Gorey star’s late leveller enough to earn final spot after riveting contest between age-old rivals
IT WAS like old times in Chadwicks Wexford Park on Saturday, as an enthusiastic crowd buzzed at the sight of Wexford and Kilkenny going toe-to-toe in a highly-entertaining conclusion to Group B of the Walsh Cup Senior hurling tournament.
Just eight hours after the main restrictions were officially lifted, long-suffering lovers of the game were given a most welcome reminder of what many have missed so much since early 2020.
Fifty-four scores were shared before an engrossed crowd in excess of 3,000, with the frenetic finish to the contest crowning a wonderful 70-plus minutes of lively action.
And the fact that Wexford were left with a final place at the end of it all – and a crack at the Dubs in Croke Park next Saturday evening – ensured home supporters left the main county ground with a noticeable spring in their steps.
A draw was sufficient for the hosts to advance on score difference, because their twelve-point winning margin over Laois on the first weekend of the competition was six better than what Kilkenny managed in Callan in round two.
However, when second-choice free-taker Cian Kenny and substitute Colm Prenderville hit quickfire points to leave the visitors clear by 2-24 to 2-22 in the 68th minute, it looked like Wexford might be left to rue squandering a lead that was as wide as eight points on three different occasions.
If the fare up to that point had been first rate, it had nothing on the drama that followed – guaranteed to warm the hearts on a typically cold January afternoon.
An Aodhán Doyle delivery almost resulted in a third Wexford goal, with a pull by fellow substitute Paul Morris rebounding off the post.
At least there was something to be gained from that attack, as it ended with impressive wing-back Connal Flood knocking over his fourth point from play, adding to the trio he had already rifled over in the first-half.
Chris Bolger followed with the second-last of Kilkenny’s 15 wides (Wexford had 14) before a brief delay followed for treatment to Conor McDonald after a collision with Tommy Walsh.
The action resumed with Kilkenny’s Colm Prenderville penalised for a charge on Simon Donohoe and, when Mark Fanning landed the free to the left of the Clonard end goal, Walsh was penalised for touching the sliothar on the ground.
Paul Morris tapped over for the leveller (2-24 each), just over two minutes into additional time. However, when Aodhán Doyle committed a similar offence to Walsh from Darren Brennan’s puck-out, Cian Kenny stepped up to slot over his fifth free since taking over from the substituted James Bergin.
Thankfully, there was one last chance for Wexford to get the draw that sufficed, but it took a moment of absolute class from one of our key performers to pull it off.
Mark Fanning directed his restart down the middle towards Conor McDonald, and the ace attacker plucked it from the clouds before turning sharply on to his left side and splitting the posts for a sixth time.
It was a sensational score, but we had to call on someone who hasn’t always been our friend on the hurling fields against Kilkenny – Lady Luck – to save us from a gut-wrenching defeat at the death.
They launched one final attack, with the ball arriving at the feet of Martin Keoghan who lashed on it first-time, only to strike the butt of the post and go wide.
It was a very lucky escape, but that heart-stopping last play was a fitting end to a game that was a perfect reintroduction to the simple and basic pleasure of being able to go a hurling match and mingle sensibly with fellow supporters.
Let’s be honest, if Wexford repeatedly squander an eight-point lead to Kilkenny as the year progresses, criticism will be inevitable and deserved. However, it wouldn’t be in keeping with the high spirits of last Saturday, when a collective weight was lifted off the public’s shoulders, to be negative on this occasion.
Instead the focus should be on the numerous positive aspects of a performance highlighted by some of the new or relatively untried players being in excellent form.
Oisín Foley was a revelation at right half-forward, in the first-half especially, up against an opponent of the calibre and experience of Cillian Buckley.
He floated over five sweet points, three from the right and two after drifting over to the left, with a nonchalant air that made it look like he was pucking about on his front lawn with absolutely no pressure on his shoulders.
It was wonderful to witness, and the younger brother of Pádraig, who is warmly welcomed back after his year’s absence, looks like fitting the typical prototype of a Tipperary-style wing-forward that Darragh Egan surely likes: physically strong, good in the air, and deadly accurate when given half a chance.
I wanted to reserve judgement on Conor Devitt in his new role at left corner-back until he got a tougher test than the one presented by Laois in Rathdowney 13 days earlier. And he was excellent here, showing he meant business from as early as the fifth minute with a recovery tackle on James Bergin when it looked for a brief moment like the Kilkenny forward had beaten him for pace and was gunning for goal.
Two debutants gave their all in the attack, with young Cian Byrne full of industry and effort in the right corner, while Charlie McGuckin – whose father, Shane, battled against us so often with his native Offaly during the nineties – put in an equally determined shift in the half-forward line.
There was also a welcome first start in the right corner for Rory Higgins, whose sole appearance during the Davy Fitzgerald era had come off the bench in the final of this competition against Galway three years ago.
And while that group yet to establish regular places did themselves no harm whatsoever, it was equally encouraging to see Conor McDonald presenting such a constant threat at full-forward.
He embellished four first-half points with another brace in the second period, including that precious leveller, and the Gorey clubman looked a lot happier performing in a three-man inside line.
Although James Bergin opened Kilkenny’s account after 35 seconds from a free, Wexford’s attacking intent was evident from the identity of their first two point-scorers: wing-backs Connal Flood and Matthew O’Hanlon respectively.
Another good sign was that the passes were delivered by Cian Byrne and Charlie McGuckin, as the debutants settled quickly.
Oisín Foley caught a crossfield pass by his namesake, Kevin – who once again captained the side and played as an orthodox centre-forward – before calmly landing the first of his five points in the third minute.
The points continued to fly over at a rapid rate, and it was 0-5 to 0-3 in Wexford’s favour after additional efforts by McDonald and Oisín Foley by the time the first opening for a goal arrived in the eighth minute. Connal Flood created the chance for Rory Higgins, but Darren Brennan was equal to his shot.
A James Bergin placed ball narrowed the gap to the minimum, before Wexford were awarded their first free in the tenth minute after an opponent touched the ball on the ground.
Cian Byrne duly slotted over for his first point in Senior inter-county hurling, and it was followed by a catch and point by McDonald from a Kevin Foley delivery, and a fine solo effort via the left flank from Connal Flood (0-8 to 0-4).
There was a let-off for Wexford in the 13th minute when Eoin O’Shea raced away from Flood but fired over off his stick with a goal on his mind.
However, they responded with two quality points, the first by McDonald from tight to the sideline under the covered stand from a short Oisín Foley pass.
Then the latter worked hard to pinch the ball off Cillian Buckley after the puck-out, and that resulted in Rory Higgins also registering his first-ever point at this level (0-10 to 0-5).
Wexford did falter in the lead-up to the water break, conceding four points on the bounce to James Maher, Chris Bolger, John Donnelly and Martin Keoghan respectively.
The second quarter saw the hosts outscore their rivals by 1-6 to 0-3, and they led by 1-16 to 0-12 at half-time as a result.
It was encouraging to see all bar 1-1 of that tally arriving from open play, with Oisín Foley (five), Conor McDonald (four) and Connal Flood (three) leading the way in the point-taking stakes.
Flood nailed his third before the goal arrived in the 20th minute, after Rory Higgins made tracks for the town end posts following a long ball from Jack O’Connor.
The Rathnure forward’s shot was saved, but he had been dragged back in the lead-up and Mark Fanning ventured forward for his second penalty of this Walsh Cup. And after firing left and wide in Rathdowney, he made no mistake this time, aiming for the same side but keeping it well inside the posts with a low strike (1-11 to 0-9).
Cian Byrne was unfortunate to strike the top of the post from a 64-metre free, before a missed placed ball by Cian Kenny at the other end resulted in a lovely Wexford point.
Mark Fanning found Connal Flood who in turn located Jack O’Connor, and he picked out Conor McDonald for a low catch and stylish score.
Good pressure by Conor Hearne led to a hook on Mikey Carey and a wide, with Fanning’s restart finding Oisín Foley who continued his superb shooting form (1-13 to 0-9).
The Crossabeg-Ballymurn newcomer added the next two Wexford points for good measure, with Hearne also converting from a tight angle on the left in his last involvement before being replaced by Mikie Dwyer at half-time.
It was a special moment for the St. Mogue’s (Fethard) club when Dwyer joined Cian Byrne up front – only the second time in Wexford hurling history for two of their men to be on the field simultaneously in a county Senior game. It happened just once before – on February 5, 1995, in a Walsh Cup win over Dublin in UCD when Jim Byrne, Cian’s father, was centre-back and Seánie Colfer came on to replace Pierce Redmond of Oulart-The Ballagh.
Leading by 1-16 to 0-12, Wexford extended that gap to eight for a second time (it was 1-14 to 0-9 in the 29th minute) when Byrne posted the opening point after the break.
The first glimpse of a bigger Kilkenny threat arrived when Chris Bolger caught a crossfield Martin Keoghan delivery from the left over Connal Flood’s head, but his shot was well saved by Mark Fanning at his near post.
However, their first goal did arrive in the 43rd minute, with Pádraig Walsh popping a handpass inside the cover for Bolger to finish and reduce arrears to 1-18 to 1-13.
Two converted Cian Kenny frees came on either side of one from substitute Paul Morris to leave four in it, but Wexford were given the perfect tonic in the last move before the final water break.
Oisín Foley delivered a short pass to Mikie Dwyer who split the defence with a piercing run, and he parted to the onrushing Cathal Dunbar who delivered a peach of a shot into the top left-hand corner of the net for a 2-19 to 1-15 lead.
That advantage extended to eight for the third and last time when substitute Harry Kehoe availed of good work by Conor McDonald for a point on the restart.
Big Walter Walsh had a mounting influence up front for Kilkenny, after his introduction midway through the third quarter, and they chipped away as his point was followed by scores from Martin Keoghan and Pádraig Walsh (2-20 to 1-18).
Paul Morris responded from a Dwyer pass inside, but Cian Kenny hit back from a free before adding a long-ranger from play after Cathal Dunbar lost possession on a solo run.
A beautiful pick and point by McDonald drew an instant response within seconds from the puck-out, courtesy of replacement wing-back David Blanchfield (2-22 to 1-21).
Walter Walsh made it a three-point game after Aodhán Doyle dropped a shot short at the other end, with Pádraig Foley striking a wide before Kilkenny struck for the equalising goal in the 65th minute.
Keoghan, Walter Walsh and Pádraig Walsh led the charge down the centre before substitute Colm Prenderville swiped home from close range (2-22 each).
It appeared that our long list of frustrating late losses to Kilkenny would gain a new entry after Cian Kenny (free) and Prenderville added points, but three of the last four points went to Wexford and the spoils were shared.
Wexford: Mark Fanning (Glynn-Barntown, 1-0 pen.); Simon Donohoe (Shelmaliers), Liam Ryan (Rapparees), Conor Devitt (Tara Rocks); Connal Flood (Cloughbawn, 0-4), Pádraig Foley (Crossabeg-Ballymurn), Matthew O’Hanlon (St. James’, 0-1); Conor Hearne (Shelmaliers, 0-1), Jack O’Connor (St. Martin’s); Oisín Foley (Crossabeg-Ballymurn, 0-5), Kevin Foley (Rapparees, capt.), Charlie McGuckin (Naomh Éanna); Cian Byrne (Fethard, 0-3, 2 frees), Conor McDonald (Naomh Éanna, 0-6), Rory Higgins (Rathnure, 0-1). Subs. – Mikie Dwyer (Fethard) for Hearne (HT), Harry Kehoe (Cloughbawn, 0-1) for Byrne (46), Paul Morris (Ferns St. Aidan’s, 0-3, 2 frees) for Higgins (46), Cathal Dunbar (Naomh Éanna, 1-0) for O’Connor (50), David Dunne (Davidstown-Courtnacuddy) for O. Foley (57), Aodhán Doyle (Naomh Éanna) for McGuckin (60), Ben Edwards (Rapparees) for P. Foley (69), also James Lawlor (Ferns St. Aidan’s), Billy Dunne (Oulart-The Ballagh), Niall Murphy (Ferns St. Aidan’s), Kyle Scallan (Faythe Harriers).
Kilkenny: Darren Brennan; Mikey Butler, Tommy Walsh, Ciarán Wallace; James Maher (0-1), Huw Lawlor, Cillian Buckley; Cian Kenny (0-8, 5 frees), Mikey Carey; Pádraig Walsh (capt., 0-1), Eoin O’Shea (0-1), John Donnelly (0-1); James Bergin (0-6 frees), Martin Keoghan (0-2), Chris Bolger (1-1). Subs. – Walter Walsh (0-2) for Bergin (43), Robbie Buckley for Carey (48), David Blanchfield (0-1) for Buckley (53), Colm Prenderville (1-1) for O’Shea (57).
Referee: Thomas Gleeson (Dublin).