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Saturday 22 September 2018

Ladies falter in biggest test

Ladies Football TG4 Leinster Intermediate Championship Semi-Final: Laois 2-11 Wexford 1-13

Wexford full-forward Aisling Murphy taking on Anna Healy of Laois
Wexford full-forward Aisling Murphy taking on Anna Healy of Laois

Wexford failed their biggest test of the season so far as Laois came roaring back from a six-point deficit to book a final place in the Leinster ladies' football Intermediate championship in Bellefield on Sunday.

The Slaneysiders can have no complaints with this result, as they faced a team that was Senior until last season and they struggled to adapt to the increased quality of opponent that they came up against.

No team that Wexford had faced previously this season was as strong in the tackle as Laois were, none were as well organised as they were, and no team was as patient in working their openings as the O'Moore girls.

It was a culture shock and Anthony Masterson's side didn't cope as well as they might. The patience mantra that was to the fore in the league is in danger of exploding into oblivion, as moves were lasting a few phases before anxiety started to creep in and decision-making suffered.

Wexford started without Chloe Foxe, who has been struggling with injury recently, and Niamh Moore, whose omission was not injury-related. The Slaneysiders are not deep enough to leave the Kilmore clubwoman on the bench and it showed.

Defensively they played okay. They broke up a lot of play and were combative enough but gave up multiple goal chances for the first time in months.

Laois scored two decent goals and would have had a third had Laura Nerney not produced one of the worst misses of all time.

Róisín Murphy occupied a deeper position with Moore out and the knock-on effect was hugely detrimental further forward. The most disappointing aspect of Wexford's play was the chronic coughing up of possession by those in and around the half-forward line.

Give Laois credit, they were excellent in opposition but Caitríona Murray and Aisling Murphy, the two-person full-forward line, were the only two attackers that weren't substituted and that tells a tale.

Inside Murray wasn't afforded as much space as previous games but was undoubtedly her side's best attacker again. Murphy needs to find her confidence because Wexford need a scoring foil and they need it now.

As a footballer the Gusserane clubwoman is always an opponent's nightmare; she's big, quick and strong, but her side desperately need scores in there. The fact is Murphy could dominate her marker deeper too and maybe it's time to unleash someone like Amy Wilson, a player who knows where the goal is and isn't lacking in the confidence department.

Wexford had the breeze in the first-half and looked to take advantage with a high tempo start. The hosts put more energy into the first 17 minutes but they didn't get the goal their pressure often yields and that must have left the Wexford management nervous.

Murray kicked the opener after Sarah Harding-Kenny was fouled on the left of goal. Ellen O'Brien knocked over a close-range second and Bernie Breen made it 0-3 to nil after Kellie Kearney won the next kick-out.

Teenager Emma Lawlor pulled one back but Wexford kept pressing home their advantage. Rochford, the best of the deeper forwards, kicked a lovely point, Aoife Sheil raised a white flag from a Kearney feed, and Murray made it 0-6 to 0-1 in the tenth minute.

Having managed six points in the first ten minutes, Wexford added just 1-7 in the remaining 50. Murray kicked two frees that sandwiched a Clare Conlon point as the Division 3 champions took an 0-8 to 0-2 lead after 17 minutes.

Things then got sloppy, and Wexford squandered a lot of possession in the Laois half. Erone Fitzpatrick knocked one off the deficit in the 25th minute, Murray hit back from Rachel Bennett's feed, but Lawlor's late point ensured the hosts' lead was precariously set at 0-9 to 0-4 at the break.

Laois didn't have to do anything remarkable to get back into the game after the re-start. A long Meaghan Dunne punt forward was misjudged in the Wexford defence. It broke to Eva Galvin and the substitute made no mistake from close range.

When Lawlor quickly followed with her third point, there was just one between the sides. Despite the start, Wexford actually played fairly well in the third quarter and were able to build up their advantage against the elements.

It started when Bernie Breen fired just under Fiona Kelly's crossbar from Kellie Kearney's feed for her side's only goal of the game. Murray pointed a dead-ball after Aisling Murphy was fouled, and Rochford added a point from play after a cleverly-worked short free.

Referee Jonathan Murphy was struggling with an injury after the break and it seemed to impede his judgement. After he made a couple of peculiar calls, in both directions, Róisín Murphy was penalised for charging.

As well as costing Wexford a point, when Conlon converted the resulting free, it gave notice to defenders that a simple side-step into an attacker's run would result in a turnover of possession and both sides took advantage as the referee floundered.

Kearney put Wexford 1-12 to 1-6 up after 44 minutes, but Laura Nerney responded in kind. The minutes started to tick away but the hosts were starting to struggle physically after their earlier efforts in the heat and Laois took control.

The substitutions trickled on but Laois sliced Wexford open through the middle in the 50th minute. Galvin, Nerney and Ciara Burke were all involved but it was the excellent Lawlor who applied the major finish.

Wexford badly needed a settling score but they couldn't find the composure or the energy reserves. Fitzpatrick put a point between the sides before Nerney went around Mary Rose Kelly and somehow contrived to fire over the crossbar from right in front of the goal with the net gaping.

Conlon's superb point from an acute angle gave Laois their first lead of the day in the 59th minute. Wexford kicked the ball straight back to their visitors and Lawlor didn't need a second invitation to make it 2-11 to 1-12.

Caitríona Murray pointed a free after Róisín Murphy was cynically taken down by Caoimhe Simms. Somehow no yellow card was shown, again emphasising how useless the sin-bin system is if referees are not going to give obvious cards because of it.

With one point in it and time running out, Wexford had one last chance. Amy Wilson, on the field mere moments, did brilliantly to ride three hefty Laois tackles in midfield, before firing long on the left to Aisling Murphy, who was again out in front.

Murphy beat her marker, drove towards goal before breaking outside and from 20 metres out in front of goal, dumped the ball short into the welcoming arms of Kelly. Wexford couldn't get the ball back, meaning Laois advanced to the Leinster final opposite Wicklow.

This defeat is probably the biggest test of Anthony Masterson's reign as manager, simply because in most of the other losses there was reasonable excuses, poor referees or plain bad luck.

However, it's not as easy to line them up and say go again after this defeat. Wexford weren't the better team and weren't hard done by overall. They contributed to their own downfall but Laois put in a strong performance too.

The Castletown man will have a few weeks to think about things. The qualifiers are scheduled to begin in mid-July, with two teams qualifying from each of four round-robin groups to the quarter-finals. The ladies' football championship template pits Wexford with Clare, Down and Kildare in Group 3.

Wexford: Mary Rose Kelly (capt.); Shauna Murphy, Maria Byrne, Sarah Harding-Kenny; Niamh Mernagh, Róisín Murphy, Niamh Butler; Kellie Kearney (0-1), Bernie Breen (1-1); Ellen O'Brien (0-1), Fiona Rochford (0-2), Clara Donnelly; Aisling Murphy, Aoife Sheil (0-1), Caitríona Murray (0-7, 5 frees). Subs. - Rachel Bennett for Sheil (28), Chloe Foxe for Donnelly (49), Niamh Moore for O'Brien (51), Amy Wilson for Rochford (60), Georgina Hearn for Butler (60), also Sinéad Whelan, Marguerite Doyle, Ann Byrne, Aoife Drennan, Cailín Fitzpatrick, Fiona Bennett, Chantelle Martin, Ciara Ryan, Lauren Cousins, Cathy O'Brien.

Laois: Fiona Kelly; Mags McEvoy (capt.), Jenny McEvoy, Alison McEvoy; Amy Potts, Ciara Hughes, Anna Healy; Laura Nerney (0-2), Jane Moore; Meghan Dunne, Clare Conlon (0-3, 2 frees), Erone Fitzpatrick (0-2); Maggie Murphy, Emma Lawlor (1-4), Ciara Burke. Subs. - Eva Galvin (1-0) for Murphy (31), Caoimhe Simms for Dunne (36).

Referee: Jonathan Murphy (Carlow).

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