Rampant Cork saunter to a runaway win
GAA Bord Gais Energy All-Ireland Under-21 Hurling Championship Semi-final: Cork 3-26 Wexford 0-13
The warm glow that followed Wexford's epic Leinster Under-21 final marathon with eventual winners Galway was only a fond distant memory in Nowlan Park, Kilkenny, on Saturday when a classy Cork side inflicted a crushing 22-point defeat on the underdogs in a complete mis-match.
Provincial runners-up were granted a second chance to reach the All-Ireland decider for the first time this year, but the losers never looked like availing of that opportunity as the polished Munster champions were superior to them in every line of the field.
Of course, the Wexford prospects had been dealt a considerable blow beforehand when confirmation came that the O'Connor cousins, Rory and Joe, were unable to line out owing to injury.
Rory's exploits as one of the finest young forwards in the game are well known at this stage, but in my view the loss of Joe was every bit as significant to this team.
Even star players have off nights, and that was the case with Rory in the Leinster semi-final against Dublin. Joe stepped up to deliver a match-winning performance on that particular evening and, without his display in Parnell Park, the Wexford campaign would have ended after one game.
Eoin Molloy, Oisín Foley and Mikie Dwyer all came into the starting team, with Stephen O'Gorman dropping to the bench. And the most notable of the positional changes saw Damien Reck deployed at centre-forward, presumably in a bid to inject some drive into that department in the absence of the O'Connors.
However, it was a classic case of robbing Peter to pay Paul, as Reck was moved first to midfield and then to left half-back after Cork surged into an unassailable 2-7 to 0-5 lead by the 19th minute.
On the night of that Leinster final epic in Portlaoise, after journeying home I watched the demolition of Tipperary in the Munster decider by the Leesiders.
They looked an accomplished outfit, and further evidence was provided on Saturday as they inflicted this unmerciful hammering on a Wexford side with no answers to their dominance.
The quality of the Cork puck-outs proved very impressive, with Ger Collins arrowing inch-perfect deliveries to their ball-winners in the half-forward line as Wexford struggled to cope.
Midfielders Mark Coleman and Darragh Fitzgibbon did more than enough to keep their side in the driving seat without having to deploy their highest gears at any stage, while their inside forward trio of Liam Healy, Tim O'Mahony and Jack O'Connor ran riot and picked off 3-7 from play between them.
That was three points more than the entire Wexford tally, with four of the starting forwards failing to make the scoresheet. Rarely, if ever, has a team gone from such heroics to this abysmal low in the space of one game, and it was difficult to derive anything of a positive nature from this defeat as the losers were given such a lesson.
They looked like they couldn't wait for the final whistle in a second-half that was lacking in intensity to such a degree that only five frees were awarded, three to Cork. That period included a four-minute delay when their centre-forward, Declan Dalton, was treated on the field for a knee injury that must make him a doubtful starter for the All-Ireland final against Galway or Tipperary on the last weekend of the month.
Wexford led twice early on, with a Seamus Casey free and Aaron Maddock's opener from play, after a lovely Casey handpass, arriving on either side of Dalton's first successful placed ball for the Rebels.
The initial big blow arrived in the sixth minute, and there was very little that netminder Jack Cushe could do about it.
John Cashman sent the ball into the right corner where Tim O'Mahony was outnumbered by Ian Carty and direct opponent Darren Byrne, but he still won possession and took off on a solo run before striking for goal. Cushe made the save, but the rebound was swept under his body and into the net by the inrushing full-forward (1-1 to 0-2).
An excellent interception by Mark Coleman ruled out a possible instant reply as Mikie Dwyer looked to find Rory Higgins with a handpass, and Cork quickly piled on the scores.
Wexford found it next to impossible to handle the opposition puck-outs, with Conor Firman fouling Shane Kingston after Liam Stafford struck a wide, and Dalton on target from the free.
Jack Cushe's re-start was latched on to by Kingston who bolted forward before finding Dalton with a pass. He in turn popped the ball to Darragh Fitgibbon whose shot was saved by the netminder, but it sat up invitingly and Tim O'Mahony first-timed it to the net (2-2 to 0-2).
Aaron Maddock managed a point in reply from a good pass outfield by Rory Higgins, but it was looking grim for Wexford even at that early stage because Cork were capable of grabbing scores with such ease.
By the time Damien Reck moved out of the attack, the score stood at 2-7 to 0-5 after Dalton (free and play), Kingston (two) and Jack O'Connor added Cork points, with Seamus Casey responding from a free plus an exquisite line ball on the right.
A super score from tight to the left sideline by O'Connor was followed by a swift response from Casey after a short Oisín Foley pass, but Cork's power and poise saw them surge into a 2-14 to 0-9 half-time lead without ever looking under any sort of pressure.
Dalton tacked on two frees on either side of a Damien Reck point, and the leaders almost added a third goal from an audacious attempt by Liam Healy in the 25th minute.
Jack Cushe lost possession a long way from goal, and he was relieved to see the corner-forward striking the ball mere inches over rather than under the bar.
Wexford also lost Shane Reck to a back injury, with Stephen O'Gorman coming on at centre-forward.
Conor Firman dropped into the right corner, with Gary Molloy and Damien Reck now flanking Ian Carty in the half-back line, while Rowan White partnered Aaron Maddock at midfield.
When White and Casey (free) pointed in the 27th and 30th minutes, it was the only time in the entire game that Wexford managed two scores in succession.
And with O'Mahony, O'Connor and Dalton (free) continuing to look dangerous, there was eleven points between the sides at half-time and effectively no way back.
Wing-forwards Oisín Foley and Liam Stafford were replaced by Conor Hearne and Darren Codd at the break, and a sloppy Wexford line ball almost led to another Cork goal inside 40 seconds of the re-start.
Thankfully, a rare handling error by O'Mahony put paid to that chance, but Cork showed they were in no mood to ease off as Kingston, Dalton and Kingston again added the first three points of the half (2-17 to 0-9).
Damien Reck pulled one back from a Conor Hearne handpass, but it mattered little at that stage, and even less after Cork did claim that third goal in the 39th minute.
Shane Kingston sent a crossfield ball in the direction of Tim O'Mahony who won his duel with Darren Byrne before setting up Liam Healy for a close-range finish.
Seamus Casey struck his second point from play in the 44th minute, and Wexford lost the last quarter by 0-9 to 0-2 which accurately summed up the gulf in ability between the teams.
Conor Hearne and Rowan White scored those points in the 53rd and 66th minutes respectively, but Cork substitute Conor Cahalane had an absolute field day. Wexford had given up the ghost to such an extent that he was allowed to roam around the pitch without anyone apparently marking him, picking off four points in the process.
It brought back unhappy memories of our last visit to Nowlan Park for an Under-21 game, the Leinster final of 2017 when Kilkenny eased home by 0-30 to 1-14.
The grade is no more after this year, which is an absolute shame in my view, as it will fall into line with football and become an Under-20 competition from 2019 onwards. It means that a lot of Saturday's side will be denied one last year at this level, and it was unfortunate to bow out on such a low note after those Leinster final exploits - albeit in defeat - had gained such approval among the Wexford fanbase.
Wexford: Jack Cushe (Naomh Eanna); Shane Reck (Oylegate-Glenbrien), Darren Byrne (Blackwater), Eoin Molloy (Naomh Eanna); Conor Firman (St. Martin's, capt.), Ian Carty (Taghmon-Camross), Rowan White (Glynn-Barntown, 0-2); Gary Molloy (Naomh Eanna), Aaron Maddock (St. Martin's, 0-2); Oisín Foley (Crossabeg-Ballymurn), Damien Reck (Oylegate-Glenbrien, 0-2), Liam Stafford (Adamstown); Seamus Casey (Oylegate-Glenbrien, 0-6, 3 frees, 1 line ball), Mikie Dwyer (Fethard), Rory Higgins (Rathnure). Subs. - Stephen O'Gorman (Taghmon-Camross) for S. Reck, inj. (25), Darren Codd (St. Martin's) for Stafford (HT), Conor Hearne (Shelmaliers, 0-1) for Foley (HT), Eoin Kelly (HWH-Bunclody) for Higgins (41), Jody Donohoe (Shelmaliers) for Byrne, inj. (46), also James Henebery (Faythe Harriers), Quinn Saunders (Our Lady's Island), Murtha Doyle (Oulart-The Ballagh), Daire Bolger (Rathgarogue-Cushinstown).
Cork: Ger Collins; Eoghan Murphy, Niall O'Leary, David Lowney; John Cashman, Ger Mellerick, Billy Hennessy; Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon; Robbie O'Flynn, Declan Dalton (0-8, 6 frees), Shane Kingston (capt., 0-4); Liam Healy (1-1), Tim O'Mahony (2-2), Jack O'Connor (0-4). Subs. - Conor Cahalane (0-4) for Mellerick (36), Aaron Myers (0-2 frees) for Dalton, inj. (52), Daire Connery for Fitzgibbon (55), Chris O'Leary (0-1) for Kingston (59), Conor O'Callaghan for Coleman (60).
Referee: Alan Kelly (Galway).