Visitors in control despite late slump
Full focus now on semi-final battle with All-Ireland champs in Nowlan Park
The Wexford Senior hurlers are unlikely to dwell too long on proceedings in Cusack Park, Mullingar on Sunday as their thoughts have already turned to the big showdown away to All-Ireland champions Kilkenny on June 21.
Wexford 1-24 Westmeath 1-16
Clinical and efficient throughout the first-half, an early Ian Byrne goal on the re-start made fully sure of success but the remainder of the contest wasn't pretty from the visitors' point of view.
Eight wides were struck into the wind in the third quarter, although Wexford were still cruising with a 1-19 to 0-7 lead when the action was delayed for ten minutes following an accidental injury sustained by Westmeath centre-forward Derek McNicholas.
And it was a completely different encounter when the play resumed as the leaders switched off and lost their way while the plucky home side picked off a string of consolation scores. Wexford seemed to lose their shape at the back after a commanding first three-quarters display, with Westmeath getting on to a lot of loose, breaking balls in their half-forward line after big Brendan Murtagh drifted out from the edge of the square.
At the other end none of the substitutes introduced who had the time to make an impression did anything to strengthen their inclusion for the semi-final in Nowlan Park on Sunday week.
Indeed, the impressive support play which characterised much of the first-half in particular seemed to gradually disappear up front as the action wore on, although to be fair Wexford never looked in any danger.
In many respects it was the ideal type of performance for the mentors as the sloppy finish will have left them with a few key areas to address.
And on the evidence of this display, it will be a surprise in my view if changes are made to the first 15 for the Kilkenny game as the team was undoubtedly a lot stronger at the start than at the finish, even though some of those substituted have a good deal more to offer.
Westmeath were already without first-choice forwards Robbie Greville and Niall O'Brien through suspension, and their bid to cause a huge shock was further undone when corner-back Shane Power sustained an eye injury in the warm-up and had to be replaced by Kieran Duncan.
Given those setbacks, it was perhaps surprising that they opted to play against the wind after team captain Aonghus Clarke won the toss.
While their plan must have been to contain Wexford in the early stages, the favourites looked sharp from the off as hard work by Daithí Waters led to the opening point from wing-back Andrew Shore after 32 seconds. Ian Byrne doubled the lead from an 85-metre free after the first of several spectacular catches from a dominant Wexford defence by Liam Ryan.
Indeed, Wexford's power in the air, their athleticism and strong support play were all evident in the opening half as they played an attractive running game with a lot of mobility which left Westmeath bamboozled.
The solid workrate was emphasised by early blocks in quick succession by Paul Morris and Conor McDonald, although the outfield players didn't give the full-forward line a steady supply for a long spell early on as they were content to pick off points from distance.
Westmeath free-taker Derek McNicholas brought them level by the tenth minute after the first three of Wexford's 15 wides (the home side had ten) were struck by Andrew Shore, Jack Guiney and Ian Byrne in quick succession.
A Guiney handpass near the right sideline led to Paul Morris restoring the lead, with two Byrne frees from distances of 45 and 90 metres respectively making it 0-5 to 0-2 after 15 minutes.
The lively David Redmond fed Guiney for his sole score moments after Andrew Shore received a blow to the head which led to a yellow card for Westmeath's Alan Devine when the matter was brought to the attention of referee Johnny Ryan by linesman Paud O'Dwyer who was unusually officiating at a game involving his native county.
The Wexford backs were utterly dominant up to that spell, particularly in the air, with Lee Chin, Matthew O'Hanlon and Liam Ryan leading the way, but Westmeath did come close to a goal in the 17th minute when a high delivery broke and Mark Fanning made a fine reflex save.
Derek McNicholas tapped over the resultant '65, with Harry Kehoe posting a wide before feeding midfield partner David Redmond who stretched the gap to 0-7 to 0-3. Paul Morris added to the lead after Daithí Waters broke a Diarmuid O'Keeffe clearance into his path on the left flank, with Joe Clarke managing the first Westmeath point from play in the 22nd minute before Conor McDonald moved to right half-forward in a straight swap with Jack Guiney.
An overcarrying call against a grounded Eoin Moore led to a fourth point from a placed ball for McNicholas before Wexford fashioned their first goal chance. Liam Ryan's delivery was grabbed by Liam Og McGovern who handpassed quickly inside to Ian Byrne, but his low drive was turned out for a '65 by netminder Shane McGovern which the Ferns man converted (0-9 to 0-5).
Westmeath would have been relatively pleased with that scoreline, but it didn't look so encouraging for them by the break as Wexford picked off six of the next seven points to go in leading by a more commanding nine.
Lee Chin created two scores in quick succession, the first for Liam Og McGovern after a superb catch from a Westmeath puck-out, and the second for Conor McDonald who finally got on the ball after his move to the wing.
Another McNicholas free provided a brief interlude before normal service resumed at the other end, with Harry Kehoe making it 0-12 to 0-6 after a Westmeath puck-out went straight to David Redmond.
A foul on Chin was punished by Ian Byrne before a strong tackle by Daithí Waters laid the groundwork for a Redmond point, and the Oulart-The Ballagh midfielder's centre was then caught and converted by Conor McDonald (0-15 to 0-6).
Wing-backs Diarmuid O'Keeffe and Andrew Shore swapped positions on the re-start as Wexford put the outcome beyond any doubt with an early goal into the wind. It came after Lee Chin controlled a Westmeath puck-out and fed Conor McDonald whose delivery from the right was brought down with his hurl by Ian Byrne who raced through to give Shane McGovern no chance.
He followed up with a pointed free after a late tackle on Mark Fanning which earned Niall Dowdall a yellow card, and Daithí Waters then got his name on the scoresheet after a similar incident involving Andrew Shore which led to a booking for Brendan Murtagh.
The full-forward picked off Westmeath's opening second-half point in the 44th minute, but Paul Morris (after a good interception) and David Redmond (from a Conor McDonald handpass) responded at the other end to make it 1-19 to 0-7.
However, that was only half the story of that third quarter as it was also marred by that Wexford wides tally of eight, with Ian Byrne (free and play), Jack Guiney, Daithí Waters, Liam Og McGovern, substitute Rory Jacob, David Redmond and Andrew Shore all contributing.
Mark Fanning just about dealt with a tricky delivery under his crossbar before a ten-minute hold-up for that neck injury to Derek McNicholas who appeared to fall heavily near the 45-metre line. The utmost caution and care was taken by the medical personnel, but the delay led to a collective switching off from Wexford and they were punished for it on the resumption.
Brendan Murtagh (free) and Aonghus Clarke pointed for Westmeath before Paul Morris hit back from a Daithí Waters handpass, but another brace followed for the locals from the hard-working Alan Devine and Niall Dowdall, the latter after a short puck-out from Mark Fanning which didn't go according to plan.
Indeed, the netminder didn't appear to be on the same wavelength as some of his colleagues in the last quarter, with Westmeath prospering as a result.
Rory Jacob did set up Daithí Waters for a point before the home side goaled in the last minute of normal time when Brendan Murtagh plucked Alan Devine's high ball from the air and gave Fanning no chance (1-21 to 1-11).
The twelve added minutes started brightly with a point from Ian Byrne (free) after a foul on Conor McDonald, and then the Gorey lad availed of a Waters handpass to widen the gap to twelve.
Five Westmeath points without reply followed though from Brendan Murtagh, Niall Dowdall, substitute Killian Murphy and Murtagh again and Cormac Boyle before Paul Morris stroked over a late free to leave Wexford with a winning margin of eight.
Wexford: Mark Fanning; Liam Ryan, Matthew O'Hanlon (capt.), Eoin Moore; Andrew Shore (0-1), Lee Chin, Diarmuid O'Keeffe; David Redmond (0-3), Harry Kehoe (0-1); Jack Guiney (0-1), Daithí Waters (0-2), Ian Byrne (1-7, 0-6 frees, 0-1 '65); Paul Morris (0-5, 1 free), Conor McDonald (0-3), Liam Og McGovern (0-1). Subs. - Kevin Foley for Guiney (46), Rory Jacob for McGovern (49), Garrett Sinnott for Kehoe (55), Shane Tomkins for McDonald (70+6), Podge Doran for Byrne (70+12).
Westmeath: Shane McGovern; Liam Varley, Tommy Doyle, Kieran Duncan; Aaron Craig, Aonghus Clarke (capt., 0-1), Alan McGrath; Eoin Price, Cormac Boyle (0-1); Alan Devine (0-1), Derek McNicholas (0-5, 4 frees, 1 '65), Joe Clarke (0-1); Niall Dowdall (0-2), Brendan Murtagh (1-4, 0-1 free), Darragh Clinton. Subs. - Emmet Corrigan for Price (51), Killian Murphy (0-1) for McNicholas, inj. (57).
Referee: Johnny Ryan (Tipperary).