Wittingly or otherwise, Darragh Egan specified the date of his first training session as Wexford hurling manager. It’s not yet six months ago, the point being that if his team are a sort of work in progress, then Wexford are at least going in the right direction. Plenty others not so much.
After six weekends of championship hurling, only eight teams remain in contention for the Liam MacCarthy Cup: Munster hurling finalists Limerick and Clare, Leinster hurling finalists Galway and Kilkenny, provincial third-place finishers Wexford and Cork, plus Joe McDonagh finalists Antrim and Kerry. Gone are Dublin, Tipperary and Waterford, among the others.
Wexford needed to beat Kilkenny in Nowlan Park in their final game of the Leinster round-robin to ensure their summer wasn’t over on the third Saturday in May, and they did exactly that, winning 1-22 to 1-18 – also a first championship win over Kilkenny on their home ground.
Speaking about that win, Egan pointed to the belief he’d already discovered in his team despite the proper rollercoaster of their round-robin campaign – winning two (against Laois and Kilkenny), drawing two (against Galway and Westmeath), and losing one (against Dublin).
“I know exactly what they’ve given to us, since we met them on the 27th of November,” said Egan, the former Tipperary inter-county player. “We hurled well against Laois, in the second half, blew them away, we were so wasteful up in Mullingar against Westmeath, hit 21 wides, made a few mistakes.
“The big thing for us now over these next three weeks is can we get that level of consistency, keep that level of consistency in training, and make sure when we go to the preliminary quarter-final that we’re in good stead, ready to attack the All-Ireland championship.”
The losers of the Antrim-Kerry Joe McDonagh final await on the weekend of June 11th/12th, which affords Wexford an extra week to prepare than, say, the Leinster finalists, who are out on June 4th. Win that preliminary quarter-final and Wexford are back at the same point as the beaten provincial finalists, those two quarter-finals scheduled for June 18th.
Egan took over as Wexford hurling manager from Davy Fitzgerald, who stepped down last July after five seasons in charge. After an encouraging start to the league, winning all five games in Division 1 Group A, including against All-Ireland champions Limerick, things came to a shuddering halt when they lost the semi-final to Waterford, 4-20 to 1-23, at Semple Stadium.
Waterford went on to win the league outright and establish themselves, it seemed, as potential All-Ireland contenders. Instead, their summer has now come to a halt, after losing to Clare on Sunday, which means after 12 round-robin games over three Munster Championships (2018, 2019, and 2022) Waterford’s record now reads 10 losses, one draw and one win – that being against Tipperary in round one this year.
For Egan, the three-week break before the preliminary quarter-final also affords him the chance to further strengthen Wexford’s panel, several players coming back into contention including defenders Shaun Murphy and Shane Reck.
“We’re getting bodies back on the field,” he agreed. “Lee Chin had a five-month hamstring injury, he was always going to take a few games to get back up to speed. Shane Reck is back training now, Shaun Murphy is not too far away after back surgery, so we’re going to have more bodies on the pitch. Also our under-20s are back in the squad after their Leinster final loss, and we’re trying to really, really build a panel.
“You saw Oisin Foley, Charlie McGuckin, they’ve never worn a Wexford jersey in a championship match before this year. We’re building a good crew that can sustain these games, and over the next three weeks we want training to be ultra-competitive.
“It has to be a launchpad, we saw Cathal Dunbar got a very important score [against Kilkenny], Mikie Dwyer, lads who are training really well but just aren’t getting into the first 15, and I know Tony Kelly referenced it last week, after the Clare-Limerick game, this is a 20-man game.
“We are building a strong panel, we’re not there yet, we’ve absolutely loads of work to do, we still have to be more efficient in front of goals, but finishing strong is something we’re pleased about.”
Egan also sounded wary of any complacency around that preliminary quarter-final. “We went in as favourites against Westmeath in Mullingar as well, so we’d be well aware of what’s coming down the tracks. There was lots of drama in that Joe McDonagh Cup, the winners and losers of that will be coming in thinking they’ve a real big chance, and we just need to be ready for that.”