Flat display sees Clare cruise into semis
GAA All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Quarter Final: Clare 0-27 - Wexford 1-17
Davy Fitzgerald's reunion with his native Clare fell alarmingly shot of expectations before a dismal crowd of 10,255 in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday when Wexford crashed out of the All-Ireland Senior hurling championship at the quarter-final stage for the fourth time in five years.
A flat, error-laden performance saw the high hopes of making some form of meaningful progress crushed by the Banner men who responded to a late surge by hitting the last four points of a disappointing game.
Wexford were in serious trouble at half-time when they trailed by 0-16 to 0-9 after Matthew O'Hanlon won the toss and opted to play against the breeze, and Clare kept them comfortably at arm's length for most of the second period.
The only spark of hope arrived in the 58th minute when Conor McDonald, the most consistent of an under-performing forward line, latched on to the break from a line ball from the left to fire low to the net and narrow the gap to 0-22 to 1-14.
Although there was a telling Clare response in the form of a Podge Collins point, Wexford took heart from that green flag and almost netted again on their next attack.
A long ball by Shaun Murphy fell for Liam Og McGovern whose low shot was well saved by Donal Tuohy. The break looked inviting for Damien Reck, but he couldn't force it over the line before Clare full-back David McInerney got his body behind the half-hit effort.
Diarmuid O'Keeffe was fouled seconds later and Rory O'Connor split the posts, with the St. Martin's lad following up with a fine solo point directly off his stick.
Unfortunately, that momentum was stalled by three wides on the trot by Conor McDonald, substitute Jack O'Connor and Rory O'Connor, bringing the overall tally to twelve which included five from frees.
Clare were wobbling for the only time in the game though, and incredibly the gap was down to just three points after Rory O'Connor drove the ball over the bar following a foul on Matthew O'Hanlon in the 66th minute (0-23 to 1-17).
In truth, the relatively tight margin wasn't a true reflection on the game as a whole, but there was hope for a Wexford side whose two-man inside forward line featured Conor McDonald and Lee Chin at that stage.
Clare firmly regained the initiative in the closing stages however, with Shane O'Donnell's fourth point settling them down before substitute Ian Galvin, John Conlon and another replacement, Conor McGrath, made the game safe as thoughts turned to their semi-final clash with Galway on July 28.
Wexford threatened just once in that period, when a Lee Chin handpass intended for Willie Devereux was intercepted, and the game ended in frustration as Jack O'Connor was booked for a high challenge before his brother, Rory, saw red for reacting to Clare substitute Rory Hayes who shouldered him in the back when he arrived on the field.
The Wexford player's use of the hurl was always going to get him in trouble, although Kilkenny's Paddy Deegan did the very same to Aaron Gillane of Limerick in Thurles on Sunday and wasn't even spoken to by the referee. Where's the consistency?
The individual match-ups in defence at the start saw a full-back line of Damien Reck, Liam Ryan and Matthew O'Hanlon (in the left corner) pitted directly against Shane O'Donnell, John Conlon and Peter Duggan respectively.
The half-back trio of Diarmuid O'Keeffe, Pádraig Foley and Conor Firman faced David Reidy, Tony Kelly and Podge Collins in that order, but the Wexford men generally struggled as all six Clare attackers scored at least twice from play.
The one shining light at the back was Liam Ryan who had a tremendous tussle with Conlon, coming through with flying colours. The Munster side's form player may have ended with three points, but it was his least assured showing of the season and that was all down to the tenacity of Ryan who hopefully won't be forgotten by the All Star selectors at the end of the year.
The distribution of Wexford sweeper Shaun Murphy wasn't up to the required standard, and it was strange to see him overlooked by Mark Fanning for most of the puck-outs given that Wexford were cleaned out every time the ball was driven towards midfield or the opposing half-back line.
The midfield pairing of Kevin Foley and Aidan Nolan struggled, while the five forwards didn't pose enough of a collective threat. Normally it's a two-man inside attacking line, but at times on Saturday it seemed that Liam Og McGovern was the only one close to the opposition goal as both Rory O'Connor and Lee Chin appeared to have the freedom to roam.
The only set positions up front, apart from McGovern's, were on the right and left wings which were manned by David Dunne and Conor McDonald respectively, although the latter did move inside near the end.
A Damien Reck point after 47 seconds, set up by Dunne and McGovern, proved a false dawn as the only other man to score from play before the break was McDonald.
He managed three points to supplement five Rory O'Connor frees, whereas twelve of Clare's first-half tally of 16 arrived from play and all six attackers made the scoresheet.
It may have taken the Munster men 15 minutes to settle into a decent rhythm, but once they got going they were clearly superior to Wexford, with Tony Kelly causing havoc at centre-forward.
Reck's early lead point was cancelled by the Clare number 11 before Wexford's sole two wides prior to the break arrived from frees taken by Pádraig Foley and Rory O'Connor respectively.
Nobody was inside to prosper from a Liam Og McGovern point attempt that came off the post, with the St. Anne's man starting in place of Paul Morris who was absent completely from the squad owing to his knee injury.
The other two changes from the Westmeath game saw Under-21 duo Conor Firman and Rory O'Connor back in to replace Simon Donohoe and Jack O'Connor respectively.
Rory restored the lead after a foul on Kevin Foley following excellent work by Liam Ryan, but Clare hit the next three points courtesy of Seadna Morey, who latched on to a Wexford puck-out, Peter Duggan (free) and Shane O'Donnell, the latter after another Duggan placed ball came back off the post.
A high challenge on David Dunne led to a booking for Colm Galvin and a point for Rory O'Connor, with David Reidy catching the re-start and making it 5-3 after a solo run. Duggan controlled Mark Fanning's puck-out to begin a move featuring David McInerney and Shane O'Donnell before the rampant Tony Kelly left three between the sides.
Although Conor McDonald pointed for the first time from a low Liam Og McGovern cross, a gap started to appear as Clare hit four scores in as many minutes from Cathal Malone, Kelly, Duggan (free) and David Reidy, the latter after catching a Wexford puck-out (0-10 to 0-4).
Two Rory O'Connor frees, on either side of yet another Kelly point, stopped the rot somewhat, but Clare were starting to purr as John Conlon for once shook off Liam Ryan and fired a beauty from the right over the Blackrock end bar.
McDonald controlled the ball from a Shaun Murphy free to reduce arrears to 12-7 in the 31st minute, and he added his third from a David Dunne handpass after Rory O'Connor had converted his fifth free.
Clare continued to keep their side of the scoreboard ticking over too though, with Shane O'Donnell, Podge Collins and two Peter Duggan frees leaving them firmly in the driving seat at the break with a 0-16 to 0-9 lead.
It was somewhat surprising that Wexford resumed without any changes in personnel being made, given that they were being cleaned out in some areas of the field.
There was early hope when Diarmuid O'Keeffe and Lee Chin registered the first two points of the half, but six of the next nine scores were picked off by Clare to maintain that healthy margin.
Missed chances didn't help the Wexford cause, with ten wides after the interval in total from McDonald (three), Pádraig Foley (two frees), Aidan Nolan, Mark Fanning (free), Damien Reck, Jack O'Connor and Rory O'Connor.
The latter O'Connor did convert two placed balls before Wexford's late burst, while Shaun Murphy pointed from play in the 47th minute in response to a long-range score from Peter Duggan that had made it 19-13 in Clare's favour.
Shane O'Donnell, Tony Kelly and John Conlon all contributed too as the eventual victors pushed ahead by 22-14, with one half-chance for a Wexford goal yielding nothing in the 55th minute.
That arrived when Lee Chin crossed from the right for the inrushing Jack O'Connor, but Cathal Malone got in a timely tackle and the opportunity was lost.
That Conor McDonald goal did finally inject some life into the Wexford challenge, but it was sadly too late to make the major difference required.
It was a sobering day for the small Wexford crowd that made the journey to an unsuitable venue at a ridiculous time for a game of such importance. That All-Ireland semi-final spot appears as elusive as ever, and it will be twelve years and counting since we last got that far when the 2019 campaign comes around.
Hindsight shows that beating an undercooked Galway in the league quarter-final was the highlight of the year, but the serious contenders know that the secondary competition is a poor substitute for the real action of the summer.
Until we start to make an impression when it really counts, we have to accept that we're still a considerable way off the required standard.
Wexford: Mark Fanning; Damien Reck (0-1), Liam Ryan, Matthew O'Hanlon (joint capt.); Shaun Murphy (0-1); Diarmuid O'Keeffe (0-1), Pádraig Foley, Conor Firman; Kevin Foley, Aidan Nolan; David Dunne, Lee Chin (0-1), Conor McDonald (1-3); Rory O'Connor (0-10, 9 frees), Liam Og McGovern. Subs. - Jack O'Connor for Nolan (49), Harry Kehoe for K. Foley (57), Simon Donohoe for P. Foley (61), Willie Devereux for O'Keeffe (66).
Clare: Donal Tuohy; Jamie Shanahan, David McInerney, Jack Browne; Patrick O'Connor (capt.), Conor Cleary, Seadna Morey (0-1); Colm Galvin, Cathal Malone (0-1); Podge Collins (0-2), Tony Kelly (0-5), David Reidy (0-2); Peter Duggan (0-7, 5 frees), John Conlon (0-3), Shane O'Donnell (0-4). Subs. - Conor McGrath for Kelly, temp. (27-28), David Fitzgerald for Galvin (58), Ian Galvin (0-1) for Reidy (59), McGrath (0-1) for Duggan (67), Michael O'Malley for Malone (70+2), Rory Hayes for Browne (70+3).
Referee: Fergal Horgan (Tipperary).