Sports

Wexford Stand In Tipperary's Path Of Reaching League Final

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Wexford Stand In Tipperary's Path Of Reaching League Final thumbnailDiarmuid O'Keefe, left, of Wexford and Ronan Maher of Tipperary stand for a portrait during an Allianz Hurling League Semi-Final Media Event at Semple Stadium in Thurles

Allianz, the sponsors of the National Hurling League, are currently celebrating its 25th year as the competition's sponsor and in that period Tipperary reached ten finals and won just four.

Sometimes termed as league specialist, Tipperary find it difficult in recent times to reach the decider and if the win next Sunday against Wexford it will be their first appearance in the final since 2014.

I suppose four final appearances in the last ten years is not bad. They beat Galway that year but since then they were on the losing side to Kilkenny in 2009, 2013 and 2014. In contrast their opponents Wexford have to go back to 1993 when they last reached the final, that famous three game tussle with Cork. It's been lean times for the Wexford boys as they make their first League semi final in ten years, which was against Kilkenny with their previous last four encounter against Galway in 1996.

But back to the present as Tipp manager Michael Ryan is expecting a major battle with Wexford now that they have Davy Fitzgerald in charge. 'We know what Davy would bring to a side he takes over and he has certainly lifted Wexford,' said Ryan after the quarter final win over Offaly.

Tipp arrived at the last four with an unbeaten run in the opening three games against Dublin, Waterford and Clare. A night time game against Kilkenny in Semple Stadium led to a share of the spoils in one of the best League encounters against great rivals Kilkenny. Ryan's charges had an unbeaten run in League and championship since losing to Clare in the League quarter final last Spring 2016.

Unbeaten runs are a major topic at present (look at Dublin footballers) and any dreams of an extended run by Tipp hurlers were dented by Cork in the final group game in Pairc Ui Rinn. However the loss was just one for now as Tipp overcame Offaly in the quarter final at Tullamore two weeks ago.

Wexford on the other hand have been the highlight of this year's league. Why? Davy Fitzgerald of course. Since the Clare man took over the helm with Wexford he has lifted the aspirations of everybody in the Model County and that interest peaked when he led his charges to beat Kilkenny in the Allianz league hurling quarter final in Nowlan Park of all places.

The win broke a sixty year gap since Wexford last beat their great rivals in the Kilkenny home.

Up to then, Wexford had performed nicely in Division 1 B with an unbeaten record of victories over Limerick, Galway, Kerry, Offaly and Laois. The opening victories against Limerick (by a goal and Galway by two points) put Wexford on the road to the knockout stages and the wins over Kerry, Offaly and Laois brought Wexford supporters out in droves.

The meeting of these great rivals will be the first since 2011 which ended in a draw. The length of time since that game took place certainly surprised team manager Michael Ryan.

No doubt, despite the fact his team are favourites but next Sunday's game with Wexford, it will be a tough assignment especially with David Fitzgerald at the helm. 'Davy made an impact down there. We knew he would.

Anybody who follow the game and know the personality knew that this would be good for Wexford. Its infectious to be honest so it will be very interesting,' said Ryan after the game against Offaly.

Indeed it will be a tough task for Tipp because Wexford have plenty of talent. Winning a number of Leinster under-21 hurling titles and reaching the All-Ireland final has to stand for something.

They have six forwards who can pick up scores not least their main talisman Conor McDonald. He is the side's leading scorer with 2-27, and 2-14 from play with the six foot plus giant proving to be a handful for many a full back.

Elsewhere David Dunne, Aidan Nolan, Paul Morris and Lee Chin are fast becoming household names with James Breen, Liam Ryan, Damien Reck, Matthew O'Hanlon competent defenders. No doubt Shaun Murphy will excel as the defensive sweeper

In Mark Fanning, Wexford have one of the best goalkeepers in the game as he follows a long list of inspirational net minders like John Nolan, Pat Nolan and Damian Fitzhenry.

Thankfully Michael Ryan is spoilt for choice at the moment. Over thirty players have been tested in the six league games so far. With six players demoted, Andrew Coffey (Nenagh Eire Og), Tommy Heffernan (do), Padraig Greene (Upperchurch Drombane ), Stephen Cahill (Thurles Sarsfields), Dylan Fitzell (Cashel King Cormacs) and Willie Ryan of Clonakenny, the Tipp manager has plenty of new talent to challenge the fifteen that won the All-Ireland final last year.

Thomas Hamill is one of the new players as well as Darragh Mooney, Alan Flynn, Joe O'Dwyer, John Meagher, Barry Heffernan, Sean Curran, Paul Flynn, Aidan McCormack and Steven O'Brien.

O'Brien has really risen through the ranks. He has scored 1-7 in his appearances so far and is expected to join Paul Flynn as two players to challenge Seamus Callanan and company for a place on the team.

Niall O'Meara is a major doubt but there was good news coming from the Offaly clash when Cathal Barrett made his first appearance since the all-Ireland decider. However he has major competition in John Meagher, Alan Flynn, Michael Cahill and Joe O'Dwyer.

Ronan Maher's return to the half backline is a major boost while the return of Patrick Maher (from Army duty in the Lebanon) will help bolster the middle third of the team where Brendan Maher is a major loss because of injury.

On paper Tipp will be favourites but Wexford always rise their game for Tipp and its surprising to note that in the forty league meetings so far, Wexford lead the way by three (20 to 17) and there have been three draws.

This time I feel Tipp have enough to win by six of seven points and reach their first final in three years.

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