Hopes un-Corked by horror start
decision to play against wind backfires
Arguably the most telling moment in Saturday's All-Ireland Senior hurling championship first round qualifier in Innovate Wexford Park occurred before a sliothar was struck in anger.
Cork 2-22 Wexford 0-20
Wexford captain Matthew O'Hanlon won the toss and when he pointed towards the Clonard end the intentions were quite clear. The plan was to play against the wind in the first-half, hopefully contain Cork in that spell, and then drive on for home after the break with the elements and a vociferous home support behind the team.
It could be argued that part two of their goal was achieved as the second period was 'won' by the locals by 0-11 to 0-5. There was one significant problem though: Wexford had been obliterated to such an extent by that stage that the contest was virtually over after 35 minutes.
Rampant Cork went to town from the off and completely destroyed their rivals as they raced into a very impressive 2-17 to 0-9 lead. And while the flakiness which makes them unlikely All-Ireland contenders re-emerged on the re-start and caused them some anxious moments, they were still never less than six points ahead and ended up quite comfortable victors by a margin of eight.
The complete obliteration of a ragged Wexford side in the first-half is best summed up by one salient fact: when David Redmond finished off good work by Conor McDonald and Paul Morris in the 26th minute, it wasn't just their opening point from play; in actual fact, it was the first time a Slaneysider had taken a shot at the posts with the exception of earlier Ian Byrne efforts from frees.
The interval wide count of nine for Cork and zero for Wexford amplified the dearth of scoring opportunities at one end compared to a multitude at the other. I can't ever recall witnessing such an anaemic display from a Model county forward line as in that first 25 minutes, although the first two players to be called ashore were a back and a midfielder, Eoin Moore and Aidan Nolan.
While Ian Byrne - the team's best attacker all year - was a notable exception, his four colleagues were out-muscled in the physical stakes and confined to chasing shadows. And four is the correct figure, not five, as once the ball was thrown in number ten Diarmuid O'Keeffe moved back to play around his own half-back line.
Cork responded by moving Damien Cahalane to centre-back to perform marking duties on Kevin Foley, leaving the towering Mark Ellis all alone to sweep. The poor quality of ball being delivered to the Wexford attack may be offered up as an excuse for their shortcomings, but the inability to win 50-50 tussles was evident once more and the Cork forwards feasted on a constant supply.
The artistry of Conor Lehane provided an abiding memory, with his last point before half-time a thing of beauty as he made a low catch ahead of Matthew O'Hanlon close to the stand sideline and created space before firing between the posts.
The Wexford starting 15 showed three personnel changes from the Kilkenny defeat, with Ciarán Kenny, Shane Tomkins and Daithí Waters replaced by Under-21 Pádraig Foley, who wasn't part of the 26-man squad in Nowlan Park, plus Kevin Foley and Aidan Nolan who had both come on during the Leinster semi-final. In another move that many didn't expect, Podge Doran wasn't included on the panel this time around.
While Cormac Murphy posted the first of 14 Cork wides (Wexford had seven, all in the second-half) within 13 seconds, a Patrick Horgan free got them off the mark in the second minute and they never looked back. Alan Cadogan had been fouled by Andrew Shore, and he then supplied a short pass to Damien Cahalane who doubled their advantage from distance.
Midfielder Brian Lawton caught Mark Fanning's puck-out and returned it over the bar with interest, but Wexford got off the mark in somewhat similar circumstances. This time Ian Byrne grabbed Fanning's delivery and tapped over the free after he was fouled.
Anthony Nash's booming, wind-aided puck-out all the way to the 14-metre line yielded the first Cork goal though in the fifth minute, with Conor Lehane - who started in the left corner on Eoin Moore - gathering the ball and making no mistake to push his side into a 1-3 to 0-1 lead.
Cork's eagerness and drive all over the field simply wasn't matched by Wexford as three more unanswered points followed from Patrick Horgan (free) and a brace from Lehane which were set up by Horgan and Daniel Kearney respectively.
Aidan Nolan, who earned a booking for a foul on Horgan in that spell, did float in one teasing ball to the left of the Clonard end goal but, with Conor McDonald lurking, Aidan Walsh knocked it out for a '65 which yielded nothing.
Ian Byrne was lucky to see a mis-hit free returned to him and, after being fouled, he made no mistake the second time around. The Ferns forward narrowed the gap to 1-6 to 0-3 from another placed ball after Liam Og McGovern was impeded, but Cork weren't ruffled and rattled off four in response.
Patrick Horgan notched three, with the middle effort from a free, before an over-hit Matthew O'Hanlon pass to David Redmond led to Bill Cooper making it 1-10 to 0-3. Another Under-21 who hadn't figured in the match-day 26 in Kilkenny, Andrew Kenny, replaced Eoin Moore and his gutsy display, first on Horgan and later on Lehane, was one of the few bright aspects of this miserable outing.
Ian Byrne earned another free which he converted, but a bad situation grew even worse in the 21st minute when a Mark Ellis delivery resulted in Lehane showing his trickery with the ball close to goal.
It eventually arrived with Seamus Harnedy and, while Mark Fanning saved his first effort, the rebound was bundled home and Cork were already cruising (2-10 to 0-4).
Three wides on the trot briefly halted their momentum, and Ian Byrne added his fifth point after a technical foul by Cormac Murphy. The superb Lehane caught the resultant puck-out over Lee Chin's head and cancelled out that score though before David Redmond, one of the better Wexford players, finally grabbed that first point from play in the 26th minute.
Wexford's poor first touch was evident for much of the evening and must have been a source of huge frustration to the management. One good chance for a point was snuffed out for this reason, and within seconds Patrick Horgan arrowed the ball over the bar at the other end (2-12 to 0-6).
Daithí Waters was brought in at midfield for Aidan Nolan and picked up Brian Lawton, with Horgan widening the gap to 13 from a free before Ian Byrne notched his first point from play and Harry Kehoe replaced Pádraig Foley.
The Cloughbawn man, who had his good moments, formed a completely new midfield partnership with Waters and David Redmond switched to right half-back, with another point conceded to Seamus Harnedy who caught a Cork puck-out before Wexford's only real goal chance arrived.
We were in the 33rd minute when Ian Byrne exchanged passes with Waters but his shot was at chest height and Anthony Nash made a comfortable save.
It did spark a little bit of life among the shell-shocked crowd which was estimated by officials at 12,000, and Paul Morris finished off a David Redmond delivery to make it 2-14 to 0-8.
And while Redmond doubled his own tally before the break, Patrick Horgan (free), Brian Lawton and Conor Lehane had all contributed to leaving Cork a whopping 14 points ahead (2-17 to 0-9), while Waters had also entered the referee's notebook.
Wexford resumed with Diarmuid O'Keeffe still deployed in a sweeping role, with Cork fully aware that if they prevented goals, there was no hope of a comeback regardless of the wind. In that regard they fully succeeded because, while some aspects of their play clearly left Jimmy Barry-Murphy and Mark Landers a frustrated duo on the line, the opposition never once threatened Anthony Nash.
Wexford did improve after the break without a doubt, but how much was that down to Cork taking their foot off the gas?
They may have been alarmed when the gap was narrowed to six with 12 minutes left, but an injury to Conor McDonald shortly afterwards stalled momentum and Wexford didn't score again while the victors added two points.
Harry Kehoe and Kevin Foley had opened the new half with points before Horgan replied from a free. David Redmond landed a fine effort from under the stand to make it 2-18 to 0-12, with Bill Cooper and Patrick Cronin hitting back before Wexford enjoyed by far their brightest spell.
Indeed, they hit eight points without response between the 43rd and 59th minutes as good defending by Liam Ryan, Matthew O'Hanlon and Andrew Kenny formed the launch pad for the home side to finally surge forward.
Three Ian Byrne frees ignited the comeback before he converted from play after good work by Daithí Waters and Rory Jacob, with the latter introduced for Liam Og McGovern (2-20 to 0-17).
Conor McDonald, moved to the half-forward line, secured his sole point before the home crowd sensed something might still be on when Byrne punished fouls on Paul Morris and Liam Ryan with another brace of pointed frees (2-20 to 0-20).
The effort it had taken to get that close didn't last though, and Wexford failed to score again while adding five wides before the end.
Not surprisingly it took another superb Conor Lehane point from the left flank to settle Cork after 21 scoreless minutes, and they should have added a third goal when Patrick Horgan had a one-on-one with Mark Fanning but fired to the netminder's left and wide.
Lehane brought his own tally to 1-6 from play to complete the scoring and, while Wexford had managed to save some face with the second-half recovery, it still fell short of what was required.
After the promise of last year, we have taken a disappointing step backwards, and there's no escaping or arguing against that fact.
The unsettled nature of the team from game to game has been notable, and it seems that the management are still unsure of their best 15 and where and how to deploy them.
We can only hope now that the Under-21s give us a good night on Wednesday and that Liam Ryan, Andrew Kenny, Kevin Foley, Conor McDonald and Pádraig Foley put their Senior experience to good use.
All is not lost, but Senior will always be the shop window and the yardstick by which a county's well-being is judged. With that in mind, we are still a long, long way from where we want to be.
Cork: Anthony Nash (capt.); Damien Cahalane (0-1), Stephen McDonnell, Brian Murphy; Aidan Walsh, Mark Ellis, Cormac Murphy; Daniel Kearney, Brian Lawton (0-2); Alan Cadogan, Patrick Cronin (0-1), Bill Cooper (0-2); Patrick Horgan (0-9, 6 frees), Seamus Harnedy (1-1), Conor Lehane (1-6). Subs. - Stephen Moylan for Harnedy (51), Darren McCarthy for Cadogan (59), Rob O'Shea for Cronin (60), Paudie O'Sullivan for Kearney (64).
Wexford: Mark Fanning; Eoin Moore, Matthew O'Hanlon (capt.), Liam Ryan; Pádraig Foley, Lee Chin, Andrew Shore; David Redmond (0-3), Aidan Nolan; Diarmuid O'Keeffe, Kevin Foley (0-1), Ian Byrne (0-12, 10 frees); Paul Morris (0-1), Conor McDonald (0-1), Liam Og McGovern. Subs. - Andrew Kenny for Moore (17), Daithí Waters for Nolan (30), Harry Kehoe (0-2) for P. Foley (32), Rory Jacob for McGovern (46), Garrett Sinnott for K. Foley (66).
Referee: Alan Kelly (Galway).