Wednesday 17 January 2018

Minors in extra-time agony

Cunning Cats edge tight contest but all is not yet lost

Alan Aherne

Joe O'Connor of Wexford gets his shot away despite the attempted hook by Kilkenny's John Donnelly
Joe O'Connor of Wexford gets his shot away despite the attempted hook by Kilkenny's John Donnelly
Ian Carty applies strong pressure on Kilkenny midfielder Joe Connolly, a first cousin of Dublin footballer Diarmuid who won another National League medal on Sunday
Rowan White tries to break away from Kilkenny midfielder Richie Leahy

Typical, just typical. That was the frustrated reaction voiced by many in a damp and gloomy Innovate Wexford Park on Saturday when the Wexford Minor hurlers succumbed by one point to age-old nemesis Kilkenny in the Electric Ireland Leinster championship, leaving them with one last chance to make the semi-finals.

Kilkenny 1-18 - Wexford 1-17 (AET)

For a long time it looked as though we were about to witness a first victory over our neighbours at this level on home soil since our sole previous triumph in 1946 when Wexford prevailed by 4-1 to 0-6 in New Ross. The Kilkenny attack had made little headway with the wind in the second-half, but the concession of a sloppy goal brought them back to within a point of the Slaneysiders with eight minutes left.

A Ciarán O'Connor free doubled that advantage for Wexford, and it was only in added time that the young Cats grabbed a brace of points from placed balls to force the extra 20 minutes. The second indiscretion, in the left corner on Richie Leahy, looked debatable, but Andrew Gaffney showed nerves of steel on a difficult day for free-takers and split the posts (1-13 each).

They were still deadlocked at the break in extra-time, with Kilkenny taking the lead on three occasions against the wind, only to be hauled back. Their decision to switch Daniel O'Connor from the '40 to full-forward paid off as he scored the first two and also came close to adding a goal, but the impressive Rowan White and free-taker Ciarán O'Connor responded for Wexford.

And it was still all to play for in the last ten minutes after a further exchange of points between Andrew Gaffney and O'Connor. Substitute Darren Codd drew first blood from a Mikey Dwyer handpass just over two minutes after the re-start, with a brace of '65s from Ciarán O'Connor proving fruitless before Gaffney nailed one at the other end with the wind on his side.

The point which ultimately won the game for Kilkenny could have been avoided, with a Wexford forward opting for one lateral pass too many which was mopped up by Kilkenny. Seconds later Daniel O'Connor brought his extra-time tally to three points and the unfortunate home side didn't get an opportunity to force a replay.

Now Wexford must pick up the pieces in a quarter-final on May 9 against the side they conquered in the Leinster league final, Westmeath, knowing that the second chances are gone and it will require two wins on the bounce to reach the provincial decider.

While they will go into that next match heartened by the level of performance against Kilkenny, at the same time it was naturally disappointing to come so close to a second win in three years over our arch-rivals after the success of the 2013 crew in Nowlan Park.

Wexford have never beaten Kilkenny in the Minor championship at Saturday's venue, and this was the closest they have come since the drawn game 19 years ago. They opened brightly playing with the wind into the Clonard end, with the decision to move Rowan White from wing-back to right half-forward paying off as his pace and direct running posed endless problems.

Wexford held a deserved 0-5 to 0-1 lead by the tenth minute, with Ciarán O'Connor (three, two frees), Seamus Casey and White on target, while the first two of 13 wides overall were also posted (Kilkenny had nine). Midfielder Richie Leahy had soloed through but shot low and to the right of the posts in the second minute, with free-taker Andrew Gaffney getting them off the mark.

Scores from Gaffney (free) and John Donnelly brought Kilkenny closer, and it was 0-6 to 0-4 by the end of the first quarter after O'Connor and Gaffney exchanged further points.

O'Connor widened the gap to three after Mikey Dwyer was upended following a run and handpass to his right from Rowan White in the 16th minute. Aaron Maddock and Jack Pettit were then involved in setting up Ian Carty to give Wexford a double scores lead, with Damien Reck brought on shortly after to pick up Andrew Gaffney who had drifted out from his corner-forward berth against the wind.

Mikey Dwyer managed to direct a ground ball towards goal with Kilkenny netminder Shane Murphy wrong-footed in the 21st minute, but corner-back Conor Doheny got back to get it out for a '65 which Ciarán O'Connor converted (0-9 to 0-4).

Dwyer was again picked out by Rowan White but his overhead pull went wide just as the heavens opened in the 26th minute, and the gap was down to four by the break (10-6) after a long-range Joe O'Connor point was sandwiched in between Kilkenny efforts from John Donnelly and free-taker Gaffney.

Darren Codd replaced Ian Carty at half-time, with Joe O'Connor soloing through from the throw-in but succumbing to a hook at the vital moment. Just 39 seconds in though the Wexford supporters were cheering loudly after Seamus Casey gathered a crossfield pass in the left corner, took on his marker and planted a low shot past Shane Murphy to make it 1-10 to 0-6.

That goal was the perfect tonic playing into the wind, and although Wexford didn't score again in the third quarter, the backs were most effective in general play and Kilkenny had to work very hard for the four points they pulled back. Centre-back Darragh Joyce - who had encountered eight of his Good Counsel colleagues by the end - set the comeback in motion from long distance, but none of his forward colleagues managed a score from play in that spell which was a tribute to the diligent Wexford sextet.

It was left to free-taker Andrew Gaffney to convert three chances to make it 1-10 to 0-10, while Mikey Dwyer had a head-high shot saved by Shane Murphy - the New Ross V.C. student who played outfield for the Wexford Combined Colleges - in that spell. Scores weren't easy to come by in the worsening conditions, but Wexford's barren period of 15 minutes ended when hard work by Jack Pettit set up Darren Codd to extend the gap to four.

Ciarán O'Connor then made it five after a foul on Mikey Dwyer, with Niall Walsh - one of seven St. Kieran's players on view - pulling back a Kilkenny point before they pounced for their goal which might have been avoided in better weather conditions. A scramble developed close to goal after a defender stumbled and failed to clear his lines, with Daniel O'Connor winning possession and feeding the lurking Andrew Gaffney who drove his low shot to the net (1-12 to 1-11).

A foul on substitute Rory O'Connor in the right corner was punished by his namesake Ciarán, and Seamus Casey nearly got on the end of a Mikey Dwyer cross as the tension mounted. Rory O'Connor saw a point attempt come back off the post and Jack Pettit hit a wide before Andrew Gaffney converted a free from the right flank over 70 seconds into added time.

Kilkenny substitute Edmund Delaney then hit an effort short to netminder Oisín Foley, but the ball wasn't cleared properly and the action developed in the left corner where Richie Leahy appeared fortunate to earn a free when faced by two opponents. The pressure was on Gaffney to convert, but he made no mistake with the clock reading 33 minutes and 12 seconds to force extra-time.

Remarkably, Kilkenny didn't lead in the game until 21 seconds after the re-start when Daniel O'Connor obliged with the first of his three points. It was nip and tuck from then right up to the very last ball, and the Wexford lads should hold their heads high for the contribution they made to an engrossing 80 minutes.

Wexford: Oisín Foley (Crossabeg-Ballymurn); David Clarke (Glynn-Barntown), Brian Quigley (Rathnure), Seán Barden (Adamstown); Ciarán Kirwan (Faythe Harriers), Aaron Maddock (St. Martin's, capt.), Conor Firman (St. Martin's); Ciarán O'Connor (Rathnure, 0-10, 8 frees, 1 '65), Joe O'Connor (St. Martin's, 0-1); Rowan White (Glynn-Barntown, 0-2), Jack Pettit (Our Lady's Island), Ian Carty (Taghmon-Camross, 0-1); Stephen O'Gorman (Taghmon-Camross), Mikey Dwyer (Fethard), Seamus Casey (Oylegate-Glenbrien, 1-1). Subs. - Damien Reck (Oylegate-Glenbrien) for Clarke (21), Darren Codd (St. Martin's, 0-2) for Carty (HT), Rory O'Connor (St. Martin's) for Reck (52), Stephen Stafford (Taghmon-Camross) for O'Gorman (60), Bob Whitty (Cloughbawn) for Casey (66), Jason Dunne (Rathgarogue-Cushinstown) for Stafford (75).

Kilkenny: Shane Murphy; Conor Doheny, Tommy Walsh, Cathal McGrath; Michael Cody, Darragh Joyce (0-1), Ryan Bergin; Richie Leahy, Joe Connolly; Conor Hennessy, Daniel O'Connor (capt., 0-3), Ross Butler; Robbie Murphy, John Donnelly (0-2), Andrew Gaffney (1-11, 0-10 frees, 0-1 '65). Subs. - Tadhg O'Dwyer for R. Murphy (HT), Shane Mahony for Bergin (HT), Niall Walsh (0-1) for Hennessy (43), Edmund Delaney for Connolly (48), Robbie Murphy for Butler (73).

Referee: Michael Murtagh (Westmeath).

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