Hurlers facing toughest test
Published 02/04/2016 | 00:00
Wexford will be rank outsiders when they entertain holders Waterford in next Sunday's Allianz Hurling League quarter-final at Innovate Wexford Park (3.30pm).
While Waterford may have shown slippage in their last two games, they still did enough earlier to secure their quarter-final spot.
And that is in stark contrast to their opponents, who came within seconds of slipping out of the knockout stages only for the timely intervention of Shane Tomkins with a point in additional time, handing them a narrow victory over Laois.
A defeat would have handed Kerry that quarter-final spot, but that vital Tomkins score saved what would have been serious post mortems in the Model county.
Liam Dunne's charges know they face into a huge challenge. When Waterford visited the same grounds last year they denied Wexford a promotion spot with a battling display that eventually lifted the Deise county to further success, while Wexford are still left lingering in Division 1B for 2017.
Not many positives have emerged from Wexford's current league campaign. Having said that, one could admire their late recovery against Laois, when trailing by two points minutes from the end, as they kept their composure to battle their way to a late victory.
Now they must take that positive finish into a big performance if they are to seriously test the league holders in what is a huge game for the side, particularly with the opening round of the championship just around the corner.
Wexford will be hoping for more of the same, but this time over the 70 minutes, as that is what will be required if they are to take anything from this game. Going into such a huge outing with just victories over Kerry and Laois is not the ideal preparation, but Wexford must bring their game to another level which is definitely required to meet this Waterford challenge.
One's first reaction to that disappointing display against Laois is to look at the negatives, but Wexford cannot allow panic to set in. They have not had a great deal of time to finalise a plan to cope with Waterford's which has frustrated the best of sides, while also laying the foundations for some outstanding victories.
Wexford Park will hold no fears for Waterford. On their last visit they looked comfortable in disposing of the Wexford challenge but they will still feel they will have to do more irrespective of their opponents' indifferent league form.
Having already qualified for the quarter-finals, they disrupted their regular side with the introduction of many fringe players for their final group games, but they demonstrated their strength in depth as they still drew with Galway.
No wonder manager Liam Dunne will hold some fears approaching this game, but factoring in everything about this league, there is always an upset awaiting, and there is no better side to spring a shock than Wexford.
This is what Dunne will be drilling home to his charges, no doubt reminding them of their Clare venture two season backs, when they dethroned the then All-Ireland champions.
Wexford's league campaign has been fraught with injury problems. While some of the players were returning to action, Dunne was hit with two further setbacks, as both Andrew Shore and Podge Doran have been ruled out of Sunday's game.
Shore suffered a hamstring problem, forcing his withdrawal during the defeat to Offaly, while Doran has subsequently picked up a broken finger to also rule him out of contention.
The loss of Shore, who had been changed from defence to attack, is a huge one, as his physical presence could have been utilised to unsettle the Waterford defensive gameplan, while Doran will also be missed.
There will be significant question marks over Wexford going into this game and their readiness to meet such a challenge. But this is a team some three years in the making, so the upshot should be that one will expect a stern challenge from whatever 15 Dunne and his backroom team decide upon.
Wexford will not want to bring any negativity into this game, so it is hoped that supporters will get behind the team, helping them to build a formidable challenge and turning Wexford Park into a cauldron for the visitors.
Waterford have settled into their gameplan. They will once again present a seven-man defence and go for their long-range points, but they are not a side to score many goals. That should not undermine the visitors though as they have developed into a formidable force.
Wexford have not yet settled on a side but one can expect some changes both in personnel and positions, which will reflect on what is needed to take on such a challenge.
Whatever manager Dunne comes up with, he will see the need for a strong half-back line to guard the full-back line which has been overpowered with numbers and pressure through this campaign. Midfield will be crucial, but what will determine their chance of an upset is how they cope with the seven-man Waterford defence.
No doubt Wexford have been working on a gameplan over the past two weeks as this is a different challenge and needs a different approach. Wexford need a plan that goes beyond a couple of phases, and that takes the direct route of hurling to Waterford.
When things click for Wexford they can present themselves as a formidable force. Structures are needed but they must impose themselves physically with a traditional style of direct hurling if they are to knock their opponents off their game.
Every position will offer a challenge to Wexford, but if they play with pride, passion and commitment, they can upset the league holders.