Sunday 15 December 2019

Hurlers pipped after second-half collapse

Leinster Senior Hurling Chamionship Round Robin: Kilkenny 0-22 Wexford 1-18

Kilkenny’s Paul Murphy is wrapped up by Wexford substitute Harry Kehoe. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Kilkenny’s Paul Murphy is wrapped up by Wexford substitute Harry Kehoe. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Alan Aherne

Wexford's next test in July will be against the Joe McDonagh Cup runners-up rather than a repeat Leinster final showdown with Galway after falling to an agonising one-point loss to Kilkenny in this gripping fourth and last round robin clash before 17,516 enthralled spectators in Nowlan Park on Saturday.

An absorbing game has joined the lengthy list of thrilling clashes between the age-old rivals, but that will be no consolation to the visitors who were denied a spot in a second successive provincial decider by the tightest of margins.

With a superior scoring difference beforehand, a draw would have been enough for Wexford, and they were certainly well placed at half-time when they led by 1-11 to 0-7 after giving a fantastic account of themselves in the opening period.

It was looking even better after the excellent Pádraig Foley, and then Lee Chin, added the first two points on the re-start to widen the gap to nine, but the Kilkenny juggernaut then hit the highest possible gear as they slowly but surely worked their way into the game.

They slotted seven points without reply between the 39th and 51st minutes to narrow the margin to two and ensure a grandstand finish.

Wexford struggled to get the ball beyond the opposition half-back line at this stage, with the likes of Pádraig Walsh, Paddy Deegan and Cillian Buckley really thundering into the game.

The fact that reputation means nothing in Kilkenny was evident at the interval when two of the three players replaced by manager Brian Cody were the honours-laden duo of Richie Hogan and Colin Fennelly.

Incredibly, the Noresiders won this contest with only one of their six starting forwards - the outstanding T.J. Reid - getting on the scoresheet, and just one of his eleven points came from play.

His accuracy was embellished with one point from goalkeeper Eoin Murphy, two from defenders, three from midfielders, plus five from substitutes as Joey Holden, Richie Leahy and John Donnelly all made major impacts.

As for Wexford, the flat performance against Galway was in complete contrast to the manner in which they drove at their rivals in the opening half and produced a string of fabulous scores.

Excellence was the hallmark as they set about establishing that 1-11 to 0-7 lead, with all bar one point arriving from play as Kilkenny struggled to keep tabs on their clever distribution of the ball and use of crossfield passes and open spaces.

Conor Firman was retained at Simon Donohoe's expense in the full-back line, while the mentors opted for a different approach in the half-forwards by replacing Jack O'Connor's ball-winning ability in the air with David Dunne's direct running.

And the latter's pace certainly added a new dimension in that first-half as Wexford responded superbly to any criticism directed at them following the disappointing display against Galway.

An outfield pass from the endline by Conor McDonald set up Rory O'Connor for the first point in the second minute, but a couple of early long-range frees were missed before T.J. Reid nailed his opening attempt at the city end.

O'Connor split the posts from his next placed ball, while McDonald recovered from a slip after latching on to a Shaun Murphy clearance to make it 3-1 in the seventh minute.

Conor Fogarty replied from distance before a monster effort from very deep in his own defence from an Eoin Murphy free brought the sides level for the second time.

The Wexford lead was restored when a quick free by Shaun Murphy found Paul Morris in space, and the Ferns man did the needful.

Reid picked out midfielder James Maher for the leveller, and then put his team ahead for the first time from a free in the twelfth minute (0-5 to 0-4).

That was the spark that lit the Wexford flame though, as they took over completely and added 1-6 without reply in a very productive period.

It lasted for eleven minutes, starting with a rising Conor McDonald shot that flew over the Kilkenny bar after a long free from Mark Fanning.

After a Kilkenny wide (the sides had 16 apiece overall), Diarmuid O'Keeffe ghosted into the right half-forward berth without anyone near him and was picked out by Fanning to restore the lead.

Lee Chin extended the margin to 7-5, and David Dunne was the provider for Rory O'Connor to knock over a lovely score directly off his stick.

A superb crossfield ball by Dunne led to another for Chin, and the lead was stretched to double scores when McDonald switched the play to Pádraig Foley who popped a handpass into O'Connor's path (0-10 to 0-5).

Wexford were really flying at this juncture, and their dominance was rewarded when they struck for the game's only goal in the 28th minute.

It came from a booming Fanning puck-out, with Lee Chin playing in David Dunne whose ball across the square from the left was first-timed to the net by Paul Morris.

When T.J. Reid finally stopped the Kilkenny rot from a free, they had gone almost 18 minutes since his, and their, last score.

Colin Fennelly and Richie Hogan swapped places in the middle of the attack with little impact on an evening when Pádraig Foley started on Walter Walsh, with Matthew O'Hanlon on Reid.

It meant that Diarmuid O'Keeffe lined out in the centre of the half-back line, initially on Fennelly, while Liam Ryan originally had Hogan for company inside.

A determined hook by David Dunne after a driving run to put a stop to a Cillian Buckley solo typified the workrate and desire of the Wexford men, and they were looking good after another Reid free met an instant response from the puck-out when Kevin Foley got the break and split the posts (1-11 to 0-7).

In a game with such an ultimately tight margin, the decision to disallow a late first-half Paul Morris point after Paddy Deegan was left in a heap on the ground was of major importance.

Referee James McGrath consulted with his umpires before awarding a free out, one of numerous decisions that Davy Fitzgerald noted didn't go his side's way.

While Wexford were awarded more frees than Kilkenny (16-12), the manager felt that the home side's tended to be in the scoring zone, and that was reflected in T.J. Reid's haul of nine points, aided by that one successful Eoin Murphy strike.

Rory O'Connor put over two for Wexford while Pádraig Foley hit four from distance, and the five missed by the team were all either from long distance or tight angles.

Even Reid showed he wasn't perfect when he directed one wide in first-half added time, and he moved to centre-forward from the left wing on the re-start, with Matthew O'Hanlon still marking the Kilkenny dangerman.

Diarmuid O'Keeffe had a different direct opponent in Richie Leahy, while Pádraig Foley faced another new arrival in Martin Keoghan as Walter Walsh moved to full-forward on Liam Ryan.

Wexford's start to the second period was perfect, as Foley cut out an attemped Leahy pass and struck a brilliant long-range point before Chin added his third from McDonald's crossfield delivery (1-13 to 0-7).

What went wrong from that point onwards? The effort expended up to that stage seemed to take a lot out of the visitors as that first-half spark gradually disappeared, but credit must go to Kilkenny also as their leaders really stepped up when their chances of winning appeared to be fading rapidly.

From the 39th to the 51st minutes they hit seven points on the trot, all bar one of them from the remarkable T.J. Reid who slotted over a Luke Scanlon pass outfield before adding five from frees.

In the middle of that run was an inspiring score from Pádraig Walsh as the full-back powered out from defence before driving over a rousing point from midfield.

Some respite finally arrived for Wexford when a chop on Aidan Nolan led to Pádraig Foley converting an 80-metre free for their first point in 16 minutes (1-14 to 0-14).

Kilkenny were relentless though, and Joey Holden pointed from distance before Mark Fanning saved a Liam Blanchfield shot from the right and Reid sent over the '65.

Richie Leahy equalised in the 58th minute, and a pass outfield by Reid found wing-back Enda Morrissey who put them into an 0-18 to 1-14 lead.

Leahy doubled the advantage after a short puck-out didn't work, but Rory O'Connor managed to reply from a free after a foul on Shaun Murphy.

Conor Fogarty and Pádraig Foley (free) swapped points, and it was edge-of-your-seat stuff as the game entered the last five minutes plus three extra.

O'Connor missed a difficult free from tight to the right sideline before a stray Damien Reck handpass was punished by John Donnelly and Kilkenny moved 0-21 to 1-16 clear.

A throw by Joey Holden, just as Pádraig Walsh was thundering down the centre, gave Pádraig Foley the chance to make it a one-point game again, but that elusive equaliser simply wouldn't come.

The gap of two was restored when a long ball by Paul Murphy broke kindly for John Donnelly, but Foley hit back from his own 65-metre line after earning the free himself.

Just one more point would have been enough for Wexford, and the last chance of getting it arrived when T.J. Reid was penalised for barging in the left corner.

Mark Fanning launched the free into the opposition half, but when Richie Leahy emerged with the ball it was game over and the visitors were left to ruefully reflect on what might have been.

The players will be delighted with the rest after an energy-sapping four weeks, and they will learn their next opponents when Westmeath face Carlow in the inaugural Joe McDonagh Cup final which will be played in Croke Park on Leinster final day, July 1.

Wexford: Mark Fanning; Damien Reck, Liam Ryan, Conor Firman; Shaun Murphy; Matthew O'Hanlon (joint capt.), Diarmuid O'Keeffe (0-1), Pádraig Foley (0-5, 4 frees); Kevin Foley (0-1), Aidan Nolan; Rory O'Connor (0-5, 2 frees), Lee Chin (joint capt., 0-3), David Dunne; Paul Morris (1-1), Conor McDonald (0-2). Subs. - Harry Kehoe for K. Foley (54), Jack O'Connor for Dunne (54), Simon Donohoe for O'Keeffe (63), Shane Tomkins for Morris (70).

Kilkenny: Eoin Murphy (0-1 free); Paul Murphy, Pádraig Walsh (0-1), Paddy Deegan; Enda Morrissey (0-1), Cillian Buckley (capt.), Conor O'Shea; Conor Fogarty (0-2), James Maher (0-1); Walter Walsh, Colin Fennelly, T.J. Reid (0-11, 9 frees, 1 '65); Bill Sheehan, Richie Hogan, Luke Scanlon. Subs. - Joey Holden (0-1) for O'Shea (HT), Martin Keoghan for Fennelly (HT), Richie Leahy (0-2) for Hogan (HT), Liam Blanchfield for Sheehan (46), John Donnelly (0-2) for Scanlon (65).

Referee: James McGrath (Westmeath).

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