Moment of truth for two teams with so much to prove

TOMORROW’S meeting of Wexford and Offaly at Nowlan Park is much more than a Leinster senior hurling championship semi-final.

It is about two teams at a crossroads with plenty to prove.

In the last three championship seasons, Wexford have been to the All-Ireland semi-finals twice, in 2003 and 2004, to the quarter-final last year (losing heavily in all three, eventually).

In the same three campaigns, Offaly reached the All-Ireland quarter-final in 2003, and were gone after one qualifier in 2004 (having lost to Wexford both years in Leinster) before suffering disaster in 2005.

They crashed to a 31-point loss to Kilkenny in Leinster, salvaged things somewhat with a couple of honourable losses in the qualifiers, but still ended up having to play Antrim in a relegation play-off they won comfortably.

On recent championship form then, poor as it was for both counties, Wexford would appear to have the upper hand.

There’s more to it than that, however. League form in 2006 suggests that a crossover has taken place. Offaly qualified for the play-offs in Division One and performed well in the League quarter-final before going under to a fired-up Tipperary.

Wexford ended up in the relegation zone, and had an uncomfortable 70 minutes against Laois before pulling away in extra-time.

So, advantage Offaly then?

Wexford manager Seamus Murphy disagrees.

“The National League went a bit haywire on us. We could have ended up going down a division, yet we could also have figured in the quarter-final. We could easily have won the Waterford match, got a draw from it at least and should have beaten Offaly above in Birr but left it behind us. They got the winning point in the 71st minute. Had we won those games, we’d have been in the quarter-final, but that’s the way it goes.”

Wexford could have won their head-to-head with Offaly but crucially the Faithful County also met and matched the likes of Cork, Tipp, Waterford, and Clare. Wexford weren’t nearly as impressive, or consistent.

Throw in the fact that Offaly, with John McIntyre in his second season, have instituted a regime of individualised weight-training and nutritional programmes, ice-baths, an intense training ‘holiday’ in Portugal; and you’re looking at a 21st-century hurling outfit gearing up for the future.

Then there’s their recent win over Laois in the Leinster first round on an atrocious day for hurling.

Despite all this, Murphy still is confident a corner has been turned in the Model County.

“We’ve had our difficulties, a few little things early on, situations we didn’t want to get into discussions on, but the media always wants to get coverage.

“There was a whole lot of rigmarole which was totally ridiculous, but we’re delighted it didn’t upset our camp. We’ve been hit with injuries, though the bigger problem is that we had eight or nine fellas who were doing exams.

“We also had four lads from the U-21 team; they were tied up last Wednesday night, so we couldn’t touch them either. That left us down to 17 or 18 in training, which makes things difficult. Another week would have made a huge difference to us, but you take what you get.

“We had two challenge games recently in the space of three days. We beat Waterford by six points in New Ross while Galway beat us by a point in Athenry. We’re looking forward to this now, the lads have trained very hard for the last six or seven weeks; irrespective of how it went in the League, every team steps it up a few gears for the championship, and that’s what we’ll be doing.

“We have no qualms about going to Nowlan Park. Wexford would have played there up along at underage, played a few games there as seniors also. It suits the supporters as well. Even if we didn’t have a great run in the National League, this should encourage them to come out — it’s closer to home and there is less hassle with driving. I think it will have a good feel about it. It’s a level playing field, much as it’s been between Offaly and Wexford for the last few decades with two young teams, a lot of new blood on both sides.

“We have Damien (Fitzhenry), Declan (Ruth), Michael Jordan and Rory McCarthy, but other than those nearly all of the ‘96 panel is gone. We have the summer sun, a lively pitch, a lively team; this is a perfect opportunity for a new panel of players.”

For two new panels of players. Final verdict? Wexford will come good, too much quality on that side not to, but I fancy Offaly to take it by a couple of points.

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