About half an hour after the final whistle in Croke Park yesterday, as the Wexford players were still celebrating on the pitch, I ran into a bunch of Wexford supporters I last met in Down Royal racecourse years ago.
Johnny Callanan, the former Clarecastle and Clare hurler, was in a syndicate with a group from Wexford. Paddy Doyle from Ferns, God be good to him, was head of the syndicate and I used to tag along the odd time with Cal. Colonel Reyburn was the horse’s name and he was trained by Paul Nolan who hurled for Wexford. Everyone was on such a high after one win that we had to head south to celebrate. It took us nearly a day to get there and God knows how long for myself and Callanan to get home.
When I met that crew again yesterday, they wouldn’t have been as happy if they owned the winners to the Grand National, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Epsom Derby, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe — I could keep going — and a stack more of the world’s biggest horse races. If they gave it such holly after one winner in Down Royal, what will they do over the next few days?
I’m sure once that bus crossed the border near Gorey last night, the place exploded like a grenade fired into a box of dynamite. The scenes in the Gaelic Grounds were remarkable too but for a county like Wexford, who have been starved for so long, these kinds of days nourish the souls of a people.
After the disastrous performance against Clare in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final, the players made a bold and brave decision by hopping into a mini-bus and heading for Sixmilebridge last autumn to convince Davy Fitzgerald to return for a third season.
There were lots of critics out there, most of which believed Fitzgerald had taken them as far as he could. We can all be critical at times but you can never underestimate the strength of unity within a camp. And if the squad believed last year that Davy was the man to take them forward, they wouldn’t have gone to that next level if enough of the group didn’t believe it was possible.
That belief was critical to the outcome yesterday because, even when Kilkenny were creating more chances, and when they looked like they might be the ones to raise that precious green flag, Wexford never doubted themselves, and never stopped charging at their opponents.
Kilkenny paid a heavy price for not taking those chances but they were untypical Kilkenny in so many ways, especially in their game-management late on. I couldn’t get over Conor Fogarty looking to play in Colin Fennelly for a goal when he had a handy point opportunity to leave just one between the sides.
Then they had a couple of long range efforts from placed balls that Eoin Murphy dropped into the square. It was bizarre stuff considering they still had plenty of time to level the match with the chances they had but it was almost inconceivable when it was Kilkenny who were almost self-imploding in the way that so many other teams did against Brian Cody’s outfits in the past.
It wasn’t Cody’s best day on the line either. Rory O’Connor was outstanding but he left Enda Morrissey on O’Connor for far too long. Once Rory got that late chance and ran at Morrissey, a smarter or more streetwise defender would have fouled him earlier, and further out the field, than from where Morrissey eventually committed the offence.
It was a ballsy move for Mark Fanning to come up the field and bury the penalty. Fanning’s save from Colin Fennelly earlier in the game was a decisive moment too. So was Ger Aylward’s shot which was deflected out for a 65. They were the kind of goal chances which Kilkenny would have buried in the past but this is not the Kilkenny team of ten, even four, years ago.
It was an exciting, tense and ferociously hard-hitting match but it was testament to Wexford that they could beat Kilkenny on those terms. Wexford engaged them in the air with route-one puckouts but Wexford wanted to keep it tight and to try and take the match down the home straight and then hope they could see it out. And when Wexford looked Kilkenny dead-straight in the eye, Kilkenny blinked first.
Lee Chin really showed that dead-eye nerve with his freetaking. When he had a free over near the Cusack Stand side late on, right on the sideline, it was the kind of chance that Chin needed to slot if Wexford were to finally win a Leinster title. And he absolutely nailed it to push the margin out to two points.
I was delighted for Wexford. The players and supporters deserve those magical days but it was also a special day for Limerick because they don’t exactly win Munster titles too often either. They may be All-Ireland and League champions but the explosion of emotion and mass pitch invasion afterwards underlined just how much this title meant .
This was a serious statement from Limerick, so much so that you’d wonder can anyone stop them now? Plenty of teams believe they can but it’s doubtful anyone actually will if Limerick can reproduce two more performances of that standard in July and August.
Ironically, Limerick – who will have to beat either Cork or Kilkenny - may have a tougher route than Tipperary now to get to the final but Limerick won’t be worrying about anyone else at the moment. They’ll only be concerned about themselves because when they’re right – they’re a phenomenon.
You could see how much Limerick wanted it yesterday and they delivered an awesome display of power married with class. When you take on Limerick in that middle-third battle-zone, especially when they’re so up for it, there are very few teams who can live with them. Limerick are so strong, physical and relentless that they’ll eventually just wear you down.
Kyle Hayes’ late goal encapsulated that Terminatoresque durability they have about them. Just before his goal, Hayes took a savage belt of the ball into the midriff but he never even blinked. Hayes just kept going and he began hitting full stride once Peter Casey knocked the ball off James Barry’s hurley and into Kyle’s path.
The Limerick half-forward line is their engine room and Kyle, Gearóid Hegarty and Tom Morrissey were immense again. Peter Casey was outstanding too. He couldn’t even make the team last year. Limerick were only running down the clock for a finish but the quality of talent they could bring on reinforced why they are the best team in the country.
Tipperary looked tired and leggy but that probably had as much to do with Limerick’s ferocity, and how much Tipp struggled to stay alive in that vortex. Limerick’s workrate was on a different level to what they produced against Tipp two weeks ago but there was a six-player swing too from that game, with four of Limerick’s top performers returning, and Tipp having lost ‘Bonner’ Maher and Cathal Barrett.
Tipp’s big men up front could never get motoring like they had been, or how Tipp needed them to be functioning in the face of such a ferocious Limerick onslaught. John and Noel McGrath, ‘Bubbles’ O‘Dwyer, Jason Forde, even Seamus Callanan, just couldn’t get to the pitch of the game, or away from the clutches of what must have felt like a shoal of octopuses.
The big question Liam Sheedy will have asked in the dressing room afterwards was how badly do the players want this now? They’ve given Sheedy and his management everything but now they need to give even more. Tipp will be hurting but I’m sure the cloud would have lifted by 5.30pm yesterday.
That’s not being disrespectful to Dublin and Wexford but that draw looks a lot more appealing than having to face Kilkenny, and the demons that may trigger in their minds, before the final. What’s more, reaching a final could mean another crack at Limerick, and the opportunity for atonement.
Maybe I’m being a little forgetful of Laois considering that Dublin have to negotiate that hurdle next weekend, and that certainly won’t be a formality for the Dubs. Laois have never had the same hang-ups with Dublin that they would have with other counties and they will definitely feed off the confidence and feel-good factor from yesterday’s Joe McDonagh Cup success.
What’s more, the manner of their victory against Westmeath underlined how much this side is made in the image of their manager. Eddie Brennan was one of the greatest goalscorers in the history of hurling and he has certainly hardwired those traits into this team’s system.
It’s tough on Westmeath to lose successive McDonagh Cup finals but seeing Laois lift a trophy in Croke Park offered further proof of how satisfying yesterday was for hurling people everywhere.
People from outside the big three always rejoice when the big three aren’t on top, not so much out of animosity or resentment towards those counties, but because a victory for counties outside that elite bracket is also a silent victory for everyone else too.
Anthony Daly reviews the hurling weekend with Brian Hogan, TJ Ryan and Ger Cunningham. In association with Renault - car partners of the GAA.