Wexford 3-14, Kilkenny 3-10
Wexford’s brilliant minor hurlers shrugged off the shackles of heartache and frustration in the grade stretching back to 1985 to carve out the Model County’s return to the throne of the Leinster championship with Sunday’s richly deserved final victory over neighbours Kilkenny at Croke Park.
Wexford trailed just twice – and only by the minimum on each occasion – as they atoned gloriously for their narrow May 4th group-stage 3-13 to 2-15 loss to the Cats in Enniscorthy.
AJ Redmond’s quality shooting was a real highlight as the Rathnure sharpshooter thrilled with a personal haul of 1-11, including 1-2 from play.
Goalkeeper Cian Byrne, full-back Kyle Scallan and centre-back Cian Molloy, together with midfielders Jack Kirwan and Luke Kavanagh, as well as exemplary playmaker and captain Richie Lawlor were among the shining lights in a top-rating all-round display by a Wexford group who simply weren’t going to bend.
The breakthrough is a real credit to the thorough preparations of manager James Sheil (St Mary’s-Rosslare) and fellow selectors Liam Roche (Geraldine O’Hanrahans), Eddie Cullen (Ferns St Aidan’s), David Redmond (Oulart-The Ballagh) and John Conran (Rathnure) as Wexford dethroned the defending Leinster champions with goals from David Cantwell, AJ Redmond, and super-sub Cian Byrne.
The new champions of the Eastern province now progress directly to the All-Ireland semi-final, while Kilkenny go into a qualifier-group involving Galway and the losers of the Munster final (Limerick or Clare).
Wexford illustrated no signs of nerves during a composed start to Sunday’s decider, comfortably easing 0-3 to 0-0 clear as AJ Redmond slotted three points (2 frees) between the fourth and ninth-minutes.
While Kilkenny pegged it back to 0-3 to 0-2, Wexford’s positive approach yielded a major breakthrough in the 14th-minute, when David Cantwell netted sweetly at the Hill 16-end after a dashing run through the defence by the hugely influential Richie Lawlor.
Cantwell almost doubled his goals account on 19 minutes when collecting a cross from Paddy Whitty only to see his drive parried by the ‘keeper at the expense of a point, with Whitty having pointed earlier to help build a double-scores lead (1-5 to 0-4).
But Kilkenny posed real danger, and the title-holders snapped back to parity on 1-5 apiece after 25 minutes when Jack Doyle ghosted in from the Cuasck Stand side to find the net.
AJ Redmond reclaimed the whip-hand for Wexford though when converting a monstrous free on 28 minutes, before adding another moments later (1-7 to 1-5), and Wexford resisted Kilkenny pressure to eventually break two points clear at half-time.
That deficit was erased early in the second-half following two frees from Billy Drennan.
Wexford carved out a glorious opportunity to storm back into the lead on 36 minutes when the lively Richie Lawlor nipped in from the right edge of the square only to flash his goal attempt wide from a central position.
Kilkenny ‘keeper Aidan Tallis also had to be alert to divert a flick-on by AJ Redmond from a long-range free by centre-back Cian Molloy.
But Wexford’s growing support at GAA HQ were really enlivened when midfielder Jack Kirwan restored them to the lead with a superb long-range point in the 40th-minute, before AJ Redmond’s sixth personal point – from play on the extreme right wing – opened-up a 1-9 to 1-7 lead.
Kilkenny got it back to the minimum at a stage when pressure was mounting on the Wexford goal, where custodian Cian Byrne excelled himself throughout with some sound netminding, particularly when a dropping greasy ball from long-range broke inside amid a fresh burst of rain.
Timmy Clifford eventually tied matters on 1-9 apiece after 52 minutes, and the drama built even further as Wexford wing-back Justin Moran played in AJ Redmond for a tidy goal, only for Kilkenny to regain parity seconds later when Clifford balanced the books for a fourth-time after 53 minutes.
The nip-and-tuck nature of proceedings continued as Kilkenny sub Ian Byrne exchanged with AJ Redmond (free).
But four further Redmond frees – two from under the Cusack Stand, one from central midfield, and another from 55 metres out – had Wexford connections hopeful entering added-time that the long wait was coming to a beautiful conclusion (2-14 to 2-10).
Any remaining nerves were soothed three minutes into added-time when substitute Cian Byrne – a son of 1996 All-Ireland senior championship-winner Jim – was fed by the outstanding Richie Lawlor to burst in from the right and stitch the Canal End net.
Kilkenny did pull back a goal – Pierce Blanchfield flicking home after a free broke inside – shortly before the final-whistle prompted an eruption of Wexford celebration, with Richie Lawlor having the honour of receiving the Hanrahan Cup – named after Wexford-man Walter Hanrahan – before the Model County’s champion under-17s embarked upon a richly applauded lap of honour with a spot in the All-Ireland semi-final to look forward to.
Wexford – Cian Byrne (St. Mary’s Rosslare); Joe Conroy (Craanford), Kyle Scallan (Faythe Harriers), Dylan Whelan (Fethard); Justin Moran (St Anne’s), Cian Molloy (Naomh Éanna), David Codd (St Martin’s); Jack Kirwan (Rapparees, 0-1), Luke Kavanagh (St Martin’s); Dylan O’Neill (Shelmaliers), Richie Lawlor (Faythe Harriers), Josh Sheil (Faythe Harriers); AJ Redmond (Rathnure, 1-11, 0-9 frees), Paddy Whitty (Cloughbawn, 0-1), David Cantwell (St Martin’s, 1-1).
Subs: Diarmuid O’Leary (St Martin’s) for Dylan O’Neill (36); Conor Foley (Horeswood) for Paddy Whitty (36); Cian Byrne (Fethard, 1-0) for David Cantwell (51); Oisin Pepper (Rapparees) for Josh Sheil (60+2); Emmett Cullen (Gusserane) for Richie Lawlor (60+4); also, Derry Mahon (HWH-Bunclody), Conor Foley (Horeswood), Liam Cassin (Faythe Harriers), Michael Laffan (Glynn-Barntown); Cian Browne (Naomh Éanna), Eddie Kelly (Davidstown-Courtnacuddy), Ciarán Regan (HWH-Bunclody), JJ Twamley (Naomh Éanna), Joe Kelly (Crossabeg-Ballymurn), Owen Lennon (Rathnure), Tomás Kinsella (Askamore), Eoin Kavanagh (Faythe Harriers), Darragh Carley (Glynn-Barntown), James Rossiter (Rathgarogue-Cushinstown), Jim Finn (Oulart-The Ballagh), Jason Gordon (Faythe Harriers).
Kilkenny – Aidan Tallis; Peter McDonald, William Halpin, Tristan Roche; Billy Reid, Pádraic Moylan, James Aylward; Andy Hickey, Denis Walsh; Colman O’Sullivan, Liam Moore (0-1), Pierce Blanchfield (0-1); Billy Drennan (1-5, 0-5 frees), Timmy Clifford (1-1), Jack Doyle (1-1).
Subs: Ian Byrne (0-1) for Colman O’Sullivan; Aran Murphy for Andy Hickey; Zach Bay Hammond for James Aylward.
Referee – Chris Mooney (Dublin).