Hurlers off to nightmare start
Wexford's quest to reach the promised land of Division 1A hurling will be put to the ultimate test this coming weekend after the Allianz League campaign got off to the worst possible start with a crushing 14-point defeat to Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds on Saturday.
Limerick 2-23 Wexford 0-15
The outcome means that the visit of Clare to Innovate Wexford Park on Sunday for the second round is a must-win encounter if the one promotion spot to the top flight is to remain a realistic target.
Four places are up for grabs in the quarter-finals and this should be well within Wexford's grasp regardless, but the real prize is joining the elite as we need to be competing against the best on a regular basis.
We remain a long way removed from where we want to be on the evidence of Saturday's shocking first-half display though. The lack of urgency, spirit and cohesion astonished onlookers given the importance of this encounter which had been emphasised from the moment the fixtures schedule was released.
Limerick made their rivals look like novices as they effortlessly cruised into a 0-16 to 0-4 interval lead, with Wexford offering absolutely no resistance and looking completely ill at ease with their surroundings.
The only period when they more than held their own was in the first 14 minutes of the second-half when they struck for seven of the eight points scored, including six without reply, to reduce the margin to a more respectable 0-17 to 0-11.
Whether that arose from Wexford improving or Limerick relaxing is open to debate, although in my view it was a mixture of both factors. The home side's supporters among the 2,359 crowd were growing restless with every passing minute as their opponents gradually picked holes in their big lead, but all it took was one clinical strike to put the outcome to bed and leave the victors firmly in the driving seat again.
That arrived in the 50th minute when Tom Morrissey won a tussle with Shaun Murphy and broke free. And while his shot was saved by Mark Fanning, substitute Graeme Mulcahy was on hand to drill the breaking ball to the net.
The gap was at nine at that stage and it marked a return to the first-half proceedings as Limerick went on to outscore the visitors by 1-6 to 0-4. The second goal arrived early in added time, with Gavin O'Mahony holding off the challenge of Matthew O'Hanlon under the dropping ball and teeing up Diarmaid Byrnes' long delivery for Declan Hannon to crash home from close range.
There was a surprise beforehand when Jack Guiney - who has withdrawn from the panel - was replaced by Shane Tomkins whom management had indicated would miss the game with a calf problem. And while he played for 58 minutes, the Askamore man's full fitness looked open to debate as he was a pale shadow of what we had witnessed from him in the Walsh Cup.
It was also rather odd to see Liam Ryan, Andrew Kenny and Andrew Shore wearing the number 2, 5 and 6 jerseys respectively given the fact that they lined out as expected in their regular early-year positions of centre-back, corner-back and wing-back in that order. If it was some type of ruse to confuse Limerick, it was neither productive nor ingenious.
Ryan actually had a free role in the first-half between the full- and half-back lines, with Harry Kehoe dropping back to pick up Limerick centre-forward Gavin O'Mahony and Aidan Nolan moving into midfield.
However, the extra man in defence was easily bypassed by Limerick whose teamwork, ball control and understanding were on another level. They completely ran the show in the middle third, with Paul Browne given the freedom to do serious damage as he picked off four points and added one more in the second period for good measure.
The visitors were cleaned out in the ball-winning stakes in their own half-forward line, and just one of the six starting attackers - Liam Og McGovern - scored a point from play. The remainder came from eight frees plus two from a midfielder, one from a defender, one from a substitute defender, and two from Andrew Shore after his move to the attack.
In contrast, Cian Lynch was the only one of Limerick's front eight not to register a score in the first-half alone which ranked right up there among the most dispiriting 35 minutes of hurling produced by a Wexford team in recent times.
The Slaneysiders were flat from the off, struggling to get up to the pace and the pitch of the game as Tom Morrissey needed just 22 seconds to fire Limerick in front. Diarmaid Byrnes made it two from a long-range free before Mark Fanning saved from Cian Lynch after a puck-out went astray.
Declan Hannon (free) and Paul Browne widened the gap to four inside five minutes before a brief respite when Liam Og McGovern opened Wexford's account after a Liam Ryan pass into space in the left corner.
Limerick were able to work the ball through the lines with alarming ease though, and midfield partners John Fitzgibbon and Paul Browne extended their lead to 6-1 with less than seven minutes played.
Ian Byrne shot wide from a free after Cathal Dunbar caught a puck-out and was fouled, while a Shane Tomkins effort dropped short. Barry Nash added a brace of points for the leaders in the space of just over 30 seconds, knocking Pádraig Foley off the ball for the first and then availing of a slack Andrew Kenny clearance.
Liam Og McGovern, the only forward to pose a threat in the first-half, crossed for Cathal Dunbar in the 15th minute but the Ballygarrett youngster's shot was smothered, and just 15 seconds later the rampant Paul Browne was splitting the posts again at the other end for a 0-9 to 0-1 lead.
Ian Byrne was off target from another free on the right before Limerick missed two chances, but a nice first-time catch, turn and strike effort by Declan Hannon from a John Fitzgibbon delivery saw normal service quickly restored.
Byrne made it third time lucky from a placed ball after Aidan Nolan was tripped before Andrew Kenny was narrowly off target after a neat interception. A Gavin O'Mahony point in the 24th minute drew a reply from another Ian Byrne free after the Ferns man was fouled following a Liam Og McGovern pass (0-11 to 0-3).
Declan Hannon tapped over a free after Andrew Kenny was booked for a challenge on Cian Lynch, while he repeated the dose when Pádraig Foley was penalised after his first touch let him down and Barry Nash applied pressure.
The first bid to arrest the decline saw a repeat of a move made in the Walsh Cup final as Andrew Shore was pushed up to centre-forward, with Shaun Murphy coming on at right half-back and Shane Tomkins moving into the right corner slot vacated by Cathal Dunbar.
Another Diarmaid Byrnes free stretched the Limerick lead to 14-3, with Ian Byrne missing from a third placed ball not long before Shore struck the fifth and final Wexford wide of the half. The Shannonsiders had six but a strike rate of 16 out of 22 had to be admired, with Paul Browne and David Reidy obliging before the break.
Wexford midfielder Lee Chin did manage to pull a point back from a Pádraig Foley handpass, but nothing short of a miracle was required as the outclassed visitors went in at the interval 16-4 in arrears.
Only the goalkeeper and full-back line remained unaltered on the re-start as three substitutions were made, with Eoin Moore, Eoin Conroy and Podge Doran coming in for Pádraig Foley, Aidan Nolan and Ian Byrne respectively.
Liam Ryan was flanked by Oulart-The Ballagh colleagues Shaun Murphy and Moore in the half-back sector, with Conroy partnering Chin at midfield. Andrew Shore had support on either side in the half-forwards from Shane Tomkins and Harry Kehoe, while David Dunne, Doran and Liam Og McGovern comprised the inside line.
Tomkins shot the first of six second-half wides after twelve seconds, with Limerick hitting one of their three in the same period before Harry Kehoe (free) and Tom Morrissey swapped points.
The next ten minutes saw Wexford finally show some improved form as six scores were recorded without reply. Andrew Shore hit the first two, from a Kehoe handpass and then when a blocked strike by Podge Doran landed favourably for him.
Kehoe then chipped in with three more pointed frees earned by Eoin Conroy, Liam Ryan and Lee Chin respectively, although Shore did shoot wide from a very good position in between the second and third efforts.
Kehoe also missed a long-range placed ball before the sliothar popped out of a ruck for Shaun Murphy to knock over the bar, and the margin was down to six (17-11).
Alas, that Graeme Mulcahy goal killed off the revival and the game itself, with Kehoe going low from a free at the other end but seeing his shot parried. Shore struck another wide before Kehoe pointed after a push on Podge Doran, and a long distance effort from Gavin O'Mahony made it 1-18 to 0-12 with 14 minutes left.
David Dunne, who won a decent amount of second-half possession and isn't afraid of hard work, earned another free for Kehoe to convert before Jack O'Connor came on at midfield and Lee Chin pushed up to the '40.
Andrew Shore went to the right wing and Shane Tomkins made way, before we witnessed the rare sight of a point from full-back Matthew O'Hanlon - his first on his 46th appearance - after a persistent run down the right flank (1-18 to 0-14).
Seven minutes later Lee Chin grabbed the last Wexford point from a crossfield Eoin Conroy pass, but Limerick had added another three scores beforehand via Seán Tobin, Graeme Mulcahy and Paul Browne.
Podge Doran and Harry Kehoe also struck late wides, and Limerick finished on a high as that late Hannon goal was sandwiched by two more Diarmaid Byrnes points, the first from a free and the second from play.
Wexford: Mark Fanning; Andrew Kenny, Matthew O'Hanlon (capt., 0-1), James Breen; Andrew Shore (0-2), Liam Ryan, Pádraig Foley; Lee Chin (0-2), Harry Kehoe (0-6 frees); Aidan Nolan, Shane Tomkins, Ian Byrne (0-2 frees); Cathal Dunbar, Liam Og McGovern (0-1), David Dunne. Subs. - Shaun Murphy (0-1) for Dunbar (27), Eoin Moore for Foley (HT), Eoin Conroy for Nolan (HT), Podge Doran for Byrne (HT), Jack O'Connor for Tomkins (58).
Limerick: Nickie Quaid (capt.); Richie English, Richie McCarthy, Tom Condon; Dan Morrissey, Diarmaid Byrnes (0-4, 3 frees), Seamus Hickey; John Fitzgibbon (0-1), Paul Browne (0-5); Barry Nash (0-2), Gavin O'Mahony (0-2), Tom Morrissey (0-2); David Reidy (0-1), Declan Hannon (1-4, 0-3 frees), Cian Lynch. Subs. - Graeme Mulcahy (1-1) for Nash (47), Darragh O'Donovan for Fitzgibbon (52), Seán Tobin (0-1) for Reody (61).
Referee: Diarmuid Kirwan (Cork).