Under-21 fitness boost
Firman and Maddock both trained over weekend
It's hard to fathom what Wexford will bring to the plate when they face into two hugely important championship games this week, two games that could define their season.
Coming off the back of a very impressive semi-final victory over Dublin, the Under-21 hurlers face a serious challenge when they coming up against Galway in the provincial final tomorrow (Wednesday) evening in O'Moore Park, Portlaoise, at 7.30 p.m.
This is a unique final in so many ways since it's Galway's first year in Under-21 hurling in the province, which they marked with a convincing semi-final victory over Kilkenny.
On the same evening Wexford were fashioning an equally impressive semi-final victory over a fancied Dublin outfit in Parnell Park, producing a fine second-half performance after a slow start.
With Galway having been held to a surprise draw in the Senior final by Kilkenny, and a replay beckoning next Sunday, the pressure is now on the westerners' Under-21 set-up to deliver a provincial title, particularly in light of the misfiring display of their Seniors.
For Wexford, the game is of equal importance, as a victory would be a huge boost to hurling in the county, particularly as Davy Fitzgerald's Senior charges look ahead to an All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final with Westmeath in Cusack Park, Mullingar, this Saturday.
Wexford have been boosted since the fitness doubts regarding both Conor Firman and Aaron Maddock having evaporated. Both players took part in training over the weekend, which should make them available for the Under-21 final, a considerable boost given the quality of this Galway outfit.
Firman, forced out of the Dublin game approaching half-time, carried a slight hamstring strain, while Maddock played through the pain barrier after a knock to the ankle. However, following intensive treatment, both players have now made themselves available, barring any negative late reaction.
While Galway will have just one of their Senior squad, Brian Concannon, in action, Wexford will be backboned by a number of Senior players such as Damien Reck, Rory O'Connor, Joe O'Connor, Firman and Maddock, plus Gary Molloy, players on whom so much depends to show the required leadership on such a big occasion.
Against Dublin it was Joe O'Connor who showed the type of character that propelled him back into Davy Fitzgerald's thinking, while another to catch the eye was Fethard's Mikie Dwyer, who contributed two goals when introduced as a second-half substitute. Molloy, who was also impressive as a substitute, is expected to push hard for a starting spot.
Galway, backboned by impressive players from their Minor set-up of recent years, will pose a formidable challenge, but given the second-half improvement shown by Wexford in disposing of the Dubs, a repeat over the 60 minutes would leave them with a realistic chance of victory.
Despite certain reservations, Wexford have the quality to enter the All-Ireland semi-final as provincial champions.
Meanwhile, the display of Kilkenny in forcing a provincial final draw with Galway should act as a real boost to Wexford as they look ahead to their game with Westmeath.
Wexford will be warm favourites going into this clash, but it's something that will not sit comfortably with Davy Fitzgerald, who will have his charges on fire to avoid being lulled into any sense of false security.
Fitzgerald will be not be so comfortable in O'Moore Park as he watches so many of his players in Under-21 action for fear of injury, and like every Wexford hurling follower he will be hoping for a stress-free 60 minutes.
While buoyant with his side's display for 40 minutes against Kilkenny, with the benefit of the break he will seeking a consistent 70 minutes against Westmeath, in order to guide his side into a quarter-final showdown with his native Clare.
Wexford, for the present, have no injury concerns, with Fitzgerald likely to show little change from the starting 15 against Kilkenny, although St. Anne's attacker Liam Og McGovern is pushing hard for a return to competitive action following a second cruciate knee ligament operation in the space of twelve months.
A fully-fit McGovern would add flair and scoring power to the attack and it would be no surpise to see him handed a starting role. This, coupled with the good form of David Dunne, has handed Fitzgerald more attacking options which he will utilise to the fullest.
Westmeath lost their Joe McDonagh Cup final to Carlow on Sunday on a 2-26 to 1-24 scoreline. They will now be looking towards Wexford to revive their championship hopes on home turf.
While Wexford can expect a serious Westmeath challenge through the opening 20 minutes, anything but a comfortable victory would come as a surprise.
New Ross Standard