If Kilkenny hurling was a Leaving Cert subject, Wexford would treat it as the one you don’t count when calculating your points total.
Almost every summer students in purple and gold uniform are confronted with this exam. Rarely, in the last 20 years, has a pass mark been secured.
Of course, for the purposes of this analogy, lets suppose Kilkenny is a mandatory subject. Otherwise, no more than higher-level maths, why put yourself through the stress?
There have been occasions when the paper didn’t prove as troublesome as expected and the Wexford lads came out pretty chuffed with themselves. Case in point being the 2004 Leinster semi-final.
Mind you, between then and Davy Fitzgerald’s arrival at the end of 2016, Wexford tackled Kilkenny 16 times across the Walsh Cup, league, and championship, winning just once.
Davy’s 2017 class began the academic year in rather sprightly fashion, passing their league quarter-final test. The mocks, in effect.
June 10 in Wexford Park was when it mattered and for the first time in 13 years, Wexford scored a championship victory over their neighbours. Nowlan Park is the exam hall this evening, the class of 2018 attempting to record back-to-back championship victories over Kilkenny for the first time in 21 years.
Ger Cushe was part of the Wexford defence on that July Sunday in 1997 when Liam Griffin’s men reasserted — and consolidated — their dominance over the Cats. Much the same as the current crop, the Wexford hurlers of the ’90s didn’t wobble at a black-and-amber examination. But that doesn’t mean they always had the answers.
Cushe was full-back in 1996. He has his All-Ireland medal. His team made sure they were no hard-luck story. But, he knows a second could have been added, if not a third.
Cushe, a native of Gorey, joined the squad in late 1990 and credits then manager Martin Quigley for laying the foundation for a golden spell.
“Wexford hurling was in the doldrums and Martin brought a whole new level of professionalism to it. He was probably a little bit ahead of his time. He brought in a dietitian and a chap for physical training who was involved with Athletics Ireland. The core of a really good team would have been there at that stage; the two O’Connors, Martin Storey, Liam Dunne, and Tom Dempsey.”
Christy Kehoe had replaced Quigley for the 1993 season, Wexford never so close to making the breakthrough. Their league final with Cork required three outings to Thurles, the Rebels edging the second replay 3-11 to 1-12.
Their Leinster final against Kilkenny also finished level, the boys in purple and gold coming up short in the replay — the victors finished as All-Ireland champions.
“We came so close. Kilkenny drew that Leinster final with one of the last plays of the game. They beat us in ‘91, ’92, and ’93.
“If the backdoor system had been there in the early nineties, we probably could have snuck an All-Ireland.
“That said, if the backdoor hadn’t been there in ’97, we would have got back to the final. We had a couple of injuries after the Leinster final win over Kilkenny and the Tipp game came too early for us.
“Under the old system, we would have had Antrim or Down in the All-Ireland semi. We always wanted to play Clare in an All-Ireland final, it would have been a great spectacle given we are two hurling-mad counties. Unfortunately, it was never to be.”
No more than Cushe believes a win over Kilkenny this evening will reboot the Model County’s summer, their three-point triumph over Nicky Brennan’s side in the ’96 Leinster semi was pivotal in ending Wexford’s provincial and All-Ireland famine.
Cushe, who’d later serve as Wexford selector, said: “There was 13,000 at that ’96 Leinster semi in Croker. Things were really at a low ebb starting off. Beating Kilkenny was a major turning point for that group.”
So, how are this lot set for this latest exam?
“I fancy them to come away with a win. I know Galway are flying it, but wouldn’t it be nice to have another go at them? You’ll learn more playing them in a Leinster final than playing a Joe McDonagh Cup finalist in a preliminary quarter-final.”
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