Friday 24 November 2017

Hurlers lay long-standing bogey to rest

Wexford 2-18 Kilkenny 0-19

Alan Aherne

Teenage defender Damien Reck, a county Minor last year, is challenged close to the sideline by Kilkenny's Liam Blanchfield
Teenage defender Damien Reck, a county Minor last year, is challenged close to the sideline by Kilkenny's Liam Blanchfield
Jack O'Connor makes life difficult for Kilkenny midfielder Ollie Walsh
Lee Chin controls the ball with Cillian Buckley (Kilkenny) close at hand

This fascinating Allianz Hurling League campaign had been an unqualified success long before Sunday's epic showdown in a resplendent Nowlan Park before 14,568 engrossed spectators, but it entered an exciting new dimension as Wexford delivered further on that early-season promise with a stunning quarter-final win over old foes Kilkenny.

It was only the second day of April, but the elation of travelling fans couldn't be contained and it was easy to understand why given the suffering our county has endured at the hands of our neighbours so many times in the past.

And while the entire season will still be defined by what happens on June 10 when the sides hopefully meet again in Innovate Wexford Park, for the moment let's salute this outstanding performance and look forward to getting a crack at All-Ireland champions Tipperary in the semi-final on Sunday week.

That game, with the championship looming large on the horizon, will do the power of good to a team growing in confidence after the players unleashed a performance full of passion, discipline and non-stop effort to build on those earlier wins over Limerick and Galway.

They may have been dragged down a level in the course of lack-lustre victories over Kerry, Offaly and Laois, but they stepped up again when it was needed most to record the first league victory over Kilkenny at this venue since October, 1957.

Nearly 60 years of history is now finally consigned to the bin, and of course we hadn't beaten our arch-rivals in a knockout match of significance since that never to be forgotten Leinster semi-final of 2004 when Michael Jacob's late goal brought Brian Cody to his knees in Croke Park.

And while he wasn't as crest-fallen last Sunday, the much-respected Kilkenny manager will have made the short journey home with a lot to contemplate as Wexford were worthy winners after hitting back every time the Noresiders threatened to wear them down in a pulsating second-half.

The biggest talking point afterwards was the success of the individual defensive match-ups deployed by Wexford, with the charge led by the grittily determined James Breen who stuck to T.J. Reid like a particularly annoying leech.

Matthew O'Hanlon matched Walter Walsh in the physical stakes, while Richie Hogan got little change out of Liam Ryan in the first-half before eventually drifting out around midfield.

Willie Devereux and Diarmuid O'Keeffe held their direct opponents scoreless and, while Liam Blanchfield did manage three points off Damien Reck, the Oylegate-Glenbrien teenager also got in a series of fine clearances and showed he has so much to offer in this cauldron of frenzied activity.

Wexford's use of Shaun Murphy as sweeper is well known at this stage, so I guess there was no point in the management concealing that fact with the championship in mind. And although it took him a short while to settle, the Oulart-The Ballagh man thundered into the game and read the play superbly.

Aidan Nolan delivered a huge shift at midfield where he was partnered by Jack O'Connor, while Conor McDonald put some recent indifferent form behind him with a mighty display in the full-forward line. Some of his catches and touches off the hurl to control the ball were simply sublime, and he had plenty of support from Lee Chin and Paul Morris in particular as Wexford combined to deliver a strong statement to the rest of the hurling world.

To be level at half-time (1-7 to 0-10) after facing the strong wind was a tremendous fillip to the pre-match underdogs, and it was no more than they deserved. From the first ball it was clear they were ready for anything Kilkenny would throw at them, and it was tremendous to see their utter refusal to stand back when the exchanges became particularly physical.

The game was just over one minute old when Conor McDonald gathered a Lee Chin free and forced Eoin Murphy to make the first of three quite exceptional saves. Indeed, Wexford would have definitely scored five goals were it not for the amazing reflexes of the Glenmore stopper, and that in itself says all you need to know about the quality of the visitors' performance.

Walter Walsh got Kilkenny off the mark in the third minute from a Conor Martin handpass after Liam Blanchfield initially delivered the ball crossfield, but he didn't register again as Matthew O'Hanlon followed him wherever he went.

Kilkenny had three of their ten wides (Wexford finished with twelve) chalked up inside five minutes, and the equaliser arrived shortly afterwards when Lee Chin and Conor McDonald combined to set up wing-back Diarmuid O'Keeffe after a partial block by Jack O'Connor on an Ollie Walsh clearance.

McDonald lost his hurl from a long ball by Chin but still managed to find Paul Morris who made it 2-1, but Liam Blanchfield replied from the puck-out after Shaun Murphy misjudged the bounce of the sliothar.

T.J. Reid was already suffering from the close attention as he missed the first of two particularly scoreable frees in the ninth minute, although Richie Hogan did restore the Kilkenny lead when he came out to the right wing to accept a short pass from Lester Ryan.

David Dunne and Chin (free) struck wides before Reid caught an Eoin Murphy puck-out, earned a free and split the posts to leave the home side 0-4 to 0-2 ahead.

A missed placed ball followed from McDonald before David Redmond punished a slip by Lester Ryan with a point in the 14th minute.

A strong tackle by Chin then forced a turnover, with Jack O'Connor's handpass finding Paul Morris who lofted a high shot between the posts at the city end for the leveller.

Diarmuid O'Keeffe was off target before Morris briefly swapped roles with David Dunne, and an exchange of frees between Reid and Chin left the sides deadlocked at the start of the second quarter.

McDonald was bottled up as he prepared to strike after gathering another Chin placed ball which dropped short, while Liam Ryan joined the attack but fired to the left and wide following James Breen's success in winning a 50-50 ball against Reid.

David Redmond had a gilt-edged chance to rattle the net in the 23rd minute from close range, only for Eoin Murphy to make an absolutely breathtaking save, but Wexford's spirits were high as Chin edged them 6-5 clear after Aidan Nolan was fouled.

Reid levelled from a placed ball before the goal the visitors had been threatening finally arrived in the 31st minute.

Mark Fanning's long clearance broke between Paul Morris and Paul Murphy into the path of Nolan who soloed through before parting to David Dunne, and the corner-forward made the most of his first real chance for a 1-6 to 0-6 lead which was no more than Wexford deserved.

T.J. Reid couldn't capitalise on a half-chance at the other end, but Kilkenny were going nowhere as points from Blanchfield, Cillian Buckley, Reid (play and free) underlined.

They seemed set to pull back that goal too at the start of the two added minutes when Ollie Walsh made ground before scooping the ball into the path of Colin Fennelly, but Mark Fanning hared off his line and referee Alan Kelly saw nothing wrong with his forceful challenge.

The sides went in level (1-7 to 0-10) after Conor McDonald caught the ball over Pádraig Walsh and was duly fouled, with the Gorey ace doing the needful before producing even more heroics after the break.

Reid resumed at centre-forward, with Breen still in his slipstream, and the faith the mentors showed in their defenders following their men everywhere really paid off.

McDonald restored the lead from a free brought forward for dissent after Shane Prendergast climbed all over David Dunne, but Ollie Walsh levelled after a poor line ball from Diarmuid O'Keeffe.

Shaun Murphy and Jack O'Connor also shot wides in that early spell before McDonald made it 1-9 to 0-11 after Paddy Deegan coughed up possession, but Reid levelled once more from a 42nd-minute free.

Wexford's ability to match a Kilkenny score with one of their own, and sometimes even more, was another hugely encouraging sign. And in this instance they responded with three on the trot to move 1-12 to 0-12 clear.

McDonald (free) was first to strike after Aidan Nolan was impeded, and Chin then played a clever short placed ball to Paul Morris who fired over a monster effort from distance.

The momentum was completely on Wexford's side at that stage, and they had a chance to put some daylight between the sides when David Dunne latched on to a David Redmond pass in the 46th minute and was fouled in the act of striking the ball to the left of the posts. Mark Fanning darted upfield but was most unfortunate to see his penalty come back into play off the woodwork, but it didn't unduly upset Wexford.

Indeed, after Reid missed a difficult free, McDonald displayed brilliant ball control to gather a Damien Reck clearance and leave three points between the teams.

He followed up with a wide, while Jack Guiney was introduced in between Kilkenny points from Reid (free) and Paddy Deegan which cut the gap to the minimum (1-12 to 0-14).

Eoin Murphy smothered a McDonald shot after Aidan Nolan put him through, with Guiney delivering a wide before Fanning landed a long-range free between the posts after a foul on Damien Reck.

Matthew O'Hanlon made a vital hook on Ollie Walsh, although Reid converted a free in the follow-up after Fanning was penalised (1-13 to 0-15).

Morris and O'Keeffe shot wides on either side of another glorious point from McDonald after a short Chin pass 64 metres out.

Fanning converted another free earned by Willie Devereux, and the gap was finally widened to four when Chin availed of a pass from James Breen who was having the game of his life.

It was tight and tense down the home stretch, with McDonald responding to an Ollie Walsh point before Reid (free) and Blanchfield reduced arrears to 1-17 to 0-18 by the 65th minute.

Chin broke on to the puck-out after that second score and split the posts before Reid missed a decent chance from a free on the left wing.

And while he atoned from closer to goal, Matthew O'Hanlon caught a dangerous delivery before the arrival of the clinching goal mere seconds into the three added minutes.

It came once again from a free deep within his own half taken by Fanning, with Jack Guiney lurking with intent around the square and providing a major distraction as the ball ended up in the net after a deflection.

A Reid pull went wide seconds before the full-time whistle saw Nowlan Park erupt to the sound of elated Slaneyside supporters.

It had been a long time coming, and let's hope it's the first of many big knockout wins in a hurling year that has grabbed the attention of the public already.

Wexford: Mark Fanning (1-2 frees); Willie Devereux, Liam Ryan, Damien Reck; James Breen, Matthew O'Hanlon (joint capt.), Diarmuid O'Keeffe (0-1); Aidan Nolan, Jack O'Connor; Paul Morris (0-3), Lee Chin (joint capt., 0-3, 1 free), David Redmond (0-1); Shaun Murphy, Conor McDonald (0-8, 4 frees), David Dunne (1-0). Subs. - Jack Guiney for Redmond (53), Harry Kehoe for O'Connor (59), Barry Carton for Morris (70), Aaron Maddock for Nolan (70+1).

Kilkenny: Eoin Murphy; Paul Murphy, Pádraig Walsh, Shane Prendergast; Lester Ryan, Jason Cleere, Paddy Deegan (capt., 0-1); Ollie Walsh (0-2), Cillian Buckley (0-1); Colin Fennelly, Walter Walsh (0-1), T.J. Reid (0-10, 9 frees); Liam Blanchfield (0-3), Richie Hogan (0-1), Conor Martin. Sub. - Jonjo Farrell for Ryan (49).

Referee: Alan Kelly (Galway).

Wexford People

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