Sports Review 2023: Written-off Wexford tear up the script in dramatic last act

Wexford’s survival in the Leinster Hurling Championship seemed a lost cause as they prepared to take on Kilkenny in May. But Darragh Egan’s team defied the doom-mongers

Leinster SHC, May 28th: Wexford 4-23 Kilkenny 5-18, Wexford Park

It was arguably the highest-stakes encounter of the summer. Whoever wins the All-Ireland has marked a memorable year but the prospects for both Wexford and the hurling championship were, by the end of the Leinster group stages, existential and perched on a jagged fault line.

After the scarcely believable loss of a 17-point lead to Westmeath seven days previously, Wexford were staring into an abyss. Overwhelmingly the most likely outcomes on the final weekend – wins for Kilkenny in Wexford and Antrim in Mullingar – would have left Wexford and Westmeath locked together with the head-to-head favouring the latter.

Translated, that meant Wexford relegated from the MacCarthy Cup to the Joe McDonagh, for 2024 – a dire impasse for the county as well as hugely disruptive for the following season’s Tier 2 competition.

The week leading up to the match gave the lie to those who had questioned county chair Micheál Martin’s assertion of hurling’s importance to the people of Wexford. It was as if they were readying themselves for invasion.

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Players turned off social media and were immersed in the unforgiving May temperatures of the sea in Curracloe – to reflect on their shortcomings.

Match day was hot, sunny and expectant. Local tenor Anthony Kearns boomed out a take-no-prisoners rendition of Boolavogue to crank up the emotions of a crowd sufficiently large to require the traditional GAA measure of “putting back” the throw-in – evidence of another unusual aspect: no television coverage.

Inevitably, it was Kilkenny who looked more inspired, scoring two goals within the first five minutes before the home side responded and it was as if there had been a rip in the time-space continuum. Lee Chin, dogged by a hamstring tear all season, summoned the spirit of the past and produced heroism on the scale of Rackard and Doran.

And it was needed. Kilkenny, although already in the Leinster final, hadn’t come to indulge the home side’s desperation and there were more goals than the fixture had produced in 50 years.

At the very end, referee Colm Lyons awarded a last free out as, in that very passage of play, Alan Murphy swept the ball into the net, which, if allowed, would have doomed Wexford.

Survival came at a price. Manager Darragh Egan had supervised back-to-back championship wins over Kilkenny for the first time in 26 years but was let go. Those highs couldn’t counteract the lows of failing to beat Westmeath in successive years or the countywide trauma of that week at the end of May, however miraculously it concluded.

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