Before the game even began against Galway in Salthill last Saturday, Wexford were already in the horrors. Damien Reck, their centre-back, cried off in the warm-up. Lee Chin did the warm-up but did no contact work in it because a shoulder injury picked up in the lead-in to the match ruled him out.
Wexford were already behind the eight-ball as it was as their build-up had been heavily contaminated by injury. Matthew O’Hanlon, Liam Ryan, Oisin Foley, Conor Devitt and Charlie McGuckin had done very little hurling in the previous four weeks. It was Foley’s first game all year. O’Hanlon had only played one match, against Cork in the League, but he went off injured with 20 minutes still to play.
A fractured build-up was bound to impact on performance, but Wexford were still poor. They got a dream start with two early goals, but only adding 12 more scores over the remaining 70 plus minutes was an accurate reflection of the poverty of so much of Wexford’s play.
Despite beating Kilkenny and rattling Clare last year, Wexford are where they are. This campaign will be a slog like it was last year to secure that third spot in Leinster.
Going away to Galway was never really seen as a winnable game, especially when they were down key bodies. Another of their spiritual leaders, Diarmuid O’Keeffe was also hauled off injured in the 47th minute last Saturday.
O’Keeffe had done well as the sweeper in the opening half, but Wexford were so starved of possession up front in the second half that their marquee forward Rory O’Connor found himself in the Wexford defence trying to get on the ball.
O’Connor pushed up the field after Kevin Foley came on to play as the sweeper but O’Connor failed to score from play. The only real scoring threat Wexford had was from Liam Óg McGovern and Jack O’Connor when he came off the bench. Wexford only had 10 shots in the second half but five of them came in the last 10 minutes when Wexford were desperate to salvage something from the game.
It was a six-point hammering, but Wexford have been scrambling all season. The only game they won in the League was against Westmeath. Their points difference was -32, which largely stemmed from the hammering Clare dished out to them in Round Two, blitzing Wexford by 22 points.
The 6-25 Clare accumulated was the highest ever score that Wexford conceded in the League. It was the first time Wexford had shipped six goals in a League game since Cork put 6-7 past them in New Ross in 1971.
The crowd in Wexford Park that afternoon was far smaller than the attendance which flocked to the same venue a week earlier when Galway did as they pleased in the second half.
Injuries and a threadbare squad heavily contributed to some of those defeats during most of the League, but such poor form and abject quality was still difficult to accept from a side that almost reached last year’s All-Ireland semi-final.
The air of negativity that hung over the squad during the League is not as strong now, but much of the mood amongst the supporters has been defined by a silent acknowledgement that Wexford are edging closer to a difficult period in the lifecycle of this squad.
Four of their most important players - Chin, O’Hanlon, O’Keeffe and McGovern – are all over 30. Another raft of key figures are heading closer to that territory. If Wexford struggled to function without so many of those players during the league, how will they manage in the future?
The challenge for Darragh Egan and his management during the League was to subtly prepare for that reality while keeping the team competitive. The performances haven’t been acceptable all season but Wexford had a different approach to this year’s league campaign from last year.
Wexford were the only Division One side to win all five of their regulation league games in 2022, but then they got hammered by Waterford in the semi-final, before only managing to win one of their first five games in the Leinster round-robin.
Wexford found some decent form at the right time, defeating Kilkenny and rattling Clare, but their League experience in 2022 meant they were never going to have the foot pressed to the gas early this season.
O’Hanlon, Chin, McGovern and Kevin Foley went travelling until December. McGovern only returned to training in January. O’Hanlon, Chin, Kevin Foley, Rory O’Connor and Liam Ryan struggled with injury during the spring, while Egan cast the wide during the league when they used 32 players. Last Saturday Wexford only had two starting championship debutants – James Lawlor and Conor Foley.
Goalkeeper Lawlor, who was the only one of the three named to start beforehand, is in that age-category between 21-24 where Wexford have struggled to produce players, but more are finally starting to come through.
The crew behind are beginning to step up too. The ‘Next Generation’ squad is loaded with good players. Some of the young hurlers between 17-’21 are as talented as Wexford have produced since the successful U21 crop of 2013-’15. The foundation is solid but trying to marry transition with results is never easy.
Last Saturday was only Wexford’s fourth defeat in the Leinster round robin. However, their win rate in the competition still stands at a poor 36 per cent, with Wexford having won just five games from 14 matches. And three of those wins came against Carlow, Laois and Offaly.
Wexford have only won two games against top-four Leinster opposition in four seasons, against Dublin in 2018 and Kilkenny last year. Yet they have qualified from the round robin in each year of the competition because of their ability to grind out draws, having drawn five of their 14 games.
Yet while Wexford have been hard to beat in the round robin, their struggles to win more games hints at an opportunity for Antrim on Saturday.
Especially with Wexford’s 2023 form to date.