Report by Michael Dwyer
Wexford GAA have reached a shattering end to 2013 on Saturday evening last as the under-21 hurlers fell victim to Antrim in the Bord Gáis Energy All-Ireland semi-final at gloomy Thurles.
In spite of the eventual outcome, it was Wexford who made the first incision with an Ian Byrne pointed free but the Antrim response was devastating as Stephen McAfee’s shot from distance found the Model county’s net after just three minutes. From there Wexford struggled to cut the deficit that Antrim had forced upon them. The inclement weather conditions had boosted Paul Ryan’s side as the Saffrons’ physicality drew the game into a dogged tussle for possession. While Wexford pegged back with Conor McDonald, Garry Moore and Lee Chin obliging, the 13th minute sunk Wexford’s hopes of success even deeper as Ciarán Clancy weaved through to net with grace (2-4 to 0-4).
Wexford lacked the pace and drive that was evident in their provincial thriller with Kilkenny. The over-complication of play was frustrating to bear witness to and while Lee Chin and Barry Carton were lively in the opening half, they simply couldn’t match the strength and guile embodied in the work of Glensmen, Jackson McGreevy and Niall McKenna. A brace of Wexford points from Ian Byrne and Rhys Clarke was matched by an Antrim pair. While Jack Guiney managed to chip in a further miraculous couplet of Wexford points, Daniel McKieran’s effort before the interval kept light between the sides on a scoreline of 2-7 to 0-9.
The large body of Wexford support was still on edge 14 seconds after the resumption when Stephen McAfee split the posts. What was alarming from the second half was how rigid the Wexford formation appeared. Their hunger and constant harrying of Kilkenny men in their Leinster final triumph was not repeated in murky Semple Stadium. Following Ciarán Johnson’s white-flag, Rhys Clarke finally reopened Wexford’s scoring account in the 39th minute (2-9 to 0-10).
But the attacking force of Antrim was simply unerring and powerful. The beauty of Antrim manager Paul Ryan’s system was that he had the foresight to substitute his key men in the Ulster final after just thirty minutes and then to unleash them in their bloodthirsty quest to become the first Ulster team to reach an All-Ireland Under-21 hurling final. While possession was dominated by Wexford, Jack Guiney (2) and Garry Moore points were evened by long-range Antrim efforts, forcing the gap to stand at six points with seven minutes to go. Antrim sharpshooter Ciarán Clarke fired over two frees but they were interspersed by a similar Jack Guiney double. The versatile tactics of Antrim, using up to eleven defenders in defence at times, thwarted the intense attack of Wexford.
Yet the earnest work of the Slaneysiders’ defence, which included Eoin Conroy and Andrew Kenny, as well as their unceasing forwards, culminated in a 59th minute stroke of beauty from Conor McDonald as he majestically fired ball into the Antrim net to resurrect the hope that JJ Doyle’s side might claim victory. The referee’s lenient approach didn’t help Wexford as Antrim’s physicality denied any purple-and-gold flair of athleticism. Jack Guiney’s late free was deflected over the ‘bar yielding a minute of nerve-wracking action. Guiney’s last punt to drop a shot in on the square was once more denied and Antrim survived the late Wexford threat.
Saturday’s performance was not an overly fair summation of the Wexford under-21 hurling squad. Their progress this year can be seen through the remarkable tenacity and speed that they possess. 2014 should be a fluid continuation of the palpable development that has been made this year.
Antrim: Ger Dixon, Conal Morgan, Matthew Donnelly, Tiernan Coyle, Tomás Ó’Ciaráin, Paddy McNaughton, Ciarán Johnson (0-1), Jackson McGreevey (capt., 0-2), Eoghan Campbell, Niall McKenna (0-2), Stephan McAfee (1-4), Shane Dooey, Daniel McKernan (0-1), Conor McCann, Ciarán Clarke (1-5 0-5 frees). Sub: David Kearney for Daniel McKenna (58).
Wexford: Brian Murphy, Garret Foley, Conor Goff, Eoin Conroy, Andrew Kenny, Shane O’Gorman, Dermot O’Leary, Lee Chin (0-1), Aaron Kenny, Jack Guiney (0-7 6 frees), Ian Byrne (0-2 1 free), Garry Moore (0-2), Conor McDonald (1-1), B Carton (0-1), Rhys Clarke (0-2). Subs: Aidan Nolan for Ian Byrne (36); Conor O’Leary for Dermot O’Leary (43); Tony Ffrench for Aaron Kenny (51).
Referee – Cathal McAllister (Cork).