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Monday 26 August 2019

Title dream dies despite fantastic effort

All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Semi-final: Tipperary 1-28 Wexford 3-20

Tipperary attacker John O’Dwyer holds off the challenge of Wexford’s Damien Reck during Sunday’s epic semi-final in Croke Park
Tipperary attacker John O’Dwyer holds off the challenge of Wexford’s Damien Reck during Sunday’s epic semi-final in Croke Park

Alan Aherne in Croke Park

The Wexford hurlers left absolutely everything they had on the field in the frenetic exchanges in a pulsating Croke Park cauldron on Sunday, but sadly it wasn't enough to deliver a first All-Ireland championship final appearance since the glory year of 1996.

The Leinster titleholders lost their way to 14-man Tipperary with the finishing line in sight, being outscored by 0-12 to 1-2 from the 49th minute onwards as the Premier county set up a traditional clash in the decider with neighbours Kilkenny.

It was a gut-wrenching defeat after Wexford had made such a mammoth contribution to a truly absorbing contest that left the 61,852 attendance captivated from an early stage.

With some incredibly sub-standard refereeing from Seán Cleere for a game of this magnitude adding to the drama, it meant the followers scarcely had time to draw breath as one talking point followed another.

However, in the cold light of day, Wexford can harbour no complaints regarding the outcome, as they were unable to capitalise on having an extra man after Tipperary's John McGrath collected a second yellow card for a nasty slap on Damien Reck in the 45th minute.

It was a drawn game at that stage (1-16 each), and Davy Fitzgerald's men did capitalise initially as they added the next 1-2 without reply to put them in a potential game-winning position.

Liam Ryan latched on to a loose Tipperary clearance after a scramble around their square and set up Rory O'Connor for the lead point, while Jack O'Connor then split the posts from long-range after Pádraig Foley intercepted an opposition free.

The situation improved even more in the 49th minute when Liam Óg McGovern and Shaun Murphy combined to free Lee Chin in space, and the joint captain thought long and hard about his next move as he soloed in before planting the ball in the net past Brian Hogan (2-18 to 1-16).

Cool heads were now called for, as Wexford had a golden opportunity to reach a final and they don't come around too often.

What followed will prompt a lot of head-scratching, debate and post-mortems over the days and weeks to follow.

When Wexford were motoring at their best in the first-half and they took the game to Tipperary, they had support runners appearing all over the field, and the Munster runners-up were struggling to cope with that movement.

And yet, even with a spare man, in the closing stages it looked like it was the eventual victors with the numerical advantage as they were able to pick out players in open spaces whereas Wexford appeared to be out on their feet.

The only conclusion to be drawn is that they had expended so much effort up to the 50-minute mark that they simply hadn't anything left in reserve.

Defenders Shaun Murphy and Damien Reck were forced off with injuries, and that also highlighted another telling factor in the outcome as Tipperary enjoyed a significantly better return from their bench, with four fresh faces picking off a point apiece.

The blue and gold were staring at the abyss in the form of that 2-18 to 1-16 deficit, but Wexford started to lose their way between the 51st and 57th minutes when they conceded five points on the bounce.

It was difficult to understand how Seamus Callanan could find himself in such glorious isolation on the Hogan Stand side to kick-start that comeback, and Jason Forde also found room to quickly add another point.

Willie Connors scooped the ball into the path of John O'Dwyer to make it 2-18 to 1-19, with Forde slotting over a free after being fouled by Matthew O'Hanlon before substitute Ger Browne fired over with a goal on his mind after a move featuring the excellent Noel McGrath, and Barry Heffernan.

Forde didn't get hold of his next free, and that led to a Wexford clearance and a very well-worked move for their third goal.

Aidan Nolan found David Dunne whose burst of pace opened up the defence before he parted to Paul Morris. The Ferns man thought about shooting himself but, instead, crossed for Conor McDonald who netted from close range amid suspicions that he was in the square beforehand.

Referee Cleere seemed indecisive - not for the first, nor last, time - and Tipperary maor fóirne Tommy Dunne sprinted to the scene to ensure that his Wexford counterpart, Seoirse Bulfin, had some company as the umpires were consulted.

After what seemed like an age, the goal was awarded and the siege had been lifted - temporarily, as it happened.

The 3-18 to 1-21 lead was followed by a catch and wide from McDonald, and a rapidly tiring Wexford couldn't garner any extra momentum from the goal as they were outpointed 7-2 down the home straight by their rampant rivals.

Tipperary drew energy from their section of the crowd as Noel McGrath fired over two beauties at a critical juncture, before Mark Kehoe posted the leveller in the 65th minute (1-24 to 3-18).

A long Mark Fanning free dropped short before a tackle on Lee Chin robbed him of the ball when he had plans to solo goalwards.

Fanning then gathered a hopeful Alan Flynn strike and was fouled, and the lead was restored from a Chin free after heavy pressure on Pádraic Maher as he tried to thunder out of defence was rewarded.

Nine seconds from the end of normal time, a Pádraig Foley catch was followed by a loose Matthew O'Hanlon handpass, and Willie Connors nipped in for the leveller (1-25 to 3-19).

The Tipperary fans were apoplectic early in the six added minutes when Jake Morris had the ball in the net, but referee Cleere hadn't played any advantage for a foul by Liam Ryan on Seamus Callanan.

It was one of several very poor calls from an official not up to All-Ireland semi-final standard, and the Munster men had to be content with a tap-over free from Forde instead.

Kevin Foley then deflected an attempt on goal by Callanan out for a '65 that Forde converted, and the two-point gap that score created was as good as 20 at that stage of the game.

Lee Chin was fouled after Cathal Barrett lost possession, and he knocked over the free to make it 1-27 to 3-20 with just over four added minutes played.

When Pádraig Foley caught the puck-out, he fed Aidan Nolan who directed a long ball towards Chin in the right corner.

However, Tipperary's Brendan Maher was fouled, and that gave them precious breathing space before Brian Hogan's long free found Under-20 star Jake Morris for a classy insurance point from the left.

A Brendan Maher wide brought down the curtain on a game with so many twists, turns and moments of controversy that it will be remembered for a long time to come, similar to the Kilkenny versus Limerick clash less than 24 hours earlier on a golden weekend for neutral followers of the game.

Damien Reck returned from injury to replace his brother, Shane, in the only change from the Leinster final-winning team.

He man-marked John McGrath, with Liam Ryan on Callanan, and Matthew O'Hanlon on Forde, to complete Wexford's full-back line.

A half-back trio of Donohoe, Pádraig Foley and Shaun Murphy were pitted against Niall O'Meara, Noel McGrath and John O'Dwyer respectively, with Diarmuid O'Keeffe and Liam Óg McGovern facing Michael Breen and Dan McCormack in midfield.

Wexford's two inside men, Rory O'Connor and Paul Morris, were marked by Brendan Maher and Cathal Barrett respectively, and that left Jack O'Connor, Lee Chin and Conor McDonald to contend with Seamus Kennedy, Barry Heffernan and Ronan Maher in the half-forward sector.

With Pádraic Maher and Kevin Foley sweeping at either end, the scene was set for a game that roared to life from the off and had all the intensity and crunching exchanges that one would expect from a clash of this magnitude.

Matthew O'Hanlon had won the toss, and Wexford got the start they needed with a long-range Pádraig Foley point from a Jack O'Connor feed after just twelve seconds.

Ronan Maher equalised before Diarmuid O'Keeffe was picked out in space for the first of several occasions in the opening half by Lee Chin, who had caught the puck-out.

While the St. Anne's man over-hit his cross for Rory O'Connor, the latter made the most of it and restored the lead after some neat footwork and creation of space.

A brilliant solo point by Liam Ryan off the hurl rose the crowd and also highlighted the problems Tipperary faced in tracking runners throughout that opening half.

A Jack O'Connor solo created a goal chance for Shaun Murphy whose attempt was blocked by Ronan Maher, but Lee Chin maintained the pressure by converting the '65 (0-4 to 0-1).

Jason Forde (free) pulled a point back before a foul on Matthew O'Hanlon was clearly whistled before the ball ended in Mark Fanning's net in the eighth minute.

However, the next time the sliothar struck the rigging, it most definitely counted, and it came from a very likely source.

Forde played a crossfield pass to Niall O'Meara who posed a lot of first-half problems for Simon Donohoe without getting on the scoresheet. On this occasion, his long handpass hopped once, and that was enough for the Tipperary captain to maintain his record of at least one goal in every game in this championship with a memorable first-time drive (1-2 to 0-4).

Damien Reck and John McGrath received yellow cards for some off-the-ball antics before a Forde free was met with a couple of positive responses from Paul Morris and Liam Óg McGovern.

The respective number eights, Noel McGrath and Kevin Foley, swapped points before a Forde free was followed by a wasted goal opportunity for Wexford in the 20th minute.

Matthew O'Hanlon found Diarmuid O'Keeffe all alone with a crossfield pass, but he opted for a safe point when a clear opening existed to create an overlap (0-8 to 1-5).

Wexford did go for the jugular on their next raid featuring O'Keeffe and Simon Donohoe, but Rory O'Connor's piledriver was knocked over the bar by the alert Brian Hogan.

Chin and Forde exchanged frees, before the Slaneysiders registered their first goal in the 25th minute.

Paul Morris did well on two would-be tacklers initially down the left, before Shaun Murphy dinked a lovely pass towards the far post for Conor McDonald to gather and drive home via Hogan's hurl (1-10 to 1-6).

Tipperary almost replied in a flash, but Fanning made a good save from John McGrath, and Jason Forde had to be content with pointing the '65.

A huge moment of controversy followed, after Hogan caught a long-range Chin free behind his own crossbar.

For some reason, the play continued to such an extent that there was time for Tipperary to launch a delivery goalwards that ended with the ball nestling in Mark Fanning's net.

However, rather than bringing them level, the Hawkeye adjudication on that Chin placed ball was a Wexford point to open up a 1-11 to 1-7 advantage.

Tipperary may have been stung, but it didn't show in their response as Noel McGrath, Ronan Maher and Seamus Callanan made it a one-point game by the 35th minute.

Cathal Barrett and Jack O'Connor were booked before Lee Chin converted a free, and Wexford ended the half with a deserved 1-14 to 1-12 lead after Diarmuid O'Keeffe and Chin (free) responded to scores from John O'Dwyer and Jason Forde.

Tipperary were level inside 80 seconds on the re-start thanks to the same duo, and the spoils were shared on another two occasions before that John McGrath dismissal.

Conor McDonald and Paul Morris had registered for Wexford, the latter after keeping the ball in play superbly close to the left corner before going outfield to make a better angle for himself.

When a team sees the opposition lose a man, and then adds 1-2 on the trot to lead by five with 20 minutes left, they would appear to hold all the aces.

That's what we all thought at the time, but dreams were shattered in that tension-filled finale as Tipperary, to their credit, produced some outstanding hurling to get them over the line.

Wexford: Mark Fanning; Damien Reck, Liam Ryan (0-1), Matthew O'Hanlon (joint capt.); Kevin Foley (0-1); Simon Donohoe, Pádraig Foley (0-1), Shaun Murphy; Liam Óg McGovern (0-1), Diarmuid O'Keeffe (0-2); Jack O'Connor (0-1), Lee Chin (joint capt., 1-7, 0-6 frees, 0-1 '65), Conor McDonald (2-1); Rory O'Connor (0-3), Paul Morris (0-2). Subs. - Aidan Nolan for Murphy, inj. (52), Joe O'Connor for Reck, inj. (56), David Dunne for J. O'Connor (58), Cathal Dunbar for R. O'Connor (64).

Tipperary: Brian Hogan; Cathal Barrett, Brendan Maher; Pádraic Maher; Ronan Maher (0-2), Barry Heffernan, Seamus Kennedy; Dan McCormack, Michael Breen (0-1); John O'Dwyer (0-3), Noel McGrath (0-4), Niall O'Meara; Jason Forde (0-12, 9 frees, 1 '65), Seamus Callanan (capt., 1-2), John McGrath. Subs. - Willie Connors (0-1) for McCormack (52), Ger Browne (0-1) for Breen (54), Mark Kehoe (0-1) for O'Meara (56), Alan Flynn for Heffernan (65), Jake Morris (0-1) for O'Dwyer (67).

Referee: Seán Cleere (Kilkenny).

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