THERE was a distinct lack of quality to yesterday evening’s Allianz NHL Division 2 decider in Semple Stadium, but it is results, not aesthetics, that will concern Wexford boss Colm Bonnar.
Twelve months ago Bonnar observed his charges crash and burn against Offaly at a similar stage, which meant they spent this spring appearing at off-Broadway venues and plying their trade against the lesser lights of the hurling world. The vista of a third season in Division 2 was an appalling one for Wexford to contemplate but their greater strength and authority in this clash prevented that scenario from materialising.
Yet it was not until the 72nd minute that Wexford could finally relax, safe in the knowledge the bounties of silverware and promotion to the top-flight of league hurling were secured, when Rory Jacob pounced on a sloppy error by Clare goalkeeper Philip Brennan to bundle the ball to the net. After Eoin Quigley’s enterprising point moments previously, Wexford were four points to the good and if that scoring burst applied some gloss to their eventual winning margin, they were the more assured team in this grim battle.
There was a giddy air to Wexford’s celebrations afterwards but the primary emotion was one of relief as the realisation that they will be released from the mire of Division 2 hit home.
Clare will have to toil once more in that sector next spring, a scenario that pierces the balloon of optimism that was inflated by their U21s’ stirring All-Ireland success last autumn. For two counties battling to join the elite, match practice against the best is a prerequisite and in the post-match analysis the wisdom of a system that generated such tension for this game was again questioned.
"If we were in Division 2 again next year, I’d find it very hard to face the lads again," remarked Bonnar. "Division 1 is where we should be as we’re a proud hurling county but I still think Clare are too good to be back in Division 2. They can’t develop there and the GAA should be promoting hurling rather than demoting teams.
"It’s a joke that the two of us were down in Division 2 this year and it’s something the GAA need to seriously look at," summarised attacker Rory Jacob. "We’re delighted to get back up to Division 1 but I think Clare should be up as well."
A downcast Clare manager Ger O’Loughlin admitted: "We are back in Division 2 and certainly we’re not looking forward to trying to get out of it again next year. I’d love if somebody came up with a solution and brought us back to Division 1 because I think we would hold our own. Trying to rebuild a team, I think we would rebuild much faster there."
Clearly Division 2 hurling has been a debilitating factor for both teams standard of hurling. The marksmanship of both sides neatly encapsulated that with Wexford totting up 18 wides and Clare striking 15 shots astray.
The first half was a wretched affair with Clare edging just ahead 1-4 to 0-6, but Wexford should have enjoyed scoreboard superiority. Their rearguard was splendidly resolute with Keith Rossiter and Darren Stamp colossal.
But Wexford were undone by a late Clare rally that yielded a lightning pull to the net by Colin Ryan in the 36th minute and that meant despite the scoring dangers Rory Jacob and Peter Atkinson were posing in attack, Wexford trailed at half-time.
Clare grabbed the first score of the second half through a Darach Honan point. But Wexford settled to rattle off four neat points on the trot – PJ Nolan, Diarmuid Lyng with a brace and Colm Farrell – to lead 0-10 to 1-5 in the 42nd minute.
It must have been maddening for Colm Bonnar then to observe his team falter again. John Conlon, easily Clare’s best forward, kept on foraging for scores and was rewarded in the 50th minute with a goal, a ground stroke to the corner of the net after his first shot struck the butt of the upright.
Coupled with a Diarmuid McMahon point moments previously, Clare suddenly enjoyed a 2-6 to 0-10 lead. But again Clare never kicked on and in truth it was the goals that largely sustained Ger O’Loughlin’s side’s interest.
Wexford opened their shoulders in the last quarter, led by their inspirational captain Diarmuid Lyng who scored at will, and Jacob’s late goal copperfastened their triumph.
Scorers for Wexford: D Lyng 0-7 (0-3f, 0-1s), R Jacob 1-2, C Farrell 0-3, P Atkinson, S Banville, E Quigley, PJ Nolan 0-1. Clare: C Ryan 1-3 (0-3f), J Conlon 1-2, D McMahon 0-2, D Honan, J Clancy 0-1.
Substitutes for Wexford: PJ Nolan for Shore (half-time), M Jacob for Atkinson (53), L Prendergast for Roche (64), T Mahon for Banville (68).
Substitutes for Clare: S Collins for Quinn (inj) (9), F Lynch for C O’Donovan (44), B Bugler for Murphy (46), A Markham for McMahon (63).
Referee: Johnny Ryan (Tipperary).