficult to stomach, regardless of the grade, and it doesn't get any easier in spite of the large number of narrow reversals over the years.
However, this particular one was somewhat more encouraging than many of the others, given that it was framed against the backdrop of playing with a numerical disadvantage from the 23rd to the 61st minute.
Wexford corner-back Dylan Whelan was red-carded midway through the second quarter at a stage when his side led by 0-9 to 0-5, with referee Shane Guinan acting upon information supplied to him by a linesman.
And it was through the intervention of two of his umpires, at the Bellefield Road end, that Kilkenny defender Tristan Roche also got his marching orders in added time.
In between, the spirit, workrate and desire of the Wexford lads was admirable.
Indeed, the best compliment one could pay them was that it was easy to forget they were down to 14, because they really made Kilkenny earn their second one-point win in the space of seven days.
A point from excellent midfielder Luke Kavanagh brought the home side level (0-14 to 1-11) with just over nine minutes to go, and it set the scene for a very exciting conclusion.
Dylan O'Neill and David Codd combined on the next Wexford attack to tee up captain Richie Lawlor for a chance, but he was unfortunate to send a kick into the left side-netting before Kilkenny struck for probably the game's most important score.
It arrived with seven and a half minutes remaining, as two defenders collided under a delivery from midfielder Denis Walsh, leaving substitute Timmy Clifford with the time and space to crash the ball past Cian Byrne for a 2-11 to 0-14 lead.
Wexford tried hard to respond, with O'Neill unlucky not to earn a close-in free as he tried to capitalise on good work from Lawlor and Paddy Whitty in the 55th minute.
Jack Doyle opened up a four-point gap for Kilkenny, playing with the wind, but the outstanding Cian 'Patsy' Molloy responded with his second long-range score to leave Wexford with plenty still to play for (2-12 to 0-15).
Billy Drennan left the home side requiring a major plus a point once more when he converted a '65, but he missed his next free from distance before the numbers were evened up with the sending-off of Tristan Roche.
The next big moment arrived nearly four minutes into added time when Molloy stepped up to take a 20-metre free after Richie Lawlor latched on to a Luke Kavanagh delivery and was fouled.
His low shot rattled the net low in the right corner, and possession was now absolutely vital as Wexford sought at least a draw which was no more than their heroic efforts deserved.
Zach Bay Hammond struck the seventh Kilkenny wide (Wexford had nine), but they were in business when Liam Moore won Cian Byrne's puck-out.
He found Billy Drennan who in turn picked out Jack Doyle for what looked like the clinching goal, but incredibly Wexford weren't finished yet.
Thirty seconds later, Richie Lawlor swept a ground stroke to the net, but the full-time whistle went on the puck-out after five and a half added minutes, leaving the young Slaneysiders one point in arrears.
It was a bitter blow without a shadow of a doubt but, unlike several Minor teams over the years, this group gave the distinct impression that it will only make them all the more determined to enjoy a long summer.
Three changes in personnel were made from the team which defeated Offaly by 3-11 to 2-11 in Tullamore, with Owen Lennon, Paddy Whitty and Josh Shiel replaced by Justin Moran, Cian Byrne (Fethard) and Richie Lawlor respectively, all of whom had come off the bench seven days before.
Kilkenny captain James Aylward won the toss and opted to play against the wind first, with Wexford settling quickly into their task and establishing a 0-7 to 0-3 lead by the end of the opening quarter.
While Billy Drennan converted the first of his eight successful placed balls after 26 seconds, A.J. Redmond responded from play before Conor Foley fired Wexford into the lead.
A strong run by the impressive Dylan O'Neill set up Cian Byrne to make it 0-3 to 0-1, with Liam Moore responding before Kilkenny shipped three scores on the trot.
A.J. Redmond, who made a big contribution in general play and from frees, punished a foul on Cian Molloy, while a short pass by Jack Kirwan on his home ground set up Richie Lawlor to stretch the lead to 5-2 shortly after the captain's move to centre-forward.
Cian Byrne was tackled as he shaped up to pull the trigger after a crossfield Redmond delivery, with the ball going wide, but the latter widened the gap to four from a Diarmuid O'Leary handpass in the twelfth minute.
The respective number 13s, Drennan and Redmond, swapped points from frees before Peter McDonald hit one from long distance for Kilkenny.
Redmond then added to his tally with another brace, being fouled for the first before a Kilkenny defender was penalised for over-carrying (0-9 to 0-4).
It was definitely a case of so far, so good, for Wexford, but how often have we been in that position, only to see it wiped out in the blink of an eye?
And so it proved again, with an Aidan Tallis point followed by Dylan Whelan's dismissal, and then the arrival of the opening Kilkenny goal in the 25th minute.
Colman O'Sullivan, their only starter from Good Counsel, availed of the initial confusion in the back line to ghost in unnoticed behind the cover, flicking the ball across to Drennan who beat the advancing Cian Byrne (0-9 to 1-5).
It was a big blow, but a fine point from Dylan O'Neill kept the spirits up before Drennan knocked over another free.
Cian Molloy, who is going to be a massive addition to an already very strong Naomh Eanna Senior team in the near future, split the posts with a beauty from distance after Richie Lawlor won a Wexford puck-out, and Wexford went in at half-time leading by 0-12 to 1-6 after a neat over-the-shoulder finish from A.J. Redmond.
The Rathnure lad snatched at a scoreable free on the re-start and it was cleared, but Drennan's latest point at the other end was cancelled by Cian Byrne who briefly took over on placed balls from Redmond when he was shaking off an injury (0-13 to 1-7).
Wexford's mettle was really tested when Kilkenny finally enjoyed an unbroken spell of scoring dominance, hitting the front with four points on the trot from Drennan ('65 and two frees) plus Colman O'Sullivan between the 41st and 50th minutes (1-11 to 0-13).
With nine of the 18 players used on Saturday having featured in last year's campaign, they had the experience to go toe-to-toe with Kilkenny until the bitter end.
And now it will be just as interesting to see how they fare against the Dubs who defeated Offaly comfortably, having been pipped by a point in Nowlan Park one week earlier.
Wexford: Cian Byrne (St. Mary's, Rosslare); David Codd (St. Martin's), Emmet Cullen (Gusserane), Dylan Whelan (Fethard); Justin Moran (St. Anne's), Kyle Scallan (Faythe Harriers), Cian Molloy (Naomh Eanna, 1-2, 1-0 pen.); Jack Kirwan (Rapparees), Luke Kavanagh (St. Martin's, 0-1); Dylan O'Neill (Shelmaliers, 0-1), Diarmuid O'Leary (St. Martin's), Conor Foley (Horeswood, 0-1); Cian Byrne (Fethard, 0-2, 1 free), Richie Lawlor (Faythe Harriers, capt., 1-1), A.J. Redmond (Rathnure, 0-7, 4 frees). Subs. - David Cantwell (St. Martin's) for Foley (HT), Paddy Whitty (Cloughbawn) for O'Leary (49), Josh Shiel (Faythe Harriers) for Cantwell (54), also Derry Mahon (HWH-Bunclody), Owen Lennon (Rathnure), Cian Browne (Naomh Eanna), Eddie Kelly (Davidstown-Courtnacuddy), Liam Cassin (Faythe Harriers), Oisín Pepper (Rapparees).
Kilkenny: Alan Rafter; Zach Bay Hammond, William Halpin, Tristan Roche; Peter McDonald (0-1), Pádraic Moylan, James Aylward (capt.); Andy Hickey, Denis Walsh; Aidan Tallis (0-1), Liam Moore (0-1), Colman O'Sullivan (0-1); Billy Drennan (1-8, 0-6 frees, 0-2 '65s), Jack Doyle (1-1), Seanán Doyle. Subs. - Timmy Clifford (1-0) for S. Doyle (38), Pierce Blanchfield for Tallis (57), Pádraig Foley for Hickey (60+1).
Referee: Shane Guinan (Offaly).