In March of 2015, the Waterford hurling team bus arrived at Wexford Park for a league tie that caught the eye. As part of the lower division fraternity, they were notionally operating outside the spotlight but both teams had trumpeted their form in their previous games, with Waterford putting 4-30 up against Antrim while Wexford piled 5-22 onto Laois.
As far as the wider world was concerned, Waterford was starting from scratch after the previous year’s relegation while Wexford hurling people could still just about feel the last of the afterglow of their thrilling draw and replay win over All-Ireland champions Clare the previous summer.
The general fancy was for a local win and the sun made an appearance alongside 8,500 people. The scoring was more modest but Waterford’s supremacy was evident on more than just the final score of 0-22 to 0-16.
"That game was the promotion decider really," recalls Rory Jacob.
“And in a lot of quarters Wexford were probably favourites. Waterford hadn’t really put their heads above water yet and in a few ways they shocked Wexford with the intensity they brought and with their game plan. And I remember it pretty well that they dictated the terms of that game. Wexford didn’t get out of the traps. Now you wouldn’t read too much into league games. But you look at Waterford; their underage hurling has been strong for the last seven or eight years.
“Derek [McGrath] brought in a largely new team and they weren’t really spoken about until that game. And yeah, they really pushed on from then and they have worked on their system of play. They have had a league final and two Munster finals so they are a little bit above Wexford now whereas that day, we were probably seen as being a little bit above them.”
Immediately after the match, Derek McGrath welcomed the bounce back to Division 1A by sounding a note of caution. “People will say I’m realistic enough to point out that when
opens his book next year, we will be favourites for relegation.”
The problem with that theory was that Waterford kept winning, sweeping into the league final where they overcame Cork by 1-24 to 0-17 and contesting a Munster final against Tipperary. This spring, they relinquished their title only after a tense and gripping series of games in the final against Clare.
Waterford’s blistering transformation, guided by McGrath’s youth policy and tailored defensive strategy, powerfully illustrated the speed with which a county can transform its fortunes.
Since that crucial league game, Wexford may have trained just as hard as their neighbours but until their landmark championship victory over Cork a fortnight ago, the outside perception was of a hurling county simply treading water.
That win against Cork, the county's first since 1956, was, as Liam Dunne said, the break the county needed. Jacob went along to the game even though he finds watching his former team difficult. He retired last September after 14 years of terrific service to the Model County and the transition from player to supporter has been testing.
“It is hard to enjoy it and to even go was difficult but I decided that I had to because if I was not looking at I’d be driving myself mad whereas at least this way I can go and form my own opinion of what’s going on.”
Even though the team had been underwhelming in the league, he had a feeling travelling to the Cork game that they were going to deliver a big performance. In the qualifier win over Offaly, he had seen fragments of high quality play which encouraged him.
And he’d been around the scene just to know when things were starting to fall into place. Although much was made of the historic element of Wexford’s achievement, he never felt inhibited about playing Cork. “The ’56 thing? I don’t think it ever came into it for the players.”
Jacob is one of the most conspicuous absentees from a panel which has changed significantly over the past few seasons. He scored 1-1 against Kilkenny in the Leinster semi-final of 2004; his brother Michael concocted the goal that sensationally knocked the All-Ireland champions out of the provincial race.
It remains one of just three occasions that Kilkenny have failed to win Leinster since
took charge in 1999. So Jacob was one of a generation of hurlers whose entire career coincided with this period of oppressive Kilkenny splendour. The on-going domination on Noreside has the twin effect of deepening Kilkenny certainty while simultaneously deepening the doubt of those hurling counties which cast themselves against them.
Wexford have struggled to retain a foothold on the treacherous slope crowded with counties trying to reach the standards set by the Cody regime. Two of their three consecutive Leinster Under-21 titles (2013-15) involved final wins over Kilkenny, with the 4-17 to 1-9 win in 2015 a heartening sign for Wexford fans that future skies need not always be black and amber.
Those provincial triumphs were tempered by two All-Ireland final losses and the nagging sense that Kilkenny as a force are not particularly obsessed with underage silverware.
Liam Dunne’s time in charge at Wexford has had its tempestuous moments but nobody can mistake the energy and drive the Oulart man pours into it. The senior hurling team is progressing but it is fragile. That’s why the Cork win mattered so much, even after allowances are made for the Rebel county’s plummeting ratings.
, always one of the most uplifting voices in Gaelic games spoke with Eoin McDevitt of Second Captains the day after that win and had this to say about his obvious delight.
“And not delighted for the reasons that most people may think. The reason I am so delighted is that the 60 years was a milestone around people’s necks. But this has been a difficult time for this team for the past couple of years and a very difficult time for Liam Dunne. And I just looked at the programme and there were 16 of those lads under the age of 24 and 10 under the age of 22 on the panel.
“This is a young emerging team and it is a long road to go and they are seven or eight short of the original panel. But that is the great thing about it: a young emerging team saying look it, we are going out here to do our job, never mind 60 years, wiping away the past. For an auld guy like me the 60 years means a lot but to them it is the start of something special in the long run. But it is going to take time.”
Clouds were lifting even as he spoke. And Wexford has always been tough on itself as a hurling county. In a recent interview with John Harrington, Griffin recalled the attitude towards the soon-to-be immortalised 1996 team as they approached that All-Ireland winning season.
“They were ridiculed to hell because they beaten by Cork in the ’91 league final after two replays and we had lost two Leinster finals in ’93.”
The latest generation have not been ridiculed. However, they briefly became hurling’s darling team after their sensational series of games in 2014 against Clare. To recap: 2-25 to 2-25 after extra time the first day. 2-25 to 2-22 aet in the replay. Then a 3-15 to 2-15 win over Waterford on July 19th. When they lost to Limerick by 4-26 to 1-11, it was excused as understandable fatigue.
But a bright championship future was predicted in 2015: instead they were hockeyed 5-25 to 0-16 by Kilkenny in Nowlan Park and put out of the championship a few weeks later by Cork.
Since then, Dunne has seen Jack Guiney quit the panel for personal reasons and Kevin Foley, a member of all three Under-21 Leinster championship sides, unable to commit to the seniors. The squad is missing Andrew Shore, David Redmond and Shaun Murphy through long term injury. The team was young and inexperienced and looked it in this year's Leinster championship opener against Dublin, when they lost 2-19 to 0-12. To make the All-Ireland semi-finals after that start would represent a dramatic turn in fortunes. But Rory Jacob feels that other things need to happen within the county as well.
“I feel a big thing in Wexford for the next few years; maybe this is a bit controversial but there is a lot of clubs here which are also strong football clubs and I think for hurling to be strong you need to focus on one rather than the other. Maybe clubs are trying to focus on both and that’s not easy when you are trying to compete against the Kilkenny’s of this world.
“That is just one thing. Our underage has to be improved a good bit because maybe the last few years at under-14 to under-17 we aren’t developing enough. I am working in St Peter’s and there are good kids there who are enthusiastic about the game but we need to have the right structures. I don’t have all the answers. But I do feel Wexford could go look at Waterford and Clare just to see what they are doing. We are inclined to compare ourselves to Kilkenny but they are always going to do things their way.”
Historic as the win over Cork was, a relatively small Wexford crowd was there to witness live. The purple and yellow cavalcade will be larger this Sunday. Jacob fully expects Waterford to roll out their defensive system again
“Why wouldn’t they? They have been very successful with it. And I admire what Waterford are doing to be quite honest. They play to a certain structure for sure but within that I think they have a few players who are free spirits, players like Austin Gleeson and they are likely to pop up in different positions. They are made themselves a real challenge for any team.”
In fact, the origins of that system were already in place when the teams met for that promotion decider over a year ago. Much has happened since then and mostly to Waterford. This is a golden chance for Wexford to stake their claim.