Cork had to dig deeper than they’ve done for many a day to win this thrilling Division 1B Allianz NHL game before a 5,500 attendance at Wexford Park yesterday.
In the end it was a classic case of the old dog for the hard road, with the second-half introduction of Brian Corcoran crucial to Cork’s victory.
Corcoran’s presence at full forward disrupted what had hitherto been an unruffled Wexford full-back line, and he was the key to a Cork win that hadn’t looked to be on the cards.
“In the end we had a bit of luck on our side,” Cork manager John Allen conceded.
“I wasn’t overly happy with our performance compared to that against Limerick, but in the end we beat an opposition that looks to have the bones of a good team.”
On a bitterly cold day, Wexford provided a searching test for the All-Ireland champions, taking the game determinedly to them even against a stiff breeze in the first half.
Wexford looked the sharper side early on, when Cork relied on the excellence of Diarmuid O’Sullivan at full back and the steady Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and Graham Callinan in the wing back berths.
Fielding only seven of the side routed by the Leesiders in last August’s All-Ireland semi-final, the home side played a brand of hurling as refreshing as it was exciting.
Doc O’Connor led majestically in a full-back line that completely snuffed out Cork’s inside trio of attackers, and with Darren Stamp commanding at centre back, the All-Ireland champions quickly knew they were in a game.
Callinan and the outstanding Paul Carley exchanged points early on before Wexford had a real let-off in the 10th minute when Neil Ronan blazed into the side netting from 12 metres after being set up by Joe Deane.
Buoyed by that escape, Wexford responded with superb points by Redmond Barry and Mitch Jordan, and an already good game was to get immeasurably better as Cork finally began to play some of their best hurling.
They shot four quality points in as many minutes with Timmy McCarthy, Tom Kenny and Niall and Garvan McCarthy finding the range. The latter, who was a late replacement for the injured John O’Callaghan, was Cork’s most effective forward in that first half, adding two more points to help his side to a 0-8 to 0-7 interval lead.
Much of Cork’s shooting had been wayward, with 10 wides to Wexford’s four, and over the 70 minutes they extended that tally to 16.
On the resumption Corcoran replaced an ineffective Kieran Murphy at full forward, and it proved the master move. While O’Connor continued to play soundly on the fringe of the Wexford square, he no longer had the freedom of the park he’d enjoyed in the first half, and Cork’s attack looked more menacing.
Wexford struck first with a point inside 20 seconds by Redmond Barry bringing them level, and they eased three points clear by the 50th minute.
Cork responded like champions. Timmy McCarthy narrowed the deficit with a great point on 52 minutes and four minutes later came what manager Allen acknowledged to be the game’s most crucial score - a goal that was clinically finished by McCarthy from close range.
The role of Corcoran in it was equally decisive, his overhead flick amid a ruck of players finding McCarthy with pinpoint accuracy and the wing forward did the rest in real style.
Carley responded with a long-range Wexford point from a free, but it was Corcoran again in the 60th minute with a point that showed all the quality of the master craftsman.
Darren Stamp’s magnificent point from 70 metres in the 66th minute - the score of the game - brought the sides level.
But there was to be a winner. Tom Kenny took off on one of his characteristic solo runs, rifling over a point worthy of winning any game from 45 metres.
Wexford stormed the Cork defence in quest of an equaliser that never came and Cork are now unbeaten in their group.
: Cork: T McCarthy 1-2, G McCarthy 0-3, J Deane 0-2, frees, T Kenny 0-2, N McCarthy, G Callinan, S Óg Ó hAilpín, B Corcoran 0-1 each. Wexford: P Carley 0-9, 0-6 frees, R Barry 0-2), M Jordan, D Mythen, W Doran, D Stamp 0-1 each.
: D Óg Cusack; J Browne, D O’Sullivan, P Mulcahy, G Callinan, R Curran, S Óg Ó hAilpín, T Kenny, J O’Connor, G McCarthy, N McCarthy, T McCarthy; K Murphy, N Ronan, J Deane. Subs: P Kelly for Browne, B Corcoran for Murphy, C O’Connor for Mulcahy (yellow card, 50th min), K Hartnett for N McCarthy.
: D Fitzhenry; C Kehoe, D O’Connor, K Rossiter; J O’Connor, D Stamp, D Lyng; M Jacob, E Quigley; P Carley, W Doran, N Higgins; R Barry, M Jordan, N Higgins. Subs: K Kavanagh for Kehoe, B Lambert for Doran (yellow card, 68).
: B Kelly (Westmeath).