Kehoe points the way forward for Wexford
Wexford's first hurling target for 2016 was reached in convincing fashion at a barely playable O'Kennedy Park, New Ross, on Sunday as a dominant first-half performance laid the platform for a clearcut eight-point win over a weak Offaly side in the Bord na Móna Walsh Cup semi-final.
Wexford 0-14 Offaly 0-6
And the immediate prize is one to be cherished, as it means the return to Croke Park for the first time in eight years will come four months ahead of schedule as the decider against Dublin is in headquarters on Saturday at 5 p.m.
Perhaps Wexford would have preferred to avoid the boys in blue given that they will be our first championship opponents at the same venue on May 29. Nonetheless, any opportunity to further the development of the team with an outing on the big stage should be relished regardless of the opposition, and the game will be ideal preparation for the league opener away to Limerick a fortnight later.
It was a case of mission accomplished on Sunday in a game that was difficult to play in and referee due to the complete absence of any 'give' in the pitch, something that simply couldn't be avoided given the long-running horrendous spell of weather. The sliothar went missing on several occasions and had to be thrown in repeatedly, making it a real lottery for the participants.
However, Wexford will be happy with their general application and the manner in which they set about dismantling the Offaly challenge from an early stage. Midfielder Harry Kehoe - the side's stand-out performer in the four games to date - was in flying form once again from the off and contributed six first-half points, including two from play, as the home side thundered into an interval lead of 0-10 to 0-3.
And while there was very little of a flowing nature about the third quarter in particular, Wexford remained comfortably in control and ended the game after conceding just one point from play which is a fair achievement in any 70 minutesw of hurling.
With Matthew O'Hanlon winning the toss and opting to avail of the wind blowing towards the dressing-room end, Offaly set out their stall by deploying number eight Shane Kinsella as an extra defender. It meant that Liam Ryan operated as a spare man at the other end of the field, and while both men cleared a lot of ball, the Wexford attack fared a good deal better throughout than their Offaly counterparts.
Harry Kehoe opened his account from a free with just over one minute gone, with Offaly's Shane Dooley landing an effort short and Colin Egan then posting the first of their seven wides (five in the second-half). Wexford were also off target on seven occasions, all before the break, with Shane Tomkins accounting for the first before the home side enjoyed a let-off.
It came after James Breen fouled James Mulrooney and Shane Dooley's head-high effort from the left struck the crossbar before Mark Fanning guided it to safety.
Lee Chin was wide with a wayward effort but quickly redeemed himself as his persistence led to Seán Ryan overcarrying and Kehoe made it 0-2 to nil from the free. A Chin handpass then set up Tomkins for the opener from play in the seventh minute, before Aidan Nolan nearly got a touch on a Joe O'Connor delivery which was gathered and cleared by Offaly netminder James Dempsey.
James Mulrooney and O'Connor swapped wides before Wexford fashioned their only decent goalscoring chance after an Andrew Shore clearance down the left flank. It was gathered by David Dunne who made ground at pace before unleashing a low drive which was kept out superbly by Dempsey.
Good pressure applied by Joe O'Connor on Joe Bergin led to Harry Kehoe posting his first point from play in the 15th minute (0-4 to nil). Aidan Nolan drove a line ball wide before Kehoe struck again, this time from a Tomkins handpass, and he followed up by converting another free which was earned by Chin.
Aidan Nolan made it 0-7 to nil in the 20th minute with a good effort from long-range after Diarmuid O'Keeffe caught a clearance by Offaly full-back Chris McDonald whose father, Ciarán, the former Crossabeg-Ballymurn full-forward from Saunderscourt, is one of the midlanders' mentors.
The lead was widened to eight points when Lee Chin latched on to a James Dempsey clearance as it dropped around midfield, with Offaly's frustration showing as Shane Dooley - now in the corner on James Breen - was booked for a reckless pull.
Shane Tomkins struck another wide before Barry Carton came on for the injured Aidan Nolan, and Offaly's Colin Egan also entered the referee's notebook before Wexford added a peach of a point. It came in the 27th minute when an Andrew Shore clearance broke off David Dunne into the path of Cathal Dunbar who launched a beauty from in front of the stand between the black spot (0-9 to nil).
Offaly eventually opened their account with what proved to be their sole point from play, courtesy of Shane Dooley in the 29th minute after Joe O'Connor was blocked. Wexford replied immediately, with Harry Kehoe punishing a foul on Tomkins before missing a '65, but they conceded the last two points of the half from Dooley frees.
Andrew Shore and Liam Ryan were yellow-carded, while Harry Kehoe struck the seventh and final wide, and it remained to be seen whether Offaly would make any inroads with the wind in their favour.
When they set up in the very same manner, with Shane Kinsella still as an extra defender, it didn't say much for their ambition. And in a very stop-start third quarter, punctuated by injuries and throw-ins, all they could muster were a couple of pointed frees even though Wexford didn't manage one scoring attempt in that period.
Shane Dooley pulled back two scores in the 38th and 48th minutes but shot very tamely at Mark Fanning in between from a Joey O'Connor flick on. Matthew O'Hanlon received a cut to the chin in the build-up to that chance which forced him out of the action for a while, but Offaly were making no inroads as Shane Kinsella struck their first wide of the half and Chris McDonald collected a booking.
Wexford had been in their shells for too long, and they emerged again with an excellent solo point by Shane Tomkins at the midway stage of the half, driving at the defence before raising a white flag with his team's first shot since the interval (0-11 to 0-5).
Four more Offaly wides which followed in quick succession included one very handy free from Shane Dooley, and Harry Kehoe added to Wexford's lead after Conor Doughan was booked for a challenge on Diarmuid O'Keeffe.
The Cloughbawn man made it 13-5 in the 63rd minute when David Dunne was impeded, with Dooley managing the last Offaly point from a placed ball before he went low from another free but Lee Chin batted the shot to safety.
The last of Kehoe's nine points, from another free, came after a neat move featuring a Shane Tomkins catch and a good head-high Cathal Dunbar pass from the right before Liam Og McGovern was flattened.
Seventeen of the 35 frees awarded went to the home side on an afternoon that won't go down in the annals as one of the greatest games ever seen in New Ross. However, the bright lights of Croker beckon now on Saturday, offering a welcome opportunity for a tough game ahead of the Limerick showdown.
Wexford: Mark Fanning; Andrew Kenny, Matthew O'Hanlon (capt.), James Breen; Andrew Shore, Liam Ryan, Diarmuid O'Keeffe; Lee Chin (0-1), Harry Kehoe (0-9, 7 frees); Aidan Nolan (0-1), Shane Tomkins (0-2), Joe O'Connor; David Dunne, Liam Og McGovern, Cathal Dunbar (0-1). Subs. - Barry Carton for Nolan, inj. (25), Aaron Maddock for O'Hanlon, temp. (41-47), Pat Kenny for O'Connor (63), Shane O'Gorman for Carton (63), also Darragh Hughes, Michael O'Hanlon, Paul Nolan.
Offaly: James Dempsey; Niall Wynne, Chris McDonald, Paddy Rigney; Joe Bergin, Conor Doughan (capt.), Pat Camon; Shane Kinsella, Joey O'Connor; Shane Dooley (0-6, 5 frees), Colin Egan, Seán Ryan; James Mulrooney, James Gorman, Stephen Quirke. Subs. - Jason Sampson for Bergin (30), Ben Conneely for Ryan, inj. (35+1), Seán Cleary for Gorman (49), Ronan Hughes for Quirke (61), Garry Conneely for O'Connor (63).
Referee: Peter Burke (Kilkenny).