Reality check as hurlers suffer big loss
Waterford fire string of first-half wides but still far too strong for their neighbours
Harsh reality hit home after the high of the Cork victory a fortnight earlier as Wexford's unexpected run in the All-Ireland Senior hurling championship came to an abrupt end.
Waterford 0-21 Wexford 0-11
The Semple Stadium venue may have been the same, but that was about the only similarity between this quarter-final and the previous round as wasteful Waterford deployed their well-rehearsed system and would have won by a lot more but for some very poor finishing.
They amassed 18 wides in total, with 13 coming in the first-half which was lucky for Wexford because they still found themselves trailing by 0-12 to 0-5 at the break.
Waterford's squandermania was the only aspect of the game leaving them with even a glimmer of hope, but there was a worrying start to the second period as the leaders did tack on three unanswered points to open up a double figures lead.
Wexford's one really bright spell occurred from the 43rd to the 55th minutes when five points without reply got the crowd behind them and highlighted how Waterford weren't home and hosed just yet.
A goal was needed from the challengers during that spell of dominance to really rattle our neighbours' cage though, and when it wasn't forthcoming the fightback simply died away.
Six of the closing seven points were claimed by Waterford, and by game's end that gap of ten points had been restored as they turned their sights towards a second successive semi-final clash with Kilkenny.
Whatever hopes Wexford entertained of causing an upset before 31,690 supporters were dashed even more with the enforced absence of corner-back James Breen following his unfortunate bout of illness. There was a readymade replacement in Liam Ryan who contributed a fine second-half point when he moved forward briefly to assist the attack, although it was only natural that his hurling looked rusty at times given his long spell on the sidelines with a broken thumb.
Starting positions as per the programme mean little or nothing as far as Waterford are concerned, and it was intriguing to note the match-ups as the game developed some pattern. Matthew O'Hanlon was on Maurice Shanahan, with Eoin Moore taking Patrick Curran, Liam Ryan on Michael Walsh, Pádraig Foley on Kevin Moran, Diarmuid O'Keeffe on Shane Bennett, and Eanna Martin on Páuric Mahony.
It wasn't long before Foley settled into a sweeper's role as Moran drifted out to an orthodox midfield role while Austin Gleeson had his usual instructions to roam.
From the stand it appeared that Moran had deliberated for a moment after winning the toss before opting to avail of the wind blowing towards the town end. And it was his surging run after 50 seconds that opened the door for Maurice Shanahan to give the hot favourites the lead.
A Páuric Mahony free doubled their advantage before a handpass from the lively Jamie Barron picked out Michael Walsh for point number three in the fifth minute. It was a menacing start from a well-oiled machine, but Lee Chin managed to stop the rot from the resultant puck-out and get his team off the mark.
It was a brief cameo from the star of the Cork win who was a peripheral figure for large segments with an ankle injury, and the same applied to Liam Og McGovern as both struggled to impose their considerable influence on proceedings.
A second Michael Walsh point followed after Maurice Shanahan robbed Mark Fanning when the netminder saved his weak shot. Another Mahony free was followed by a super solo score from Austin Gleeson, and it was clear that Wexford were struggling.
Hawk-Eye was called into action to confirm two of those Waterford wides in the eleventh and 16th minutes, and in between Wexford were awarded their first free after Conor McDonald made a trademark catch. However, whether he intended it or not, his head-high shot was saved for a '65 which he duly struck wide.
McGovern was held after a Chin catch to give McDonald another chance which he gratefully accepted. And the gap was down to 6-3 by the 18th minute after David Dunne exchanged passes with McGovern and fired over neatly from the right flank.
Waterford were drilling the ball around with far greater precision and speed though, and they bagged the next three points courtesy of Páuric Mahony (free), Shane Bennett and Jamie Barron after a short Austin Gleeson free caught Wexford napping.
McDonald made it 9-4 from a free after Barron saw yellow for a foul on Eoin Conroy, and Waterford were at their sloppiest in the ten-minute lead-up to half-time when they missed chance after chance.
Tadhg De Búrca landed one ball down on Mark Fanning and then posted a wide in the space of 30 seconds. Páuric Mahony did avail of a scooped pass from Kevin Moran to stretch the lead to 10-4, but that score was followed by a Patrick Curran shot dropping short, and wides from Gleeson, Philip Mahony, Gleeson again and Páuric Mahony from a free when Andrew Kenny was booked after replacing Eoin Conroy.
Eventually the lively Jamie Barron got them back on track with a point, but they still managed another two wides from Gleeson (free) and Moran to bring that tally to 13 by the break.
Wexford's best move had yielded their fifth point in the 34th minute, with Mark Fanning playing a short puck-out to Matthew O'Hanlon. He in turn found Diarmuid O'Keeffe on the left, with Andrew Kenny playing a part too before Lee Chin scored from roughly the same position he occupied when landing that crucial equaliser against Cork.
A Shane Bennett point left Waterford 12-5 clear at half-time after Kenny struck our third wide in the last play, and at that stage it looked like a miracle was needed to turn the game around.
The leaders resumed full of purpose with three points inside six minutes from Páuric Mahony, Austin Gleeson and a brilliant solo effort from Maurice Shanahan. Eanna Martin, Conor McDonald and Diarmuid O'Keeffe posted wides in that spell, but that purple patch for the underdogs was on the horizon.
It started when Liam Ryan surged forward to take a Paul Morris pass and split the posts. McDonald then controlled a Pádraig Foley clearance and scored, while he added another from a free after Shane Fives was booked for stopping David Dunne's gallop.
Another O'Keeffe wide followed before a four-minute delay when Eoin Moore injured his left ankle, with Simon Donohoe taking his place in defence. The rain also started around that period but Wexford were able to keep up the momentum when play resumed.
McDonald picked out Eanna Martin for a point before the scorer won the puck-out and was fouled, giving his attacking colleague another chance which he availed of (15-10).
McDonald was brought outfield while Lee Chin pushed in closer to goal, but Waterford sweeper Tadhg De Búrca proved as hard as ever to break down.
There may have been a brief systems failure from the Munster runners-up, but they quickly resumed normal service and ended up winning with plenty to spare.
Substitute Brian O'Halloran registered their first score in nearly 18 minutes, and they were in full control thereafter. Páuric Mahony knocked over two frees while replacement Jake Dillon and O'Halloran added two more from play.
Andrew Kenny, substitute Aidan Nolan and Lee Chin all tried their luck with hopeful potshots near the end, but vigilant defending ensured they were blocked.
Mahony made it 21-10 from a free before Jack O'Connor hit the last consolation point, but the championship record between the counties now stands at 2-2 as Waterford advanced with considerably greater ease than at the same stage and the same venue in 2008 when they squeezed through by 2-19 to 3-15.
Wexford's wins came in Nowlan Park in 2003 and 2014 respectively, but there was never even a remote chance of those great evenings being repeated this time around. We were in bonus territory in all truth and were never expected to be in the last six of the championship, and on this occasion our best efforts simply weren't good enough.
Wexford: Mark Fanning; Liam Ryan (0-1), Matthew O'Hanlon (capt.), Eoin Moore; Eanna Martin (0-1), Pádraig Foley, Diarmuid O'Keeffe; Jack O'Connor (0-1), Eoin Conroy; Liam Og McGovern, Lee Chin (0-2), David Dunne (0-1); Paul Morris, Conor McDonald (0-5, 4 frees), Harry Kehoe. Subs. - Andrew Kenny for Conroy (27), Nicky Kirwan for Kehoe (40), Simon Donohoe for Moore, inj. (46), Aidan Nolan for Morris (64), Joe O'Connor for McGovern (68).
Waterford: Stephen O'Keeffe; Shane Fives, Barry Coughlan, Noel Connors; Darragh Fives, Tadhg De Búrca, Philip Mahony; Jamie Barron (0-2), Kevin Moran (capt.); Shane Bennett (0-2), Michael Walsh (0-2), Páuric Mahony (0-8, 6 frees); Patrick Curran, Maurice Shanahan (0-2), Austin Gleeson (0-2). Subs. - Conor Gleeson for D. Fives, inj. (12), Jake Dillon (0-1) for Shanahan (50), Brian O'Halloran (0-2) for Curran (55), Stephen Bennett for Shane Bennett (60), Colin Dunford for Gleeson, temp. (64-69), Dunford for Walsh (70+2).
Referee: Alan Kelly (Galway).