Royal visit devoid of surprises
It may sound odd, but the Meath hurlers probably learned more in defeat than Wexford did in victory when the visitors cruised to a comfortable and expected 14-point win over the Royals in their second Bord na Móna Walsh Cup Group 3 outing in ideal conditions in Páirc Tailteann, Navan, on Sunday.
Wexford 3-18 Meath 2-7
The hot favourites made the journey up the M11 knowing that the fixture would only merit a lot of comment if they were to fall to an unexpected defeat, and in fairness that never seemed likely even though Meath put up stern resistance for 45 minutes.
Equally, players and mentors alike will realise that they won't be judged on performances against Division 2 opponents, so they will have moved on fully from this encounter long before reaching home on Sunday evening.
In contrast, it was a golden chance for Meath to test their mettle against a superior outfit, having moved up to this competition after winning the Kehoe Cup for the past two years. They also availed of the ruling which allows no more than five players from other counties to assist teams at Christy Ring Cup level or lower, having preferred to nurture home-grown talent alone in recent seasons.
Personally, I cannot understand how this benefits the promotion of hurling among the weaker teams, but it meant that Meath fielded with former Tipperary Intermediate Ronan Sherlock from Silvermines at centre-back, along with a trio of Dublin club hurlers in Naoise Maguire from Ballyboden St. Enda's and Kilmacud Crokes duo Naomhan O'Riordan and Tom Clarke.
Liam Ryan captained Wexford for the first time in the absence of the suspended Matthew O'Hanlon and his deputy, Lee Chin, who was selected to play but had to cry off owing to illness. A similar fate befell Cathal Dunbar, while there was a Senior inter-county debut for Oulart-The Ballagh netminder Conor 'Birdie' O'Leary who will have benefited from the match practice ahead of next month's All-Ireland Club semi-final against Na Piarsaigh.
The starting team showed five changes in all from the side which defeated I.T. Carlow, with Mark Fanning, O'Hanlon, Chin, Eanna Martin and Dunbar replaced by O'Leary, Diarmuid O'Keeffe who returned recently from a holiday in Australia, Aidan Nolan, Joe O'Connor and David Dunne.
A second newcomer to this level, Harry O'Connor of St. Martin's, was introduced near the end, while Pat Kenny (Buffers Alley) and Michael O'Hanlon (Horeswood) also came off the bench to figure at this grade for the first time since 2010 and 2012 respectively.
The pitch was in remarkably good condition as this first part of a double-header with the Meath versus Laois O'Byrne Cup tie commenced, with the sun shining on the side which wasn't under the cover of the sparsely-populated stand.
It only took 14 seconds for Paul Morris to grab the first Wexford point after drifting out from the right corner, but centre-forward Shane Brennan equalised immediately. Morris then turned provider as Liam Og McGovern finished off his good work, only for Meath's Keith Keoghan to catch the puck-out and level matters once again.
A hook on Shane Tomkins forced the first of Wexford's twelve wides (six per half) before Morris made it 0-3 to 0-2 after good work from David Dunne and Tomkins in the fifth minute.
However, Meath hit the front and lifted their small batch of supporters when a stray handpass from Andrew Kenny - who settled down to have a solid game - was intercepted by Shane Brennan who drilled the ball to the net.
Aidan Nolan nearly hit back straight away after selling a nice dummy following a Liam Og McGovern cross, but he ran out of space as the goalkeeper advanced and the sliothar went harmlessly wide.
Shane Whitty collected a yellow card for a foul on McGovern in the left corner which Ian Byrne punished, and the St. Anne's man then shot the equaliser in the 13th minute after an initial clearance by James Breen down the left flank to David Dunne (0-5 to 1-2).
Ian Byrne was the first Wexford man to drop a point effort short in the opening half, with McGovern and Aidan Nolan following suit, while Meath duo Joey Keena and Naoise Maguire did likewise in quick succession.
The star man of the opening 35 minutes was Meath netminder Shane McGann who made three excellent saves, with the first arriving near the end of the first quarter when he denied McGovern.
A foul on Shane Tomkins gave Ian Byrne the chance to restore Wexford's lead (0-6 to 1-2), but Keith Keoghan hit back from long range before an excellent shot by Shane Brennan from the right sideline put the home side ahead for the last time.
That fine point made it 1-4 to 0-6 after nearly 19 minutes, but Wexford started to turn the screw and picked off an unanswered six scores before the interval. And it would have been more without the heroics of goalkeeper McGann who tipped a David Dunne effort around the post for a '65 after solid play from Andrew Shore and Joe O'Connor, before keeping out Ian Byrne's drive in first-half added time after Shane Tomkins created the opening on the right.
Byrne had earlier pushed Wexford in front by 0-8 to 1-4 with a brace of pointed frees after fouls on Tomkins and Dunne. Indeed, the visitors' speedier stickwork was evident before the break when they were awarded ten frees and only conceded one, repeatedly nicking the ball away when an opponent pulled just a second too late.
Unusually, the free count after the break was a mere one for Wexford (plus one penalty) and four for Meath, although the fine surface helped no end in producing a flowing encounter.
Shane Tomkins shot wide from a good position in the 26th minute before Ian Byrne converted the '65 after that fine save which prevented David Dunne from rattling the net. Harry Kehoe then set up Byrne for his sole score from play, with the Ferns attacker going on to tap over a close-in free after Shane Whitty picked the ball off the ground before Dunne joined the list of scorers (0-12 to 1-4).
Late wides from Joe O'Connor, Byrne ('65) and Paul Morris brought Wexford's tally to six by half-time, with Meath striking three and adding another four in the second period.
Tomkins was short with an early effort on the re-start while Morris shot another wide, and it wasn't until the 43rd minute that Meath took some heart from grabbing the first point of the half courtesy of a James Toher '65.
The same player, their captain, then narrowed the gap to 0-12 to 1-6 after exchanging passes with Joey Keena, but a brace of goals in less than two minutes then emphatically ended the game as a contest.
The first came when Paul Morris had his hurl pulled from his hand as he contested David Dunne's cross from the left, with Ian Byrne stepping up to the penalty and guiding it low past netminder Shane McGann who dived to his right.
Morris then saw a good chance saved after Liam Ryan lofted in a high delivery, but the second major arrived quickly and caused no little annoyance among the Meath crowd. They felt Paul Morris had fouled corner-back Ciarán O'Rourke and this led to the defender losing possession, with Shane Tomkins slipping the ball to his left where Harry Kehoe had ghosted into a good position to drill a low shot home (2-12 to 1-6).
Sure enough, Dublin linesman Danny Harrington - who hasn't the authority to flag for a foul when the ball is in play - called referee David Hughes over before the puck-out was taken, and the yellow card shown to Morris as a result only served to anger the locals even more.
Joe O'Connor, who really grew into the game and had a strong second-half, then picked off two good points in quick succession, just before Barry Carton was brought on for David Dunne and Pat Kenny replaced Paul Morris.
O'Connor provided the assist for a Harry Kehoe point to make it 2-15 to 1-6 after 55 minutes, with Carton sending a ground stroke wide under pressure from the goalie and Ian Byrne missing a '65 before Shane O'Gorman came on at right half-back, with Diarmuid O'Keeffe moving into the left corner while James Breen departed.
Meath did grab what was no more than a consolation goal with just under ten minutes of normal time left when a Tom Clarke delivery wasn't gathered cleanly by Conor O'Leary under his crossbar, and substitute Ciarán Fitzsimons was on hand to bundle the ball to the net.
James Toher then kicked the home side's last point under heavy pressure before Aidan Nolan split the posts from distance after an Andrew Shore handpass. Joe O'Connor drove through a strong challenge on the right flank to register an impressive third point, with Shane Tomkins ensuring that all six starting forwards got on the scoresheet in the 69th minute.
Michael O'Hanlon and Harry O'Connor replaced Liam Og McGovern and Tomkins respectively and, after three more wides from Aidan Nolan, Joe O'Connor and Andrew Shore, Wexford finished on a high with goal number three in the fourth minute of added time.
Harry O'Connor found Pat Kenny close to the right sideline and his high ball in should have been tipped over his crossbar by David Harmon who had replaced the injured Shane McGann between the posts.
Instead though he tried to bring it down and control it, and this left Barry Carton with the easiest of tasks in bagging his first inter-county Senior goal from point-blank range.
Next up for Wexford is a trip to Netwatch Cullen Park on Sunday to face Carlow, and a draw or a win would guarantee them a semi-final one week later, more than likely against Kilkenny. The final of this competition is fixed for Croke Park on Saturday, January 30, as a curtain-raiser to Dublin's Allianz Football League opener against Kerry, and that's a nice early-year incentive for all teams to advance.
Wexford: Conor O'Leary; Andrew Kenny, Liam Ryan (capt.), James Breen; Diarmuid O'Keeffe, Andrew Shore, Aaron Maddock; Aidan Nolan (0-1), Harry Kehoe (1-1); Joe O'Connor (0-3), Shane Tomkins (0-1), Ian Byrne (1-7, 0-5 frees, 1-0 pen., 0-1 '65); Paul Morris (0-2), Liam Og McGovern (0-2), David Dunne (0-1). Subs. - Barry Carton (1-0) for Dunne (52), Pat Kenny for Morris (53), Shane O'Gorman for Breen (57), Michael O'Hanlon for McGovern (69), Harry O'Connor for Tomkins (70), also Mark Fanning, Páidí Cullen.
Meath: Shane McGann; Ciarán O'Rourke, Shane Whitty, Cormac Reilly; Ronan Ryan, Ronan Sherlock, Naoise Maguire; James Toher (capt., 0-3, 1 '65), Naomhan O'Riordan; Keith Keoghan (0-2), Shane Brennan (1-2), Seán Heavey; Joey Keena, Tom Clarke, Stephen Morris. Subs. - Ciarán Fitzsimons (1-0) for Maguire (24), Seánie Geraghty for O'Riordan (46), Michael O'Grady for Ryan (53), David Harmon for McGann, inj. (59), Jack Walshe for Clarke (62).
Referee: David Hughes (Carlow).