TO BOTH sides — where did that come from? Four weeks ago, Wexford were humiliated by Kilkenny in the Leinster final, a 2-24 to 1-12 drubbing that was even worse than the scoreline suggested.
Two weeks ago Tipperary beat Cork in the decisive game of their qualifying group, a fully-merited two-point win that saw them top the group, avoid Waterford in the quarter-finals, draw what everyone saw as the softest team of the last eight. And then, perfect conditions in Croke Park last Saturday afternoon, this?
After 16 minutes, Wexford trailed by a point (0-3 to 0-2), but the scoreboard was a blatant liar. Three clear goal chances Wexford missed in that opening quarter, Rory Jacob, Rory McCarthy and Barry Lambert taking it in turns to spurn gilt-edged opportunities. Into the second quarter and again Wexford defied the odds, again they created three clear goal chances, again they squandered all three.
First Stephen Nolan opted to shoot for a point with two team-mates free. Then Eoin Quigley and Rory Jacob forced two super saves from Tipp keeper Gerry Kennedy.
Six clear first-half chances, none taken; the irony then was that the Wexford goal, when it came, was by way of a gift. Long ball from wing -back Richie Keogh, keeper Kennedy came out when he should have stayed home, collided with his defender, could only watch as the ball bounced to the net. Michael Jacob may have got the slightest of touches, but had the keeper stayed on his line, the ball would have been saved.
That score came in the 19th minute, put Wexford into a deserved lead (1-2 to 0-4), a lead almost instantly relinquished when Tipp corner-forward Lar Corbett beat Alan Byrne under the high ball, a grab-and-smash goal that inspired Tipp to a 1-8 to 1-5 half-time lead.
However, even with that half-time advantage, it was obvious to all that Tipp were in trouble, struggling to come anywhere near the performance levels they showed against Cork; equally obvious was that Wexford had come to Croke Park on a mission. They knew that this performance was in them.
“We did,” said outstanding full-back Keith Rossiter. “We had a meeting after the Kilkenny game, we let ourselves down; we went out there and did it for ourselves today, now we need to do it again next Sunday.”
That will be against Kilkenny again, All-Ireland semi-final, and the reason Wexford get this early opportunity for revenge is that in the second half, while they created just two goal chances, they converted both.
The first came early in the second half, a magnificent long ball from Rory Jacob to the lurking Barry Lambert, in behind his marker, and the corner-forward made no mistake from point-blank range.
That tied the game, 2-5 to 1-8, and from there to the 68th minute there was very little between the teams, Tipp with a two-point lead, 1-14 to 2-9, when Wexford were awarded a 20-metre free, right of centre. However, referee James McGrath moved the ball to the centre spot, indicating his dissatisfaction with Tipp’s Eamonn Corcoran.
Turned out that because Corcoran had run over the ball, the ref felt the veteran wing-back had interfered with Lambert. Corcoran was livid, venting his spleen afterwards as he explained he was merely following his man.
Doesn’t matter now. Might seem trite to say so, but those few yards, ultimately, decided this game. “I was going to tell Lambert to put the ball over the bar,” said Wexford manager John Meyler, “But whatever happened the ball was brought into the middle.
“We were two points down, that free went our way, the ball was moved in ten yards which changed the angle, which changed the option.
“You were straight in front of the goal then and Fitzy clung it. Cometh the hour — he stepped up to the plate, and I’m delighted for him. As captain, he led by example.”
A deserved win for Wexford then; this was a performance everyone knew was in them after their league quarter-final win over Galway.
But what of Tipperary? How do you go from the high of two weeks ago to this latest disappointment?
“We were beaten on the day,” said embattled manager Babs Keating, “We were probably a tired team, over eight hours and 30 minutes of hurling since the first Limerick game. I think we showed the signs of wear and tear.
“We tried to manage it as best we could, fitness was a problem for some of our players — we were worried over the fitness of a number of our players. That’s why we picked the team we did; it didn’t work, the changes we made didn’t work, but I’m not going to apportion blame.
“When you play as long as we have done, the encounters we’ve had, I think we did something for hurling in 2007, but we’re not in the All-Ireland semi-final in a week’s time, and we wish Wexford the best of luck there.”
Scorers: Wexford: B. Lambert 1-2 (0-1 65); R. Keogh 1-0; D. Fitzhenry 1-0 (free); R. Jacob 0-2; D. O’Connor 0-2; S. Nolan 0-2 (0-2 65’s); R. McCarthy, E. Quigley, 0-1 each. Tipperary: L. Corbett 1-1; D. Hickey 0-4; E. Kelly 0-3 (0-2 frees); B. Dunne 0-2; H. Moloney 0-2; S. McGrath, J. Carroll, 0-1 each.
WEXFORD: D. Fitzhenry (c); M. Travers, K. Rossiter, P. Roche; R. Kehoe, D. Ruth, D. Lyng; R. McCarthy, D. Stamp; E. Quigley, M. Jordan, S. Nolan; B. Lambert, M. Jacob, R. Jacob.
Subs: C. Kenny for McCarthy (38); D. O’Connor for Nolan (45); PJ Nolan for Jordan (49); P. White for M. Jacob (64); W. Doran for PJ Nolan (69).
TIPPERARY: G. Kennedy; E. Buckley, D. Fanning, A. Byrne; E. Corcoran, C. O’Mahony, S. Maher; H. Moloney, S. Butler; D. Hickey, B. Dunne (c), J. Carroll; W. Ryan, D. Egan, L. Corbett.
Subs: E. Kelly for Egan (26); S. McGrath for Ryan (35); D. Fitzgerald for Byrne (42); P. Bourke for Butler (49).
Referee: J. McGrath (Westmeath).
DAMIEN FITZHENRY’S 68th minute missile to the back of the Tipp net. It nudged Wexford into a a 3-9 to 1-14 lead. The tide had finally turned.
THE poverty of the Tipperary challenge after their magnificent win over Cork and the spirit of Wexford’s display after their capitulation against Kilkenny last time out.
Whither Babs now, went the disappointed Tipperary cognoscenti.
Is this the inglorious end of the second coming?
Is it a management problem in Tipp or is there a more deep-seated malaise, a less-than-professional attitude among too many players?
Watch this space…
JOHN MEYLER (Wexford manager): “Today you saw the spirit, the pride, the passion and the commitment of Wexford hurling, all the things that are good about Wexford hurling – the last time you didn’t see that.
“We spoke for two hours on the Tuesday night after the Kilkenny match, we sat down, it was an honest, open conversation, everything was thrown up on the table, people said what they had to say. We went training then on the Thursday night and the level of intensity, the commitment, the effort, was absolutely fantastic.”
BABS KEATING (Tipperary): “We were beaten on the day, we were probably a tired team, over eight hours and 30 minutes of hurling since the first Limerick game.
“We tried to manage it as best we could, fitness was a problem for some of our players.
“That’s why we picked the team we did; it didn’t work, the changes we made didn’t work, but look, I’m not going to apportion any blame.
“I think we did something for hurling in 2007, but we’re not in the All-Ireland semi-final in a week’s time.”
JAMES McGRATH (Westmeath): I can’t remember seeing him before but he has a long way to go before he’s up with the top refs in the country. Some refs are whistle-happy, this guy is the opposite.
WEXFORD had any number of heroic displays. Rory Jacob was again their best attacker; Keith Rossiter was the pick of a defence in which there were several stars. Overall though it has to go to goalkeeper and captain Damien Fitzhenry for his wonder strike minutes from the final whistle.
FOR Wexford an All-Ireland semi-final with Kilkenny on Sunday. Tipperary head home to ponder what might have been.
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