Sunday 22 September 2019

Royals rumble title dreams

TG4 All-Ireland ladies' football Intermediate championship: Meath 4-15 Wexford 3-14

Clara Donnelly contributed a point from her wing-back berth
Clara Donnelly contributed a point from her wing-back berth

Dean Goodison

There was more TG4 All-Ireland ladies' football Intermediate championship heartbreak for Wexford on Sunday as Meath pushed and pulled them out at the quarter-final stage in Crettyard, Co. Laois.

In a game mashed up by a 55-minute injury delay for Meath defender Orlaith Duff, the Slaneysiders just couldn't find their usual level of control over an opponent and paid a heavy price.

Make no mistake about it, this game was played exactly how Meath wanted it. High-scoring, quick-paced: that's not Wexford's style.

To keep up in a game like that, Anthony Masterson's side have to take their goal chances because they won't out-point top teams in a shoot-out.

On top of that, the further a team goes in a championship, the better opponents generally get, and mistakes that can be overcome in a league game in March are going to be absolutely critical in August.

What Wexford might not have expected is two of their most consistent performers to have difficult moments at such an inopportune time.

Look back seven days earlier and a goal the Laois netminder fumbled over the line in their clash against Wexford was the difference in a two-point game.

Here, four points separated the sides. Marica Cullen handpassed a crazy ball deep in the left corner-back position, across her own goal, and it cost Wexford the opener, while Mary Rose Kelly let the next goal slip in between her hands and the crossbar.

Two huge moments, two big difference-makers in the end. At the same time, this loss is by no means on two players, not even close.

Wexford didn't defend at all well as a team, as their half-back line was poor and their full-back line was often over-run.

At the end of the day, 3-14 should win most games at this level and it seems like a great tally on the face of it, but Wexford had their typical issues close to goal.

There weren't as many clear chances spurned, but enough came to keep giving their opposition added confidence, especially in the first-half.

The season is over now and the first port of call for the County Board is to see if Anthony Masterson will stay on for season number four. This team is at a different level entirely from when he took over, and they have improved this season too, but everyone else at Intermediate level is trying to close the gap on the Senior sides, just like Wexford.

Meath may well go on and win the All-Ireland now. They have enough quality to beat Tipperary should they meet in the final, which must be highly likely now with the duo meeting Roscommon and Sligo in the last four respectively.

Whether Masterson stays on, or Wexford have to search for a new boss, a few questions have arisen recently which will carry over into next season. The first and biggest surrounds Sarah Harding-Kenny.

Is the Shelmalier clubwoman one of the best wing-forwards in the country but largely being wasted at wing-back? She attacks constantly from that position but did an unbelievable amount of damage when she moved further forward after the delay.

The other issue is less of a question and more of a need: who is going to step up to consistently add something to this side who might not have been considered a first 15 player the rest of the season?

The two obvious players would be Amy Wilson and Ailis Neville, as both teenagers have showed their quality with limited chances, and both have the type of game that could see them become regulars in the coming seasons.

Neither were involved from the start here, but Ellen O'Brien did come into the side, with Chloe Foxe dropping to the bench.

Despite how things turned out, especially in the first 45 minutes, Wexford actually looked decent in the first few minutes.

Sarah Harding-Kenny was nabbed for overcarring when breaking in on goal in the opening 60 seconds. They were still able to go two points up after Fiona Rochford and Clara Donnelly converted.

Meath quickly got level but Wexford had another chance to break through when Harding-Kenny fed Niamh Moore, but the Kilmore forward sliced wickedly wide off her weaker left foot.

Niamh Butler put the Slaneysiders 0-3 to 0-2 up after Bernie Breen was denied a goal by a last-gasp block.

The Royals had already looked dangerous cutting Wexford up to score their points, so they didn't really need the help they got for the opener.

There was still work to do when Cullen's pass went astray, but Meath took their chance, with Vikki Wall and Emma Duggan combining to net.

Maria Byrne saw her shot tipped over the crossbar, and Wexford ended the quarter on level terms when Butler kicked her second point.

Niamh Moore cancelled out an Aoibhín Cleary minor, and when Butler and Rochford also registered, their side led by 0-9 to 1-4 after 21 minutes.

Goals are huge in these types of games, as much for the momentum as the three points, and when Emma Duggan's dipper found a way past Mary Rose Kelly, it hurt. Aisling Murphy levelled but Wexford had an awful ten minutes before the break.

Duggan scored 1-2, including a rebound from a penalty after Kelsey Nesbitt was fouled. Duggan was injured in a collision with the post in the aftermath and was replaced, but the pattern of the game continued.

Maria Byrne was smothered out close to goal in the 30th minute, and Rochford later added a free, but Meath were still able to go in leading by 3-7 to 0-11 at the interval.

As much as that spell hurt Wexford, the fact that they didn't respond well with the breeze after the break was desperately disappointing.

They managed just an Aisling Murphy goal, after an excellent one-two with Maria Byrne in the 39th minute.

Meath already had three points on the board by then and added another 1-1, with the goal coming from Fiona O'Neill to increase their lead to nine in the 44th minute.

Then came the moment that really should have given Wexford another crack at this quarter-final.

In a clash with Maria Byrne, Orlaith Duff went to ground and was prone. It was immediately obvious that the injury was serious, and after a couple of minutes both sides disappeared to the dressing-room.

The ambulance arrived 35 minutes after the incident but the referee would not abandon the game, and there was another 19-minute delay before the match resumed at just six minutes short of an hour.

The biggest concern is the player, obviously, but the other players have to be considered too.

Indeed, when play did resume Kellie Kearney, who was carrying an injury into this game, did not return.

It helped release Sarah Harding-Kenny who proved pretty much unstoppable, legally, in the final 15 minutes. Now further forward, Aoife Tormey saw a shot tipped over the crossbar by McGuirk.

After Wall pointed twice, Aisling Murphy saw her effort from point-blank range deflected behind. Wexford did finally get the goal they badly needed with seven minutes remaining after a great run and finish by Sarah Harding-Kenny.

Wall kept the scoreboard ticking over at the other end, but when Harding-Kenny was poleaxed again five minutes from time, Amy Wilson slotted home the penalty (4-14 to 3-12).

Wexford couldn't stop the responses after goals, which hurt too, and Emma White put Meath six up.

Amy Wilson added two late points as the gap closed to four, but there was to be no dramatic recovery and it probably wouldn't have been deserved after being second best anyway.

Instead it's Meath who go into the semi-final opposite Roscommon on Sunday week.

Wexford: Mary Rose Kelly (capt.); Niamh Mernagh, Marica Cullen, Aoife Tormey (0-1); Clara Donnelly (0-1), Shauna Murphy, Sarah Harding-Kenny (1-0); Kellie Kearney, Bernie Breen; Niamh Butler (0-3), Aisling Murphy (1-1), Niamh Moore (0-1); Ellen O'Brien, Maria Byrne (0-1), Fiona Rochford (0-4 frees). Subs. - Amy Wilson (1-2, 1-0 pen.) for Moore (40), Sadbh McCarthy for Kearney (46), Ciara Banville for O'Brien (56), also Sarah Donnellan, Chloe Foxe, Cailín Fitzpatrick, Ailis Neville, Ciara Bridges, Tara Doyle, Jane Rossiter, Katie White, Juliet Rochford.

Meath: Monika McGuirk; Katie Newe, Sarah Powderly, Orlaith Duff; Aoibhín Cleary (0-2), Shauna Ennis, Megan Thynne; Orla Byrne (0-1), Marie O'Shaughnessy (capt.); Fiona O'Neill (1-2, 0-1 free), Kelsey Nesbitt, Sarah Wall (0-1); Vikki Wall (0-5, 1 free), Emma Duggan (3-2, 0-2 frees), Brigetta Lynch (0-1). Subs. - Emma White (0-1) for Duggan, inj. (30), Niamh Sheridan for Duff, inj. (46), Megan O'Brien for Byrne (59).

Referee: Niall McCormack (Laois).

Gorey Guardian