Battling U20 treble bid foiled
All-Ireland Hurling Championship: Kilkenny 1-17 Wexford 0-18
Small margins were all that stood between the Wexford Under-20 hurlers and a first Leinster championship treble for the county since 1970 when they went down to Kilkenny by two points in a hard-fought Bord Gáis Energy-sponsored final before 6,612 spectators in Innovate Wexford Park on Wednesday.
The margin at the end was probably a fair indication of the slight superiority of the visitors who were handicapped by the absence of talented Senior attacker Adrian Mullen.
Nonetheless, a gritty Wexford side kept plugging away despite being five points behind in the 54th minute, and they laid siege to the victors' posts in the tense closing stages when even a slight rub of the green might have secured the goal they sought with such vigour.
Steady afternoon rain led to a slippery surface, with the situation not helped by the outbreak of further showers as the action progressed.
And while Wexford were bitterly disappointed to come up marginally short at the finish, they are still through to the All-Ireland semi-final as provincial runners-up and will now meet the Munster champions - either Tipperary or Cork, who clash in Thurles tonight (Tuesday) - on Saturday, August 3.
While Mullen's presence in his tracksuit in the dug-out was a major talking point when the teams were announced, Wexford were dealt their own blow with the loss of a key forward at a very early stage.
Seán Keane-Carroll had already struck the post with an audacious drop shot when he was forced off with an injury to his right hamstring as early as the fourth minute, a major blow for the home side who had first use of the elements after Kilkenny's Evan Shefflin won the toss and opted to play into the wind first.
Ross Banville boosted the team's early confidence nonetheless with a brace of pointed frees in the sixth and seventh minutes, although the opposition's strength in winning the majority of the first-half puck-outs was evident from an early juncture.
While they opted to go short and work through the lines with most of their own re-starts, they were equally dominant in dealing with James Lawlor's deliveries and that most definitely didn't help Wexford's cause.
With impressive captain Charlie McGuckin playing as a defensive midfielder and shielding his backs, that left Conor Heary free for a time in the Kilkenny half. Number two James Brennan pushed out to the right wing to pick up Seán O'Connor, and that advanced positioning helped him to open their account in the eighth minute.
A good long ball by Mikey Butler led to Seán Ryan's equaliser, but Seán O'Connor restored the Wexford lead after punishing a heavy touch by a Kilkenny back in the eleventh minute.
Eoin Murphy and Conall Clancy had registered the first two of Wexford's eleven wides (their rivals had the same amount), while a Ross Banville effort hopped in front of netminder Dean Mason and was safely collected before the goalkeeper enjoyed a huge let-off in the 13th minute.
A long-range Banville free was fumbled by the Ballyhale youngster but, fortunately for him, Conor Heary was standing behind him on the goal-line and kept the ball out.
Not alone that, but it set in train a move featuring Michael Carey and Mikey Butler before Eoin Cody, who was being policed by the tenacious Eoin Molloy, levelled for Kilkenny (0-3 each).
Seán Ryan fired a clear goal chance from right to left and wide as the end of the opening quarter approached, with Mike Kelly doing well to put him off somewhat as he arrived at speed.
Kilkenny were holding their own into the elements, though, and they levelled again through free-taker Niall Brassil before getting the game's only goal in a fortuitous manner in the 17th minute.
Eoin Cody's lob from the left towards the far post would have been gathered comfortably by netminder James Lawlor in normal circumstances, but he slipped backwards and could only bat the ball into the path of onrushing midfielder Evan Shefflin who pulled first-time to the net from close range (1-4 to 0-3).
There was a good response from Wexford in the shape of points from midfield pair Charlie McGuckin and Jack Reck, although they had to work that bit harder for scores as Conall Clancy and Mike Kelly also fired wides in that period.
The last six points of the opening half were shared, with Kilkenny leading by 1-7 to 0-8 at the break after a Shefflin strike from play was followed by two placed balls from Brassil.
Ross Banville had added another score from a free, and Seán O'Connor chipped in with a late brace - the first after latching on to possession after a spell of scrappy play, and the second arriving at the end of a flowing move featuring Jack Reck and Eoin Murphy, who was at centre-forward by this stage after starting in the right corner.
Murphy partnered Reck at midfield for the second-half throw-in, with McGuckin at right half-forward, while Keane-Carroll's early replacement, Cian Fitzhenry, had a new colleague in the inside line as Oran Carty came in on the edge of the square.
It took only 13 seconds for Kilkenny's Niall Brassil to make it 1-8 to 0-8, but the response was immediate as Ross Banville caught the puck-out and fed McGuckin for a neat point.
Stephen Donnelly availed of a mis-directed James Lawlor puck-out to restore the three-point gap, before an unusual temporary replacement when linesman Seán Stack had to be replaced by fourth official Thomas Gleeson to get running repairs after an accidental brush off Banville's helmet.
McGuckin was front and centre in most of Wexford's brightest play, and Banville made it 1-9 to 0-10 after the captain was fouled and the ball was brought forward for dissent in the 36th minute.
That marked the start of a very promising spell, with Banville splitting the posts again after Conall Clancy was impeded. The speedster was a national sprint champion in his younger days, and constantly ran at the Kilkenny defence without any real end product until this moment.
Dean Mason's short puck-out that followed went awry, with a McGuckin shoulder winning back possession for Wexford before Cian Fitzhenry equalised (0-12 to 1-9).
A lead score at this juncture would have been powerful in terms of overall momentum, but instead Kilkenny showed their steel with a three-point burst in just over three minutes.
Star wing-back David Blanchfield landed a beauty from distance before Seán Ryan latched on to the break from a long-range Mason free, and Eoin Cody made it 1-12 to 0-12 after Wexford had squandered possession with a wasteful strike over the sideline.
Their cause wasn't helped either by the arrival of exactly half of their six second-half wides on their next three attacks, from Clancy, Banville and McGuckin respectively.
It became a two-score game when Kilkenny midfielder Eoin O'Shea pointed in the 46th minute, with Banville and Brassil swapping points from frees before wing-back Conor Scallan availed of a poor clearance from the opposition to reduce the gap to 1-14 to 0-14.
However, the best score of the game followed from the visitors, with David Blanchfield intercepting a McGuckin handpass and soloing off his left from deep in defence before knocking over an inspiring point.
After Banville missed a free, a Clancy delivery caused panic around the Kilkenny goal but Oran Carty couldn't connect with the breaking ball under pressure from Mikey Butler.
He was correctly penalised for a pick off the ground, although the decision was made in unusual circumstances given that an umpire made the call after referee Mick Murtagh had missed the incident.
When centre-back Michael Carey joined his attack to accept an Eoin Cody handpass and pick off a point, the margin stood at five for the first time and it would have been easy for Wexford to fade away.
That was never on the cards though given the spirit within the ranks. Banville converted another free before sustaining an arm injury which forced him off after being knocked to the ground by Kilkenny's Mikey Butler in a tussle for possession.
Still, the loss of another important forward didn't unduly deter the home side, with Cian Fitzhenry making it 1-16 to 0-16 30 seconds from the end of normal time after fellow substitute Chris Turner fed him from a Mike Kelly free.
Five added minutes were announced, and a handy point chance was squandered after wing-back Niall Murphy shot wide from a short Kelly '65.
Aaron Brennan missed the target at the other end, and the vocal output from the home support increased further when Clancy was held as he contested a long ball from Kelly, with Chris Turner pointing from the free (1-16 to 0-17).
Unfortunately, Brennan won the puck-out and fed Evan Shefflin for a fine relieving point, but there was one last kick left in Wexford.
Jack Reck had a shot blocked by full-back Conor Flynn for a '65, and Niall Murphy's delivery was won by substitute Ben Maddock who found Turner in a packed goalmouth.
His snapshot was initially waved wide before a point was rightly awarded, but that strike could have gone anywhere and it was a narrow escape for Kilkenny.
The game ended when Conor Heary came out of defence after winning one last long-range free from James Lawlor, but Wexford can take heart from being competitive throughout and in contention until that last puck.
Now all eyes will be focused on the game in Semple Stadium tonight (Tuesday) when their All-Ireland semi-final opponents will be determined.
Wexford: James Lawlor (Ferns St. Aidan's); Eoin O'Leary (St. Martin's), Eoin Molloy (Naomh Eanna), Cathal O'Connor (Rathnure); Conor Scallan (Ferns St. Aidan's, 0-1), Mike Kelly (Oylegate-Glenbrien), Niall Murphy (Ferns St. Aidan's); Charlie McGuckin (Naomh Eanna, capt., 0-2), Jack Reck (Oylegate-Glenbrien, 0-1); Conall Clancy (Faythe Harriers), Ross Banville (Shelmaliers, 0-7 frees), Seán O'Connor (Rathnure, 0-3); Eoin Murphy (Ferns St. Aidan's), Seán Keane-Carroll (Shelmaliers), Diarmuid Doyle (Marshalstown-Castledockrell). Subs. - Cian Fitzhenry (Duffry Rovers, 0-2) for Keane-Carroll, inj. (4), Oran Carty (Rapparees) for Doyle (HT), Chris Turner (Ferns St. Aidan's, 0-2, 1 free) for S. O'Connor (54), Ben Maddock (St. Martin's) for Banville, inj. (58), also James Henebery (Faythe Harriers), Michael Cleere (Geraldine O'Hanrahans), Ger Dempsey (Glynn-Barntown), James Dempsey (Cloughbawn), Ben Ronan (Rathnure).
Kilkenny: Dean Mason; James Brennan (0-1), Conor Flynn, Mikey Butler; Conor Heary, Michael Carey (0-1), David Blanchfield (0-2); Eoin O'Shea (0-1), Evan Shefflin (capt., 1-2); Stephen Donnelly (0-1), Niall Brassil (0-5, 3 frees, 1 '65), Aaron Brennan; Seán Ryan (0-2), Eoin Cody (0-2), James Bergin. Subs. - Ciarán Brennan for Bergin (41), Jack Kelly for Donnelly (54), John Dowd for O'Shea (59), Jim Ryan for A. Brennan (60+5).
Referee: Mick Murtagh (Westmeath).