County on the rise as 13-year gap bridged
Wexford 1-20 Kilkenny 3-11
The roar that greeted Fergal Horgan's final whistle in Innovate Wexford Park on Saturday was the sound of a county on the rise again as home supporters celebrated a first championship victory over age-old rivals Kilkenny since Michael Jacob inspired that famous smash and grab raid 13 years ago.
The portents had been encouraging in the build-up to this pulsating Leinster Senior hurling semi-final watched by 18,467 supporters, but Wexford folk have learned from bitter experience that our neighbours are never beaten until the referee is firmly ensconsed in his dressing-room.
They had dared to dream after April's success in Nowlan Park, but league and championship are two entirely different animals.
Kilkenny had been forewarned in that contest and made the short journey to Saturday's cauldron fully aware of what to expect. However, they simply couldn't cope with the non-stop intensity of a superbly-prepared home side as a path to a likely first-ever provincial final against Galway was negotiated in style.
Many times in the past Wexford teams have struggled to marry cuteness with energy in the games that really matter, but they ticked all the boxes this time around.
They were running as hard in added time as they were at the start, and there was a purpose and composure to nearly everything they did. It wasn't the perfect performance by any means, but it was more than good enough to guarantee the memorable scenes at the finish when supporters swarmed on to the field from all angles to celebrate a long overdue success.
As expected, Jack Guiney's contribution off the bench against Laois earned him a starting place at the expense of David Redmond, while Eanna Martin made way for Willie Devereux who showed no ill-effects from his hamstring injury.
Most of the pre-match talk surrounding Kilkenny focused on the likely return of Michael Fennelly at centre-back, but he wasn't even named in the matchday 26 as most eyebrows were raised by the positioning of regular full-back Pádraig Walsh on the opposing '40.
Two of the individual match-ups that had worked so well in the league clash were repeated, with Matthew O'Hanlon following Walter Walsh who started on the right flank up front, while James Breen was in T.J. Reid's slipstream on the other side.
Kilkenny won the toss and opted to play into the wind blowing into a packed Clonard terrace first, with full-forward Richie Hogan drifting out towards midfield to leave a lot of space inside for Colin Fennelly.
The Ballyhale man posed a serious threat and drew constant fouls, although the decision to move Liam Ryan on to him and free up Willie Devereux for other duties was a wise one.
As far as starts go, Wexford had the worse type possible as Fennelly caught a Paddy Deegan delivery and had his jersey pulled for a penalty after just 43 seconds.
T.J. Reid's copybook finish meant a lot of character had to be shown in response at an early stage, although it was scarcely believable when he then missed a sitter of a free for the first of his side's nine wides, all struck in the first-half.
Wexford also had nine (5/4), with Lee Chin striking the first from an 85-metre free before his side settled down and struck five points on the bounce between the seventh and 14th minutes.
It was the type of response to that early goal that really lifted the crowd, with Diarmuid O'Keeffe opening their account after a Shaun Murphy clearance was batted into his path.
Liam Ryan availed of the freedom to roam as a result of Hogan's absence from the edge of the square to send a booming long-ranger between the posts before Chin converted his first free after James Breen caught a Kilkenny puck-out and was fouled.
The lead point from Jack Guiney in the twelfth minute came from a clever short pass by Conor McDonald, and Chin then set up Jack O'Connor who widened the gap to 0-5 to 1-0.
Lester Ryan was booked for a dig at Aidan Nolan before his midfield partner, Paddy Deegan, found him in space for a handy point.
However, it was significant that this was one of just two Kilkenny points from play before the break, with both coming from midfielders. The remaining 1-3 arrived from T.J. Reid placed balls which was a tribute to the Wexford defence, although the returned Ger Aylward did leave them off the hook with some poor finishing.
The corner-forward seemed more intent on going for his own scores from poor angles rather than bringing colleagues into the play, and this was perhaps understandable after his long lay-off. After striking four wides though, he was replaced before the break by Chris Bolger.
Pádraig Walsh had gone before him after missing three scoring attempts, with the last one provoking an angry reaction from Richie Hogan whose own contribution to the Kilkenny cause wasn't exactly top-notch either.
It was a measure of Kilkenny's concern that they withdrew two forwards before the break, and it was well founded on a night when Simon Donohoe typified the defiance in this Wexford team at corner-back.
There was a scare for the home side in the 19th minute when T.J. Reid sprayed the ball to Colin Fennelly who was fouled, with the referee allowing the play to develop. Fennelly's shot was saved and Ger Aylward mis-hit the rebound before the earlier foul was whistled and Reid tapped over the equaliser (1-2 to 0-5).
Conor McDonald caught the puck-out and split the posts, and it certainly wasn't the first time that Wexford responded instantly to a score at the other end.
James Breen was punished for an off-the-ball tug at T.J. Reid who duly landed another free, but less than 90 seconds later McDonald knocked over a placed ball after a Chin delivery popped up off Jack Guiney's hurl into the path of Aidan Nolan who was pulled back.
A trip on Diarmuid O'Keeffe saw Chin strike again from 90 metres, before Ger Aylward was booked for a late clip around Shaun Murphy's ear and McDonald made it 0-9 to 1-3 from the free.
Three Kilkenny wides followed in quick succession before Harry Kehoe worked hard to win another free for McDonald to convert.
David Redmond came on at centre-forward for Jack O'Connor whose ankle injury had curtailed his influence, with Lee Chin dropping back to midfield where he went on to give an exhibition of hurling and athleticism in the second-half.
Prior to that Paddy Deegan pulled back a Kilkenny point from a handpass by substitute Liam Blanchfield before free-takers Chin and Reid exchanged scores.
The last word of the half fell to Wexford with another instant response from the puck-out. Harry Kehoe burrowed his way to freedom in a ruck before handpassing out of the traffic to Paul Morris who fired over the sixth point from play.
Would the 0-12 to 1-5 lead be sufficient facing into the elements? That was the burning question on everyone's lips at the interval, but home supporters were feeling a lot more confident after a super start to the second period.
Aidan Nolan set up Morris who beat two men and pointed before the huge tonic of a 39th-minute goal drove Wexford on to new heights.
Lee Chin found Simon Donohoe whose long handpass into space created a clear route to goal for David Redmond. The ball ended up with Harry Kehoe whose attempt wasn't the best, but the ball broke again for Redmond who pulled to the net for a tremendous 1-13 to 1-5 lead at a critical stage.
It was the ideal start to the half, although the Kilkenny threat was ever-present. Mark Fanning performed the first of his heroics after the break when he blocked a goal chance from Chris Bolger, with Reid converting the '65 before doing likewise from a free after a Colin Fennelly catch left Liam Ryan with no alternative but to take a yellow card.
Kilkenny expected a free in after Cillian Buckley played a one-two with Bolger and tried to evade Shaun Murphy, but the sweeper defended superbly and instead the referee gave the verdict to Wexford.
Still, a Walter Walsh point left the score at 1-13 to 1-8 with 25 minutes left, and there was nothing decided at that stage.
Paul Morris latched on to the break from a Fanning free to register his third point before Reid and McDonald swapped scores from frees, with a Chin '65 widening the gap to seven midway through the half after a Conor McDonald goal shot was bravely blocked.
Then came a spell lasting two and a half minutes that tested Wexford's resolve more than ever before. Colin Fennelly goaled first in the 54th minute with a shot that ended up in the net via Mark Fanning's stick.
And when Kilkenny's best attacker caught Paul Murphy's clearance and was dragged back by Shaun Murphy, the Oulart-The Ballagh man's yellow card was followed by another copybook finish from the penalty by T.J. Reid.
All of a sudden the Wexford lead was down to the minimum (1-16 to 3-9), but the response was immediate and probably the biggest moment of all in a game that ebbed and flowed throughout.
Lee Chin soared into the air to grab the puck-out and send it beautifully between the posts, a defiant signal of intent from a team ready for anything Kilkenny could throw at them.
Lester Ryan made it 1-17 to 3-10 before Simon Donohoe found himself close enough to the opposing goal to force a '65, and Chin once again did the needful.
Conor McDonald missed a scoreable free similar to Reid in the first-half, but a salmon-like Chin catch led to one of the best points of all as Jack Guiney floated a glorious pass to joint captain Matthew O'Hanlon who fired over on the run with just over three minutes left (1-19 to 3-10).
Chris Bolger was denied with another goal attempt before T.J. Reid pointed from a free, but the last word fell to substitute Shane Tomkins who made the most of Guiney's catch from the puck-out.
The three added minutes did produce some heart-stopping moments, but Mark Fanning stood up to the pressure and denied Bolger once more after Colin Fennelly presented him with a great chance.
Reid dropped in a '65 that was defended and then had a shot saved by Fanning, although the whistle had been blown anyway for a free out.
The siege was well and truly lifted when Kevin Foley was fouled on a run after a Guiney pass, and the missed free from McDonald didn't matter as the crowds were already lining up to swarm onto the field at that stage.
Wexford: Mark Fanning; Willie Devereux, Liam Ryan (0-1), Simon Donohoe; James Breen, Diarmuid O'Keeffe (0-1), Matthew O'Hanlon (joint capt., 0-1); Jack O'Connor (0-1), Aidan Nolan; Paul Morris (0-3), Lee Chin (joint capt., 0-6, 3 frees, 2 '65s), Shaun Murphy; Conor McDonald (0-5, 4 frees), Jack Guiney (0-1), Harry Kehoe. Subs. - David Redmond (1-0) for O'Connor (32), Shane Tomkins (0-1) for Nolan (58), Podge Doran for Kehoe (62), Kevin Foley for Morris (66).
Kilkenny: Eoin Murphy; Paul Murphy, Kieran Joyce, Conor O'Shea; Conor Fogarty, Cillian Buckley, Robert Lennon; Lester Ryan (0-2), Paddy Deegan (capt., 0-1); Walter Walsh (0-1), Pádraig Walsh, T.J. Reid (2-7, 2-0 pens., 0-6 frees, 0-1 '65); Ger Aylward, Richie Hogan, Colin Fennelly (1-0). Subs. - Liam Blanchfield for P. Walsh (29), Chris Bolger for Aylward (33), Kevin Kelly for W. Walsh (63), Richie Reid for Hogan (68).
Referee: Fergal Horgan (Tipperary).