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Monday 25 March 2019

Wexford secure quarter-final away to Galway and dethrone reigning champs

GAA Allianz Hurling League Division 1A Round 5: Wexford 1-19 Kilkenny 1-12

Wexford’s outstanding sweeper, Kevin Foley, putting pressure on Martin Keoghan of Kilkenny
Wexford’s outstanding sweeper, Kevin Foley, putting pressure on Martin Keoghan of Kilkenny

Alan Aherne

Given that the afternoon featured rain, hail, sleet, sunshine and a howling wind, it was entirely appropriate that Wexford should brew up a second-half storm to dethrone Allianz Hurling League title-holders Kilkenny and book an away quarter-final versus Galway in the process before 5,800 supporters in Innovate Wexford Park on Sunday.

Trailing by 1-10 to 0-8 at the interval but with the advantage of the elements to come, the home side really thundered into proceedings on the re-start and dominated to such an extent that the shell-shocked visitors were outscored by 1-11 to 0-2.

They had to rely on midfielder Alan Murphy for both points, one from a free, while he also struck one of their three wides in that spell to go along with two from frees by his big brother, Eoin.

Indeed, the Kilkenny forwards were outplayed to such an extent that just one shot was managed from that sector throughout the second-half, a hopeful Walter Walsh strike that dropped short and was dealt with by Mark Fanning in added time.

Rarely, if ever, has a black and amber attack been outplayed so emphatically in a competitive clash between the age-old rivals, and the fine policing job by Matthew O'Hanlon on his old school friend Walsh was certainly one of the key factors.

However, of even more significance was the excellence of Kevin Foley in the sweeping role, a position he has made his own at this stage with his outstanding positional sense, reliable first touch, crisp striking, and speed off the mark.

The Rapparees man was superb on Sunday, while the backroom team also deserve credit for introducing substitutes who all left major imprints on the game.

Diarmuid O'Keeffe was the best of them, adding vitality at a crucial juncture, and he was one of the three new arrivals to score along with Pádraig Foley and goal-poacher Cathal Dunbar. The fourth substitute, Aidan Nolan, played a big role in that major too, while the game also featured immense contributions from Lee Chin and Rory O'Connor, both of whom sent over three points apiece from play.

If this duo can click together during the summer like they did on Sunday, then Wexford have the capability to trouble any opposition on the basis of this performance.

Given the various possible permutations beforehand with regard to finishing places, the most simple message to impart to both teams was to go out and win the game.

The lead-up to the action had been relatively pleasant until 1.15 p.m. when rain fell heavily for ten minutes, but it eased off for a brief spell then before resuming at 1.35 p.m. when snowfall was added to the mix.

That set the tone for a game featuring all four seasons weather-wise along with the usual no-holds-barred exchanges that have been a hallmark of clashes between these rivals since hurling began.

Kilkenny had initial use of the elements as they played into the town end, but the opening chance fell to Jack O'Connor who struck the first of his side's eight wides from a free inside 90 seconds which he earned himself.

However, the visitors got the start they had been hoping for in the third minute after full-back Darren Byrne initially flicked the ball away from Kilkenny's new wing-forward, Ger Malone.

The Kilkenny man had a second attempt that Shaun Murphy knocked off the line, but Liam Blanchfield was on hand to force it home from close range.

With Liam Ryan starting at left half-back and Darren Byrne on the edge of the square, Kilkenny cleverly put pressure on the Blackwater lad who is still finding his feet at this level.

Blanchfield marked sweeper Kevin Foley for every Wexford puck-out, leaving Byrne as the option for Mark Fanning's short re-starts, and the number 3 never looked comfortable in possession as he tried to begin the process of working the ball through the lines.

Twice he was penalised for over-carrying, leading to handy pointed frees for Alan Murphy, and Kilkenny actually led by 1-8 to 0-3 before a switch between the more experienced Ryan and Byrne brought a degree of stability to proceedings in the 23rd minute.

Murphy's first free was cancelled by Jack O'Connor after a throw by Billy Ryan, but Pádraig Walsh made it 1-2 to 0-1 in the ninth minute from a short pass by Liam Blanchfield.

O'Connor replied from play, before Eoin Murphy came out of goal for the first time to convert a long-range free. As well as scoring three before half-time, he was also responsible for five of his team's eight wides.

The opposing goalkeeper, Mark Fanning, was under pressure with his puck-outs up to half-time given the elements in his face, and it didn't work out on the first occasion he opted against a short one to Darren Byrne. Instead, his attempt at finding some extra distance was caught by Walter Walsh who evaded Matthew O'Hanlon for the only time and stretched the gap to 1-4 to 0-2.

A Shaun Murphy snapshot went right and wide after the ball broke invitingly from a body of players into his path in the 17th minute, but Paul Morris pulled back a point from a free after a foul on Harry Kehoe.

That score was followed by four on the bounce from Kilkenny, with the Murphys, Eoin (one) and Alan (two), sending over frees while Liam Blanchfield availed of a John Donnelly pass down the left flank to split the posts from play (1-8 to 0-3).

That was a game-high lead for the visitors, and Wexford set about erasing it with an admirable degree of conviction. Indeed, the home side's eight-point haul before the break despite being against the strong wind proved every bit as important in the overall scheme of things as their near-total second-half dominance.

The first of four points on the bounce arrived from a second Morris free after a foul on Rory O'Connor, with Liam Og McGovern and the Ferns man then linking up before Shaun Murphy made it 1-8 to 0-5.

A poor Kilkenny pass by Conor Fogarty to Tommy Walsh was punished by O'Connor for his first, and his brother, Jack, then earned and converted a free as the margin slipped to a more manageable four points.

Alan Murphy did hit back from the puck-out that followed, and Eoin then continued the siblings' scoring feats from a free, but the latter was also off target twice in added time on either side of a successful '65 from the hard-working Jack O'Connor (1-10 to 0-8).

Pádraig Foley came on for the second-half in place of Darren Byrne, and his first act was to pick off a point from a Lee Chin handpass after just 59 seconds.

Eoin Murphy was struggling to hit the 50-metre mark with his puck-outs, although one saving grace for everybody was that the heavy downpour at half-time had completely abated early in the third quarter and was replaced by sunshine on a truly bizarre afternoon weather-wise.

Rory O'Connor then posted a superb point off the left sideline despite being under heavy pressure from Paddy Deegan, with Simon Donohoe and Martin Keoghan booked after a melee close to the stand sideline before Liam Og McGovern availed of a second bite of the cherry to make it 1-10 to 0-11.

After a mis-hit to goalkeeper Eoin Murphy, he latched on to a poor clearance that followed from Tommy Walsh and got greater distance into his shot this time as it sailed over the bar.

Conor McDonald almost conjured a green flag out of nothing in the 42nd minute, with his deft touch on a probing ball from Rory O'Connor flying right across the face of goal before Murphy retrieved it.

Kilkenny got a brief respite when Alan Murphy pointed from play after a one-two from a quick line ball on the right, but they went on to concede a remarkable 1-7 without reply before the same player closed their scoring from a free all of 26 minutes later.

A short pass off the hurl by Damien Reck set up Lee Chin for the next score as the vocal Wexford support started to really drive their team on, with McGovern unlucky to hit the post with a point attempt before Rory O'Connor made it a one-point game from a Pádraig Foley assist (1-11 to 0-13).

The leveller came from a Jack O'Connor free after Richie Leahy touched the ball on the ground, and lively substitute Diarmuid O'Keeffe secured the biggest cheer thus far when he put his team ahead for the first time in the 51st minute from a Lee Chin lay-off.

Jack O'Connor struck two wides (one free) before his huge appetite for work saw him back in a defensive role and joining forces with Kevin Foley to get in a key block on Billy Ryan.

It was from that piece of play that Diarmuid O'Keeffe released Chin down the left flank, and it was clear from the stand that the Harriers man had split the posts judging by the roars of approval from home supporters on the uncovered side (0-16 to 1-11).

Chin added his third after his chief attacking partner in crime, Rory O'Connor, robbed substitute James Maher, and Kevin Foley then capped that first-rate performance when he availed of an astute crossfield Diarmuid O'Keeffe pass to extend the lead to 0-18 to 1-11.

If any doubt still lingered regarding the outcome - it was Kilkenny we were playing, after all - it was fully extinguished with the Wexford goal in the 67th minute.

Once again the workrate of Jack O'Connor was essential as he knocked the ball away from Liam Blanchfield close to the Kilkenny posts after Conor McDonald's deep cross from the right.

Aidan Nolan latched on to the break and, while his cross-shot was blocked, fellow substitute Cathal Dunbar was on hand to bundle it to the net at the far post.

After that consolation pointed free from Alan Murphy, Jack O'Connor matched his feat at the other end after being fouled, leaving a final winning margin of seven points.

And to add to Kilkenny's misery, they had full-back Conor Delaney dismissed on a straight red card in added time when he reacted to being fouled by Dunbar with a dig of his hurl into his rival's ribs.

Yellow cards had been issued earlier to Lee Chin, Jack O'Connor, Simon Donohoe, Harry Kehoe, Shaun Murphy, Jason Cleere, Ger Malone and Martin Keoghan on a day when Wexford were awarded eleven frees and conceded 20.

Their prize for victory is a trip to Galway this coming weekend in a repeat of last year's meeting at the same quarter-final stage which Davy Fitzgerald's side won by 1-23 to 0-23 in Innovate Wexford Park.

They have to travel this time because Wexford already played three games at home in this campaign, whereas the westerners have only had two. In accordance with the league regulations, this then entitled them to automatic home venue when it was confirmed that Wexford finished second in Division 1A, with Galway third in 1B.

Whoever wins in Salthill on Saturday at 1.30 p.m. will face either Clare or Waterford in the semi-final on March 23-24.

Wexford: Mark Fanning; Simon Donohoe, Darren Byrne, Damien Reck; Kevin Foley (0-1); Shaun Murphy (0-1), Matthew O'Hanlon (joint capt.), Liam Ryan; Liam Og McGovern (0-1), Jack O'Connor (0-6, 4 frees, 1 '65); Paul Morris (0-2 frees), Lee Chin (0-3), Rory O'Connor (0-3); Harry Kehoe, Conor McDonald. Subs. - Pádraig Foley (0-1) for Byrne (HT), Diarmuid O'Keeffe (0-1) for Kehoe (48), Cathal Dunbar (1-0) for Morris (54), Aidan Nolan for McGovern (61), Ian Byrne for Donohoe (70).

Kilkenny: Eoin Murphy (0-3 frees); Paul Murphy, Conor Delaney, Tommy Walsh; Conor Fogarty (capt.), Paddy Deegan, Jason Cleere; Pádraig Walsh (0-1), Alan Murphy (0-6, 4 frees); John Donnelly, Walter Walsh (0-1), Ger Malone; Billy Ryan, Liam Blanchfield (1-1), Martin Keoghan. Subs. - Richie Leahy for Malone (26), James Maher for Donnelly (44), Richie Hogan for Ryan (58).

Referee: Alan Kelly (Galway).

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