DESPITE AN encouraging performance in defeat against Cork, Wexford hurling supporters were still left with cause for concern after further injuries to big players.
Key men Conor McDonald, Damien Reck, Liam Óg McGovern and Matthew O’Hanlon all had to be withdrawn during the Allianz League Division 1 Group A game in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday, while Diarmuid O’Keeffe suffered a bad dead leg late in the contest, and none of the five are expected to feature against Limerick next weekend.
McGovern (knee) and O’Hanlon (ankle) are the most serious worries, although manager Darragh Egan is hopeful that they will be fully ready and able for the Leinster championship opener with Galway in Salthill on Saturday, April 22.
Damien Reck (hamstring) and Conor McDonald (calf) both suffered slight strains, and neither are expected to be sidelined for too long.
On a positive note, the manager was delighted to see Rory O’Connor make his long-awaited return from injury, while Richie Lawlor and Oisín Foley are training fully and are nearly there, although the Limerick game will come a week too soon.
Conor Devitt will also be unavailable as he is having a small procedure on his knee, but he should be back in action in a couple of weeks.
And with influential full-back Liam Ryan also on the comeback trail, Egan will be keeping his fingers crossed that he has a full deck of cards to pick from when the championship gets under way.
“There’s a lot of lads that we’re looking forward to having back and hoping that they’re fit and ready for the 22nd of April, and that’s what the main focus is,” he said.
“I think every county is now in preserve mode in trying to keep bodies right for championship. Any little bit of a knock or a niggle in the next few weeks is going to put a squeeze on you for the first round of the championship.”The impact that a handful of players can have on the team was there for all to see in Cork on Sunday, with the likes of Matthew O’Hanlon and Lee Chin, in particular, having a massive influence.
This certainly wasn’t lost on the manager, and he believes their presence also allows others to shine.
“You can’t underestimate the influence these players have on the group. It’s no different to any county. A lot of narrative after the Clare game was probably directed at our new, younger players,” he said.
“While their performance may not have been up to any kind of a standard, they were playing an early stage game in their Wexford career. It’s important to have our best players on the pitch.
“We were still missing quite a few yesterday, but we showed that when we have some of our leaders in our defence and attack that we are a very solid outfit.
“You look at Rory Higgins, Charlie McGuckin, Conor Hearne, all these lads who are fresh on to the Wexford team.
“Lee Chin is going to attract two or three defenders towards him, whereas in other games defenders mightn’t be taking as much notice of players.
“It’s opening up spaces and pockets for our younger lads to flourish. The lads are real good leaders for us as well.
“They’re a big dressing-room presence. Matthew and Lee both manned their defence and attack respectively and they were absolutely excellent for us,” he said.
The Tipperary man was satisfied with the improved showing on Leeside, although he was disappointed that they let a gilt-edged opportunity to gain a morale-boosting victory slip from their grasp late on.
“Our shape and our structure was very good. We had Cork in lots of bother for a good part of the game and we should have seen it out, but just a few things went against us.
“Ultimately, I’m very happy with the performance and looking forward to heading to Limerick next weekend. While we’ll again be down a few bodies, it’s another chance to test the panel and get ready for championship.
“We had enough chances in the first-half to be a bit further ahead and we didn’t take them. We kept Cork off the scoreboard for the first 20 minutes, but we should have been tacking over a few more points than we did.
“That left us open to the likes of the fortuitous first goal that Cork got.
“That brought them back into the game because we weren’t far enough ahead, but we performed really well,” he said.
Egan bemoaned a few mistakes that cost them victory and says if they repeat those against the All-Ireland champions they will be severely punished. That said, he sees Sunday’s visit to the Gaelic Grounds as an opportunity rather than a burden.
“It was extremely greasy and tough playing conditions so there was a few ball-handling errors. A few times we had possession and coughed it up and conceded a score.
“That’s what we’ll be looking at this week, because if we drop balls short or if we cough up possession to Limerick next Sunday, they’re going to massively hurt you.
“We’ll go down and have good cut off Limerick. It’s a free shot, it’s a good game for the panel.
“We have less than five weeks then to prepare for the first round of the championship against Galway.”
ALLIANZ HL Division 1 GROUP A
Cork 4 4 0 0 106 92 8
Limerick 4 3 0 1 106 84 6
Galway 4 2 0 2 100 97 4
Clare 4 2 0 2 128 92 4
Wexford 4 1 0 3 83 104 2
Westmeath 4 0 0 4 71 125 0