No sign of gap closing in nine-point loss
Galway 1-23 Wexford 0-17
The notion that Wexford were slowly closing the gap on All-Ireland holders Galway was clinically blown apart before 14,565 spectators in Innovate Wexford Park on Saturday when the westerners marked their first-ever visit to the venue for a Leinster championship game with a very handy nine-point victory.
And given that the exact same margin divided the sides at the end of last year's provincial decider, dejected home supporters had little to be positive about as they departed from the ground after witnessing a generally one-sided contest.
The competition may be proceeding on a round robin basis for the first time, but this outcome means that next Saturday's trip to Nowlan Park is a semi-final in everything but name.
And while Wexford's qualification for the knockout stages is assured regardless of the result, a second successive appearance in the Leinster decider and another shot at Galway would be a lot more appealing right now than the indirect route to a quarter-final via a clash with the Joe McDonagh Cup runners-up.
Certainly, Wexford need to come up with a strong reaction after this bitterly disappointing display, and there's no better place to do it than in the Nowlan Park cauldron with so much at stake.
Galway's dominance was evident from a very early stage, and they were never headed after the rampant Conor Cooney registered the first of his four opening half points after a mere 48 seconds.
The booming puck-outs of James Skehill, landing for the most part around the 20-metre line at the Clonard end, were seized upon gleefully by the big men in the visitors' attack, with shrewd manager Micheál Donoghue pulling a rabbit out of the hat when he started another huge physical specimen, Jonathan Glynn, instead of the lighter and more fleet-footed Brian Concannon.
Wexford struggled to deal with that aerial bombardment during last year's Leinster final and, looking at the action unfolding on Saturday, it was fair to wonder if anything had been learned in the meantime.
And the home side probably didn't do themselves any favours either, because joint captain Lee Chin won the toss but opted to face the elements first.
That was clearly as per management instructions, but it backfired badly as Galway latched on to every puck-out until Pádraig Foley finally caught one and was fouled in the 14th minute.
Wexford were already behind by 1-4 to 0-3 at that stage, and their troubles were heightened by the interval when the margin had risen to 1-12 to 0-9.
A mere four players registered scores for the losers who only amassed a paltry seven points from play, with just two in the second-half. With a brace coming from midfielder Aidan Nolan, and one from wing-back Pádraig Foley, it was left to inside forwards Paul Morris (0-2) and Rory O'Connor (0-12, 10 frees) to take the fight to the comfortable victors.
One amazing item of note was the fact that none of the starting half-forward trio - Jack O'Connor, Conor McDonald and Lee Chin - managed even one score between them.
It highlighted the powerful nature of Galway in that department, with Aidan Harte sweeping in behind Pádraic Mannion, Gearóid McInerney and Adrian Tuohey while Daithí Burke and John Hanbury performed man-marking roles inside on the always eager and willing Paul Morris and Rory O'Connor.
Pádraig Foley had a decent first-half while Aidan Nolan worked hard as always on an evening when a lot of the play bypassed midfield. Shaun Murphy had more success in his sweeping role when Galway were playing into the wind in the second-half, but in general terms the overall Wexford performance offered little hope for an improvement on last summer.
Some of the distribution and passing was very poor, with balls struck over the sideline under minimal pressure or into no man's land, while the first touch was nowhere near as assured as the winners.
After that opening point by Conor Cooney, whose strength was simply too much for Simon Donohoe to deal with, disaster struck when Lee Chin couldn't control the ball and his direct opponent, Pádraic Mannion, surged downfield.
The ground opened up for the wing-back after exchanging handpasses with Jonathan Glynn and, while Mark Fanning did very well to save his shot, Conor Whelan was on hand to sweep home the rebound and Galway were on their way.
Rory O'Connor drew a foul and a yellow card from John Hanbury on the first Wexford attack as he cut in along the right endline, but incredibly he drilled the straightforward free left and wide in a repeat of an occurrence at the other end of the field in the league semi-final against Kilkenny.
However, he had the mettle to bounce back from that setback, and Wexford would have been in even greater distress by the finish without his telling contribution.
Conor Cooney got on to the break from James Skehill's puck-out to make it 1-2 to nil, with Rory O'Connor striking another wide, from play, and Cooney doing likewise before the St. Martin's lad opened Wexford's account from a seventh-minute free after a foul on Pádraig Foley.
Joe Canning registered for the first time when Pádraic Mannion's long free broke in his direction off Liam Ryan, with Conor McDonald hitting the third of Wexford's 13 wides (Galway had seven) before his short pass into space gave Pádraig Foley plenty of time to claim the home side's opening point from play (1-3 to 0-2).
Joseph Cooney had a shot on goal saved by Mark Fanning, with the play called back for a yellow card for Matthew O'Hanlon and a free that was easy pickings for Canning.
The Galway wing-forwards, Cathal Mannion and Joseph Cooney, were inter-changing regularly, with Pádraig Foley and Diarmuid O'Keeffe staying in their slipstreams, and there was a welcome break from the early pressure when Paul Morris grabbed a Foley free and turned on to his left before splitting the posts in the 14th minute.
Some needless holding off the ball by Liam Ryan led to another converted Canning placed ball, but the puck-out was caught by Aidan Nolan who sprayed a long diagonal pass to Rory O'Connor, who was fouled by Daithí Burke.
A yellow card for the defender, and a pointed free for the attacker, followed as Wexford were just about managing to stay in touch, but at no stage did they look like taking over.
Galway seemed intent on killing their challenge as early as possible, ensuring that Shaun Murphy was closely marked for the Wexford puck-outs in the first quarter.
However, they started to retreat somewhat after establishing that lead, meaning that the sweeper became more of an outlet for Mark Fanning as the half progressed.
A poor touch by Diarmuid O'Keeffe was punished by Conor Cooney as Galway moved 1-6 to 0-4 clear in the 17th minute, only for Aidan Nolan to respond after a fine catch by Pádraig Foley.
Conor Whelan emerged from a forest of players to fire over before a foul on Conor Cooney by Simon Donohoe saw Joe Canning widening the margin to 1-8 to 0-5.
Pádraig Foley was wide from a free, Lee Chin was hooked and shot tamely off target after a fine catch, and Rory O'Connor then dropped a long placed ball short.
However, the latter did knock over his first from play after a short Damien Reck pass, before Mark Fanning shot wide from another free.
Chin had a spell inside and Rory O'Connor drifted out, while another penetrating run by Pádraic Mannion created the next point for Conor Cooney who might have gone for goal if he hadn't slipped initially upon receipt of the ball (1-9 to 0-6).
David Burke beat Pádraig Foley to the puck-out and returned it over the bar with interest, with Conor McDonald fouled after catching Fanning's re-start and Rory O'Connor doing the needful from the free.
The sides shared the last four points of the half, with a trademark Joe Canning line ball from the left drawing a reply from Paul Morris before Joseph Cooney's score was cancelled by another Rory O'Connor free.
Late yellow cards for Morris and Adrian Tuohey after an off-the-ball incident meant that three of the Galway backs were on bookings heading into the second 35 minutes, but Wexford didn't run at them enough to exploit this vulnerability.
Simply put, they weren't allowed, and the game was well and truly over by the time Tuohey did collect a second yellow and departed at the start of the five added minutes.
Conor Firman replaced Simon Donohoe at half-time, but the superior squad depth of the champions was clear as they emptied their bench whereas Wexford only made two more changes when Liam Og McGovern and Harry Kehoe were introduced towards the end of the third quarter.
The exact opposite to what Wexford needed occurred on the re-start, as a mere nine seconds had elapsed when Conor Whelan added to the Galway lead.
Jack O'Connor couldn't get to Mark Fanning's stray puck-out, and that was an invitation for Joe Canning to perform his party piece again and split the posts from another line ball (1-14 to 0-9).
Canning should have ended the contest completely in the 37th minute when he latched on to a David Burke delivery and raced away from Damien Reck, only to fire a piledriver across goal to the left and wide with the net at his mercy.
It was a lucky escape for Wexford, but they made no inroads whatsoever and never looked like creating a goal chance, let alone scoring one.
It was 1-17 to 0-12 by the end of the third quarter, with Aidan Nolan, Rory O'Connor (play and free) adding points.
Substitute Conor Firman was picking up Conor Whelan at this stage, with Damien Reck on Conor Cooney, but three Joe Canning pointed frees maintained Galway's healthy gap.
The second arrived after fussy and card-happy referee Johnny Murphy - in only his second championship game - missed what seemed like a blatant throw by Gearóid McInerney in the lead-up, and Davy Fitzgerald let him know exactly what he thought about it after having a word with him at half-time also.
Shaun Murphy, Conor Cooney, Liam Ryan and Liam Og McGovern all collected yellow cards in separate incidents as the game drifted towards its inevitable conclusion, with Canning adding points from play and a free before Rory O'Connor replied from two placed balls.
Conor McDonald and substitute Harry Kehoe were moved into the two-man full-forward line, but the supply was non-existent and Galway hit four of the last seven points via Niall Burke, David Burke, Joe Canning (free) and Jason Flynn (free).
The last three Wexford points saw Rory O'Connor extend his personal tally to twelve, but the over-reliance on the youngster in the games against superior opposition is a growing concern.
It's all very well for the scores to flow from various sources in games against teams of Offaly's lower standard, but not enough players stepped up to the mark against the best and that was reflected in a demoralising outcome.
Wexford: Mark Fanning; Simon Donohoe, Liam Ryan, Damien Reck; Shaun Murphy; Diarmuid O'Keeffe, Matthew O'Hanlon (joint capt.), Pádraig Foley (0-1); Kevin Foley, Aidan Nolan (0-2); Jack O'Connor, Conor McDonald, Lee Chin (joint capt.); Paul Morris (0-2), Rory O'Connor (0-12, 10 frees). Subs. - Conor Firman for Donohoe (HT), Liam Og McGovern for J. O'Connor (48), Harry Kehoe for K. Foley (51).
Galway: James Skehill; Daithí Burke, John Hanbury; Aidan Harte; Pádraic Mannion, Gearóid McInerney, Adrian Tuohey; Johnny Coen, David Burke (capt., 0-2); Cathal Mannion, Joe Canning (0-12, 8 frees, 2 line balls), Joseph Cooney (0-1); Conor Whelan (1-2), Jonathan Glynn, Conor Cooney (0-4). Subs. - Paul Killeen for McInerney, temp. (45-49), Jason Flynn (0-1 free) for Glynn (54), Niall Burke (0-1) for J. Cooney (58), Brian Concannon for C. Mannion (66), Seán Linnane for Hanbury (67), Davy Glennon for Canning, inj. (70).
Referee: Johnny Murphy (Limerick).
New Ross Standard