O'Connor leads Minor charge
Wexford respond well to adversity to brush Offaly aside
The winning margin of eleven points wasn't the most impressive aspect of Wexford's qualification for a first Electric Ireland Leinster Minor hurling championship final since 2012 when they overcame Offaly in sun-splashed O'Connor Park, Tullamore, on Saturday.
Wexford 2-24 Offaly 2-13
Rather it was the encouraging response to adversity displayed by the visitors when their rivals hit 1-2 without reply midway through the second-half to reduce the gap between the teams from seven points to two.
The momentum had shifted in Offaly's direction and it was a true test of the mettle of this promising Wexford team. There's a lot more to be learned about a group's capabilities when they come under some pressure, and the response from Eamonn Scallan's charges was emphatic as they outscored the opposition by 1-9 to 0-3 in the last twelve minutes plus added time.
Offaly will rue a couple of wides from Eimhin Kelly and Conor Langton after they had narrowed the gap to 1-15 to 2-10, as they undoubtedly stalled their recovery.
And it wasn't surprising that the classiest player on the field stamped his authority on proceedings once again in the 48th minute. Rory O'Connor has been lighting up hurling fields at club and county level of late with the quality of his stickwork, movement and, most importantly of all, finishing.
And he duly delivered once more to get back Wexford on course. While his first shot on goal was blocked by a defender's body, he was teed up again by Liam Stafford and made no mistake to push Wexford clear by 2-15 to 2-10.
O'Connor gave an exhibition of score-taking throughout, with 2-6 of the 2-10 he amassed coming from play, and he has now contributed a marvellous 3-27 in the three outings en route to a Leinster final clash with Dublin in Croke Park on July 3.
The Dubs may have fallen to Wexford after extra-time in the previous round, but they were the superior side in the additional 20 minutes again required in Parnell Park on Saturday as they dumped Kilkenny out of the race for honours. In reality, there was nothing between the finalists when they met in Innovate Wexford Park recently, so another close contest is to be expected.
The Slaneysiders couldn't have asked for a better start, with the prolific Conor Hearne and Damien Reck (free) picking off points before the first goal arrived in the fourth minute. Reck directed another free from long range to the left of the square, and it bounced invitingly for Rory O'Connor who duly swept it into the far corner of the net with a powerful first-time strike (1-2 to nil).
Offaly rallied well and had the gap down to three (1-5 to 0-5) by the 22nd minute. A harsh overcarrying call against Ciarán Murphy led to their first point from free-taker Eoin Woods, but Rory O'Connor cancelled that out after gratefully accepting a stray Offaly handpass.
The respective number 13s, David Buckley and O'Connor, swapped points before Liam Stafford and Quinn Saunders were denied goal chances in quick succession, with the ball swept downfield where Offaly midfielder David Nally narrowed the gap to 1-4 to 0-3.
Another free from distance was converted by Damien Reck before Quinn Saunders didn't get enough power behind his second attempt on goal.
Offaly managed two scores on the trot for the first time, courtesy of Eimhin Kelly and David Nally (free) to leave them trailing by a goal (1-5 to 0-5), with the fourth and final Wexford wide of the opening half (they had eight in all) posted in between by Reck from a free.
Six of the last eight points before the break were registered by the visitors, leaving them with a healthy double scores interval lead of 1-11 to 0-7. Three in a row came from Conor Hearne, Damien Reck (play and free) before Offaly's Joey Keenaghan briefly halted their gallop, but a short line ball by Barry O'Connor led to another point for his first cousin, Rory, who followed up with another from a free.
While Aaron Maher pulled a point back for Offaly, Connal Flood latched on to James Henebery's puck-out and duly delivered his first score to leave seven between them at half-time.
Wexford built on that lead when play resumed, with Rory O'Connor punishing a foul on Damien Reck by splitting the posts before Andy Walsh made it 1-13 to 0-7 from a Quinn Saunders ground pass.
Eoin Woods pulled one back from a free before the first sign of hope for the home side arrived in the 37th minute. Full-back Darren Byrne was yellow carded for a challenge on Woods as they contested a long free from David Nally, and the penalty which arose was dispatched to James Henebery's left by the full-forward (1-13 to 1-8).
The response from Wexford was strong as Rory O'Connor posted a lovely point from the wing shortly after striking a wide before Conor Hearne showed what he is best at: ghosting unmarked into a good position and duly picking off a point. The centre-forward has now scored 1-12 from play in three games which is a tremendous tally.
If Wexford thought those two points were enough to shake off the opposition, they were mistaken though. Offaly deserve credit for another spirited burst, with Eoin Woods converting a free before Conor Langton released corner-forward Aaron Kenny and he scampered away from danger prior to planting the ball in the net.
Damien Reck had been the dominant midfielder from the word go, but Offaly's David Nally suddenly came into his own in that department and crowned his good work with a solo point. The gap was down to 1-15 to 2-10 entering the final quarter, and now was the time to see what Wexford were really made of.
That second Rory O'Connor goal provided the answer, and it was relatively plain sailing thereafter. Lively substitute Liam Pender and Eoin Woods (free) swapped points before six without reply in just over six minutes well and truly put the contest to bed.
Conor Hearne, Rory O'Connor (three, one free), Liam Pender and Connal Flood did the damage, leaving Offaly to reluctantly accept their fate in the first clash between the counties at this stage since 2003 when Wexford lost by twelve points.
The last four points were shared, with Barry and Rory O'Connor (free) responding to efforts from Eimhin Kelly and Conor Langton.
Wexford are very dangerous in full attacking mode, while the defence was well marshalled by Conor Firman who is a third-year Minor. A familiar foe awaits in the provincial final, and a lot of hard work will be needed between now and July 3 to bring the title home as any team capable of dumping a Kilkenny side backboned by All-Ireland winners from St. Kieran's College has an impressive pedigree.
Wexford: James Henebery; Ciarán Murphy, Darren Byrne, Eoin Molloy; Gary Molloy, Conor Firman, Michael Codd; Barry O'Connor (0-1), Damien Reck (0-4, 3 frees); Liam Stafford, Conor Hearne (0-4), Connal Flood (0-2); Rory O'Connor (capt., 2-10, 0-4 frees), Andy Walsh (0-1), Quinn Saunders. Subs. - Liam Pender (0-2) for Walsh, inj. (41), Jack Cullen for Codd (51), Theo Doyle for Stafford (53), also Jack Cushe, Conor Scallan, Cormac Byrne, Eoin O'Leary, Finn O'Driscoll, Jack Devereux.
Offaly: Willie Malone; Stephen Leonard, Ciarán Burke, Fergal Hanamy; Peter Walsh, Eoghan Callaghan (capt.), Dylan Watkins; David Nally (0-3, 1 free), Aaron Maher (0-1); David Buckley (0-1), Eimhin Kelly (0-2), Joey Keenaghan (0-1); Karl Guinan, Eoin Woods (1-4, 0-4 frees, 1-0 pen.), Aaron Kenny (1-0). Subs. - Barry Kealey for Maher (HT), Michael Ryan for Hanamy (HT), Conor Langton (0-1) for Guinan (34), Michael Cleary for Buckley (44), Stephen Malone for Nally, inj. (59).
Referee: Michael O'Sullivan (Kilkenny).