Tipperary dominate despite tight finish
A beautiful afternoon at Bellefield Park, Enniscorthy was graced by a tight finish but little else to delight the crowd of approximately 5,000. Tipperary deserved to win this Church & General NHL fixture, but the two-point margin was a terrible distortion of their clear superiority over an under-strength Wexford.
The winners were fitter, faster and sharper. Although they clocked up 14 wides, they also took some fine scores from all around the field. Operating at a quicker tempo than their opponents they exploited their advantages by using very quick puckouts from Brendan Cummins to maintain the pressure.
Wexford manager Joachim Kelly afterwards regretted his team's tendency to concede scores almost as soon as they scored. Nine times during the match, Tipperary responded to a Wexford score within a minute and this was certainly a factor in the home side's failure to establish much momentum until the very end of the match.
On the small pitch, with its dramatic undulations, Tipperary established themselves at centrefield from where both of the opposing combination, Adrian Fenlon and Rory McCarthy, ended up being moved.
For long periods the home defence was under severe pressure but they coped well in the circumstances. If 20 points seems a big score, it wasn't even representative of Tipperary's possession.
The losers were fairly dire up front. The unit had no shape and bunched so tightly at certain stages you could have thrown a towel over the lot of them.
Chris McGrath had his moments but he needed more happening around him and it wasn't until Rod Guiney came on in the second half that the team created a physical focus up front. Gary Laffan should improve when his fitness returns and Michael Jordan worked hard, but the unhappy signs are that the team will be still be relying on Tom Dempsey and Martin Storey in the months ahead.
The home side started well with McGrath troubling Michael Ryan and drawing two fouls in quick succession. The Wexford corner forward pointed the second of these awards in the fifth minute to get the scoreboard moving.
Seconds later, Mark O'Leary set the pattern for the match by responding with the equaliser. The Kilruane player showed economy and precision in hitting five points from play from limited enough opportunities.
Manager Nicky English was pleased for a player whose season last year was ruined by injury: "I was pleased for him because he broke his thumb twice last year and then sprained it, so he never really got going."
Otherwise the Tipp attack was less productive. Eugene O'Neill was accurate with the dead ball and played well at centrefield before switching into the more familiar environs of the full-forward line in a swap with corner forward Tommy Dunne.
Paul Shelly began aggressively at full forward and was giving Donal Berry a hard time, beating him to a lot of ball, even if the only tangible reward was a superbly hit point from the left wing. Berry came into it more as the match wore on and began to win ball and clear it well.
In the second half, Gerry Maguire came on for Shelly and made a substantial impact with three points from play.
Towards the end of the first half, Tipperary opened out the lead which they preserved for the rest of the match. The scores included a free hit from his own 40 by goalkeeper Cummins. Liam Dunne reciprocated a few minutes later.
Wexford goalkeeper Damien Fitzhenry ended the day with 1-1 from a penalty and a long-range free. Yet that wasn't his major contribution to keeping his team in contention. In the closing minutes of the first half he brought off two great saves from Tommy Dunne.
English credited Fitzhenry with preventing three goals and there wouldn't be many arguments about that estimate. It was a good day for goalkeepers as Cummins was also in fine form. Assured in the air and relentless with his quick puck-outs, he also saved spectacularly from Gary Laffan who got a tip to a dropping ball in the 25th minute.
Tipperary led by four at halftime, 0-10 to 0-6. It should have been more but few in the crowd could see how Wexford would turn the match around. Throughout the opening 35 minutes, they hadn't managed a point from play.
For most of the second half, the winners extended their lead and with 10 minutes left, they led by seven, 0-18 to 0-11. Fitzhenry came trooping up the field to address a 20-metre free in the 61st minute, but if he was going for goal, he disguised it well by belting the sliotar up and nearly out onto the Dublin Road.
Five minutes later Laffan was brought down for a penalty and Fitzhenry made the trip again. This time it was more productive and the line defenders can hardly have seen the ball as it flashed into the net.
Their margin down to three, Tipperary could suddenly sense potential embarrassment. Although Wexford came thrashing at them for the closing five minutes, the holders managed a couple of scores of their own to safeguard the win - just about.
TIPPERARY: B Cummins (0-1, a free); D Fahey, P Maher, M Ryan; B Horgan, D Kennedy, N Morris; E Enright, E O'Neill (0-6, four frees, one 65); M O'Leary (0-5), J Carroll, A Moloney (0-1); P O'Brien, P Shelly (0-1), T Dunne (0-1). Subs: G Maguire (0-3) for Shelly (half-time); P Kelly (0-2) for Moloney (45 mins); E Corcoran for Carroll (55 mins); P Ryan for O'Brien (64 mins).
WEXFORD: D Fitzhenry (1-1, goal from penalty, point from free); C Kehoe, D Berry, S Flood; D Ruth, D Ryan, L Dunne (0-1, a free); A Fenlon, R McCarthy (0-1); M Jordan (0-2), R Hassey, P Redmond; C McGrath (0-9, eight frees), G Laffan, J Lawlor (0-1). Subs: E Furlong for Kehoe (33 mins); R Guiney for Hassey (41 mins); M Byrne for Redmond (41 mins); R Mallon for Lawlor (62 mins).
Referee: P O'Connor (Limerick).