No slip-ups this time from young guns
High wide count the major concern as second successive final spot secured
A much-improved second-half showing ensured that the Wexford Under-21 hurlers qualified for a second successive Bord Gáis Energy All-Ireland championship final with twelve points to spare in Semple Stadium, Thurles on Saturday.
Wexford 1-20 Antrim 1-8
In reality there was never a chance that Antrim would repeat their shock success at the same stage two years ago, but having said that the overall performance from the winners left plenty of room for improvement before the showdown with Limerick at the Munster venue on September 12.
In many respects it was the ideal way for Wexford to win. Firstly, the ghosts of 2013 were well and truly laid to rest; secondly, and more importantly, the mentors have been left with a lot to work on and some of Saturday's starting 15 are likely to come under intense pressure to retain their places after a performance that mixed the good with the bad.
It's always argued that teams find it hard to raise their game when it's clear from an early stage that the opposition is pretty limited. That may be the case, and Wexford never looked in danger of losing, but at the same time a wides count of 19 is unacceptable and it was in marked contrast to the manner in which Limerick availed of practically every chance when firing over nine points in the first quarter of the second semi-final against Galway.
Eight players shared in that wides count and all bar one effort came from play. Conor McDonald (five, one free), Andrew Kenny (four) and Cathal Dunbar (three) led the way, and while all three played well on the whole, their wastage summed up the hard work that lies ahead if Wexford are to mark the 50th anniversary of the county's sole previous All-Ireland Under-21 win in an appropriate manner.
The shooting into the Killinan End in the first-half was abysmal to say the least. Thirteen of those wides were chalked up in that period alone, with the game of a very poor standard, although Wexford looked comfortable from as early as the 20th minute when they led by 0-6 to 0-1.
Early efforts from Andrew Kenny and Antrim's James Connolly fell short before Conor McDonald got the favourites off the mark from a fourth-minute free after a foul on Tony French who replaced the injured Gavin Bailey at midfield.
McDonald missed the target from an attempt on goal after a Kenny delivery before Antrim chalked up a couple of wides from their overall tally of ten, with their packed defence seeking to minimise the space afforded to the Wexford forwards at every opportunity.
The extra bodies made them difficult to break down for a period as Wexford came to terms with the challenge facing them.
Christy McNaughton levelled from a long-range free after Tony French fouled team captain Ryan McCambridge, but Wexford led by 0-3 to 0-1 by the end of the first quarter after McDonald added a brace of points from a '65 and a free.
Our sole marksman, along with Andrew Kenny and Peter Sutton, had also posted wides, and the opening point from play didn't arrive until the 17th minute when Kevin Foley fed Tony French for a well-taken score.
McDonald then floated over an exquisite line ball from just inside the 45-metre line, with Andrew Kenny adding a couple of wides before Wexford's top scorer punished a poor Antrim puck-out with his sole point from play (0-6 to 0-1).
Peter Sutton and Cathal Dunbar swapped corners up front and the latter availed of a crossfield Kenny pass to widen the gap to six after yet another brace of misses from McDonald and Kenny.
Sutton did well to win possession and feed Kevin Foley who made it 0-8 to 0-1 in the 25th minute, but the gap was back down to five by the break as Antrim landed the last two scores of the half courtesy of Eoghan Campbell, who ended a 17-minute barren spell with their first point from play, and free-taker Christy McNaughton.
Wexford added another four wides in between those two Antrim scores, although one was a mite unfortunate as a James Cash pass found Cathal Dunbar cutting in from the left corner and he fired a low effort across goal.
It looked like the second-half might follow a similar pattern to the first when Conor McDonald registered wide number 14 inside 90 seconds, but the overall performance stepped up considerably for the rest of the third quarter in particular when Wexford clinically put plenty of daylight between the sides.
Pádraig Foley, a solid presence throughout in the heart of the defence, set the tone when he caught an Antrim clearance and soloed forward before splitting the posts at the town end. Less than a minute later the northerners' net bulged for the only time and it was a lovely goal with the perfect execution.
Andrew Kenny, who switched to midfield in an exchange with Tony French, played the ball to Conor McDonald who spotted midfielder Conor Devitt haring into space on the right.
His over-the-shoulder pass was sublime and the Ballyfad youngster did the rest, giving Colin Heyden no chance with a powerful finish.
A rare loose clearance by Liam Ryan led to Maol Connolly pulling a point back for Antrim, but Tony French cancelled this out after being supplied by Conor McDonald.
Cathal Dunbar then made it 1-11 to 0-4 after the Antrim puck-out broke into his path via French, with the Ballygarrett attacker turning provider then as Kevin Foley widened the gap to eleven.
Tony French got into a good position close to goal in the 40th minute but he had a lot of work to do to make the most of Conor McDonald's handpass and the ball went wide. McDonald converted another free before Wexford were helped by a poor decision from referee Seán Cleere who didn't wait to see if an advantage would accrue after Saul McCaughan was fouled but still managed to get the ball away to the well-placed Christy McNaughton.
McCaughan's pointed free was weak reward for the underdogs, although they did manage two successive scores for only the second time in the game as Damon McMullan followed up with a first-time pick and point via the post (1-13 to 0-6).
A late challenge on Conor McDonald was punished by the full-forward from the resultant free, and Tony French then set up Andrew Kenny who made it 1-15 to 0-6 early in the last quarter.
Kenny quickly doubled his tally from a McDonald handpass, but Wexford conceded a sloppy goal in the 51st minute.
It had shades of T.J. Reid's effort in the All-Ireland Senior semi-final against Waterford all over it as two defenders got their wires crossed under a Maol Connolly delivery, and the sliothar fell for the unmarked Christy McNaughton who simply couldn't miss (1-16 to 1-6).
Antrim had a little bit of momentum at that stage but spoiled it with three wides on the trot before Conor Devitt and Eoghan Campbell swapped points.
McDonald (free), Shane Murphy and Cathal Dunbar all missed chances before Ryan McCambridge scored the last Antrim point, but Wexford finished with a trio of late scores.
Pádraig Foley picked out Conor Devitt for his second point before Cathal Dunbar struck his team's last wide. Substitute Seán Kenny planted the ball between the posts in added time and, after Antrim's Damon McMullan received a second yellow card for a foul on Devitt, the scoring was closed from a long-range free by Tony French who was TG4's selection as the official man of the match.
There was simply no comparison between the leisurely pace of this game and the intense battle that followed as a fired-up Limerick side ensured that Galway, despite all of their under-age talent, haven't won an Under-21 game now since 2011.
The Shannonsiders also had two serious contests to win Munster at the expense of Tipperary and a four-in-a-row seeking Clare respectively. And therein lies the biggest challenge facing the Wexford crew as, while their path to the final has been impressive, there has been no ferocious contest along the way.
The Kildare, Offaly and Antrim matches were all played at a rather pedestrian pace, and even the Leinster final win over Kilkenny won't have prepared Wexford for what is to come given that they were so far ahead of their rivals on that memorable night.
It's a good complaint to have though because the bottom line is that our talented young men are hurling into September for the second year running and in with a fighting chance of bridging a 50-year gap.
If they meet fire with fire in Thurles on September 12, then there's no reason why they cannot bring the Cross of Cashel Cup home.
Wexford: Oliver O'Leary; Simon Donohoe, Liam Ryan, Eoin Conroy (capt.); Jim White, Pádraig Foley (0-1), Jack O'Connor; Conor Devitt (1-2), Tony French (0-3, 1 free); Andrew Kenny (0-2), Kevin Foley (0-2), James Cash; Cathal Dunbar (0-2), Conor McDonald (0-7, 4 frees, 1 '65, 1 line ball), Peter Sutton. Subs. - Jake Firman for Cash (48), Shane Murphy for Sutton (48), Sam Kelly for Kenny (53), Lar McDonald for O'Connor (53), Seán Kenny (0-1) for K. Foley (59).
Antrim: Colin Heyden; Tomás O Ciaráin, Tomás Burns, Donal O'Hara; Michael Dudley, Eoghan Campbell (0-2), Maol Connolly (0-1); Ryan McCambridge (capt., 0-1), Gerard Walsh; Damon McMullan (0-1), Christy McNaughton (1-2, 0-2 frees), James Connolly; Patrick McBride, Saul McCaughan (0-1 free), James O'Connell. Subs. - Cormac Ross for J. Connolly (42), Declan Traynor for McBride (47), Deaglán Murphy for O'Connell (50).
Referee: Seán Cleere (Kilkenny).