independent

Monday 23 April 2018

Mac lands two late points to sink champs

Wexford 1-23 Galway 0-23

Alan Aherne

Wexford’s Rory O’Connor takes aim for the posts as a grounded Jack
Coyne of Galway looks on
Wexford’s Rory O’Connor takes aim for the posts as a grounded Jack Coyne of Galway looks on
Conor McDonald doing what he does best by making a trademark catch

Wexford's stock in the hurling world rose to new heights before 7,200 enthralled spectators in Innovate Wexford Park on Saturday when reigning Allianz League champions Galway were dethroned in a glorious finish to this absorbing quarter-final clash.

The sides had been so close throughout that the prospect of extra-time loomed large moving into added time, but Conor McDonald had other ideas.

It has been a difficult campaign at times for the talented attacker, but when a real leader was needed he put up his hand and picked off two precious points to set up a semi-final at the same venue this coming Sunday versus Kilkenny (2 p.m.).

Conor Whelan had almost single-handedly kept the league and All-Ireland champions in contention with his individual brilliance, and his fifth point from play just under 80 seconds into the three added minutes left Wexford clinging to a 1-21 to 0-23 lead.

All eyes were on Mark Fanning's long puck-out to the Clonard end, and it was plucked from the clouds by McDonald with one of his trademark catches before the Gorey forward hit it high and handsome between the posts.

There was more to come roughly 50 seconds later after a ruck developed under the stand, with McDonald latching on to possession of the breaking ball and making space before arrowing over another vital point.

Galway had one last slim chance to force extra-time when Matthew O'Hanlon fouled Cathal Mannion to prevent a possible goal chance. Joe Canning was faced by seven men on the line as he lined up his free from slightly to the right of the posts, but Mark Fanning got his stick behind it and the immediate final whistle from Fergal Horgan was sweet music to the ears.

Wexford had proved that they are more than capable of holding their own with the big guns in the group games, but this was another upward step on their learning curve.

A knockout match against the best team in the land in 2017 represented an acid test of their capabilities, and they came through it with flying colours.

The growing maturity within the ranks was evident and was arguably the most pleasing aspect of all, as Wexford didn't panic coming down the home straight when the collective composure shown was so crucial in getting the team over the line.

The pitch was littered with star performers, and none operated better than Pádraig Foley who capped a powerful defensive display with an impressive five-point haul.

Midfielder Kevin Foley continues to blossom and his stickwork was sublime, while the first-half featured four fine catches by Jack O'Connor from Mark Fanning puck-outs to the delight of the large Wexford following.

The younger of the O'Connor brothers, Rory, couldn't have asked for a tougher assignment when he lined out at midfield for the throw-in with hurler of the year Joe Canning beside him, but he came through a big test with aplomb and his distribution was first class.

It wasn't all plain sailing either, because Wexford lost Damien Reck to an injury as early as the 14th minute, while five of their seven first-half wides were from frees taken by Lee Chin (two), Pádraig Foley and Rory O'Connor (two).

In contrast, some of the point-taking from general play was first rate, with beauties by Foley and the two O'Connors preceding McDonald's brace of late clinching scores.

The game zipped along at a lively pace from the off, with Galway's first visit to the venue since 2005 an interesting prelude to the championship clash there on June 2.

An intercepted handpass led to a Johnny Coen point after 24 seconds, but the first of those Jack O'Connor catches after a wide by Conor Cooney led to Lee Chin striking the equaliser from a free.

Joe Canning was held scoreless from play but registered the first of his ten placed balls, with the sides striking two wides apiece before Kevin Foley levelled from a Chin handpass.

While the Faythe Harriers star had missed two placed balls beforehand, it didn't upset him in general play and those close-in duties were handed over to Rory O'Connor.

A lovely flowing move of handpasses featuring Chin, Kevin Foley and David Dunne ended with Diarmuid O'Keeffe popping up on the right for a point to give Wexford the lead for the first time in the twelfth minute.

Conor Whelan responded immediately, with Damien Reck aggravating his injury in the process, and Willie Devereux entered the fray as a booming 85-metre free from Pádraig Foley split the posts for a 4-3 lead.

The nip and tuck nature of the exchanges continued, with Joseph Cooney pointing from the puck-out before Rory O'Connor restored the lead after Lee Chin was fouled on a solo run.

Mark Fanning darted off his line to make a tight angle near the endline impossible for Galway captain David Burke, but a foul on Pádraig Mannion after he caught the puck-out was punished by Joe Canning (0-5 each).

Canning missed his next free from long range, but Rory O'Connor made no mistake after big brother Jack caught Fanning's re-start and the free that arose was brought closer to goal for dissent.

The first two-point gap appeared courtesy of Diarmuid O'Keeffe who appeared all alone this time on the left rather than the right to make the most of a pinpoint Rory O'Connor pass (0-7 to 0-5).

Rory added to the lead from a free after Adrian Tuohey was booked for a high challenge on Conor McDonald, but that Wexford purple patch was followed by something similar from Galway.

Indeed, they registered four points on the bounce in less than five minutes, with Johnny Coen, Conor Whelan and a brace from Cathal Mannion restoring their lead (0-9 to 0-8).

The game's only goal came after some quick thinking from a line ball by Jack O'Connor. He played it short to Paul Morris whose handpass to his left found Rory O'Connor arriving at pace off his shoulder.

A gap appeared in front of the St. Martin's lad that was too inviting to ignore and, although James Skehill got his stick to his head-high shot, Conor McDonald read the flight of the break to perfection and swept it to the net.

Rory O'Connor, Diarmuid O'Keeffe and Kevin Foley linked up before Lee Chin made it 1-9 to 0-9 on the next attack, but a late Canning free and '65 left Wexford one point to the good at half-time.

Galway resumed with serious intent as Cathal Mannion, Johnny Coen and Canning (free) grabbed the first three points, but Wexford's response was excellent.

A long-distance free from Pádraig Foley was the first of four scores on the trot, with Jack O'Connor flicking the ball away from David Burke before planting a beauty between the posts off his left side.

Foley then repeated the dose before Kevin Foley intercepted a handpass by substitute Seán Loftus and left Wexford with a 1-13 to 0-14 advantage.

A successful Canning free drew an immediate response, with Matthew O'Hanlon catching the puck-out in an advanced position and setting up Diarmuid O'Keeffe for his third point.

Conor Whelan's point was followed by a monster score from play by Pádraig Foley, but Canning's free-taking accuracy made it a one-point game yet again (1-15 to 0-17).

Liam Ryan found himself in space after knocking the ball away from Whelan on the left, and his point came two minutes before a key incident midway through the half.

Jack O'Connor was yellow-carded for a foul on Canning, but Jack Coyne's swipe across Diarmuid O'Keeffe after the whistle was blown was spotted by the town end umpires and the Galway newcomer was shown a straight red card.

That may have made it advantage Wexford, but the holders didn't give up their crown without one hell of a battle.

What was most telling, though, was the refusal of the home side to let Galway edge ahead again.

They managed to level at one stage, but that was as good as it got for them as Wexford invariably came up with a strong response.

Aidan Nolan's first involvement after coming on was to latch on to a superb Lee Chin pass and set up Pádraig Foley for a goal chance, but the wing-back's piledriver flew over the bar.

The Wexford defensive system broke down momentarily when Jason Flynn was left all alone for the easiest point of the afternoon, and Whelan duly equalised during a spell when Kevin Foley and Rory O'Connor struck wides (1-17 to 0-20).

A long-range O'Connor point from a Chin handpass was absolutely crucial in the 61st minute, and he followed it with a tap-over free after John Hanbury was booked for a crude foul to deny Aidan Nolan a goal chance.

Kevin Foley could have wrapped it up in the 65th minute after taking a handpass from namesake Pádraig, but his low shot into the ground from close range was somehow kept out by James Skehill.

Another Joe Canning free from distance left the minimum between the sides once more, with Aidan Nolan firing a sloppy wide before Harry Kehoe's first touch after his arrival was a fine point from a Chin handpass (1-20 to 0-21).

Canning's last successful free followed, with the puck-out finding Conor McDonald who was forced outfield with the ball on the ground.

However, he eventually got it to Rory O'Connor whose second point from play left two in it with almost one of the three added minutes played.

Conor Whelan's fifth point, from an Adrian Tuohey clearance, heightened the likelihood of extra-time, but that was before McDonald picked off the scores that sparked another pitch invasion in what is shaping up to be a year full of promise for the Wexford hurlers.

It's a measure of the progress made to suggest that most supporters will be bitterly disappointed if they don't secure another win on home soil against Kilkenny on Sunday afternoon.

That's certainly well within the capabilities of a group growing in confidence and with a shrewd manager at the helm. Wexford haven't been in a league final since the 1993 trilogy against Cork, and these players are well capable of bridging that long gap.

The winners hit eleven wides to Galway's 13, and were awarded 15 of the 27 frees. Jack Coyne had picked up a yellow card prior to his straight red, and bookings were also administered to Simon Donohoe, Jack O'Connor and Lee Chin along with Galway's Adrian Tuohey, Johnny Coen, Pádraig Mannion, John Hanbury and Jason Flynn.

Wexford: Mark Fanning; Damien Reck, Liam Ryan (0-1), Simon Donohoe; Shaun Murphy; Diarmuid O'Keeffe (0-3), Matthew O'Hanlon (joint capt.), Pádraig Foley (0-5, 3 frees); Kevin Foley (0-2), Rory O'Connor (0-6, 4 frees); Jack O'Connor (0-1), David Dunne, Lee Chin (0-2, 1 free); Paul Morris, Conor McDonald (1-2). Subs. - Willie Devereux for Reck, inj. (14), Aidan Nolan for Dunne (54), Harry Kehoe (0-1) for J. O'Connor (68), Cathal Dunbar for Morris (68).

Galway: James Skehill; John Hanbury, Jack Grealish; Pádraig Mannion; Adrian Tuohey, Gearóid McInerney, Aidan Harte; Johnny Coen (0-3), Joe Canning (0-10, 9 frees, 1 '65); Joseph Cooney (0-1), Cathal Mannion (0-3), Jack Coyne; David Burke (capt.), Conor Cooney, Conor Whelan (0-5). Subs. - 27 for Grealish (HT), Jason Flynn (0-1) for Burke (58), Brian Concannon for J. Cooney (69).

Referee: Fergal Horgan (Tipperary).

Wexford People