IN the 43rd minute of Sunday’s game in Wexford Park, Christopher Joyce drove a crossfield ball into a zone with eight players inside a 10-metre radius.
Conor Lehane scrapped for possession with Matthew O’Hanlon and Paudie Foley before eventually rolling the ball into his hand after a ground battle that lasted close to 10 seconds. Lehane, who was then swallowed up by O’Hanlon, still managed to get the ball back to Darragh Fitzgibbon but he was turned over by Diarmuid O’Keeffe and Aidan Nolan, who released Kevin Foley on a rapid counter-attack.
Foley’s point brought Wexford level, 0-14 to 1-11, but the nature of the turnover set the tone for what was to come.
That tone had already been set in those opening eight minutes of the half. After winning just four Cork puck-outs in the first half, Wexford had already won three Cork restarts, while Foley’s point was Wexford’s fourth in that period.
Wexford had all the momentum but four successive wides over the following six minutes contaminated that dominance. And yet, there was still no getting away from the reality that Wexford had Cork by the lapels, and would not let them go until they eventually had them shaken into submission.
Cork just couldn’t get Wexford off their backs. They were brilliant after the break but it was a horror-show from Cork.
Wexford did have the breeze but they had 13 more shots at the target in the second half. The final winning margin was only four points but it could have been 10.
Cork could argue that had Shane Kingston converted his goal chance with eight minutes of normal time to play, which would have put Cork three in front, they would have had control of the game going down the home straight. Michael Cahalane also drove a goal opportunity wide in the 71st minute when they were only trailing by two points but anything other than a Wexford win would have been an absolute travesty.
Overall, Wexford had 62% possession. They annihilated Cork in the middle third.
In the second half, the Cork forwards were restricted to just 28 possessions. Cork were living off scraps but they still failed to convert six successive scoring chances before Michael Cahalane eventually ended a 23-minute scoring drought with a quality score before a Lehane free levelled the match.
Kingston’s chance shortly afterwards was still a turning point, especially when Cork had real momentum for the only time in the half. Alan Cadogan and Cahalane forced a turnover off goalkeeper Mark Fanning and while Shaun Murphy was scrambling back on the line, Kingston drove the ball over the bar from close range.
It was a let-off but Wexford just dusted themselves down.
Jack Guiney levelled the match before the outstanding Nolan pushed Wexford back in front.
It’s still only early February. Inconsistency is inevitable. Cork will be far better when the pitches get harder, especially their forwards.
John Meyler won’t be unduly concerned with losing a couple of league points but the manner in which Cork were out-battled after the break will still exercise his thoughts.
Michael Cahalane, Kingston and Luke Meade did make a difference when introduced but when Cork’s big guns were silenced, their scoring rate dipped to an alarming rate after the break. Seamus Harnedy had only made five plays in the first half but his presence, leadership and dog-of-war mentality was sorely lacking when he didn’t reappear for the second half.
Bill Cooper had an excellent first half, making ten plays, scoring one point, setting up another, securing three contested puck-outs, winning a converted free and forcing a turnover. Cooper also covered massive ground, often deep inside the Cork defence, and Cork missed that work-rate and desire when Cooper went off in the 46th minute.
Cork were gradually smothered by Wexford’s vortex of power, physicality and raw aggression in the middle third but Wexford also made some smart tactical alterations during the match.
Lehane should have had a second goal early on when Harnedy played him through but Wexford ensured that space in the middle of their defence wasn’t open afterwards through diligent policing by Shaun Murphy.
Lehane played well in the first half, making nine plays, but Paudie Foley tied him down more when he switched on to Lehane in the second half.
It was understandable that Patrick Horgan was a little rusty given that it was his first game back. Horgan scored one point and had one assist and, while he worked hard, Horgan was never a scoring threat because he only had possession from four of his eight plays.
Horgan struggled to get free from Liam Ryan. Horgan had an opportunity to put Cork ahead midway through the second half but Ryan blocked his shot and Wexford attacked at pace and with bodies before Lee Chin set up Paul Morris for another excellent score on the counter.
Chin was hugely influential when making 17 plays but Wexford had big performers all over the field, especially Nolan.
The one Cork player whose performance levels consistently matched Wexford’s top men was Sean O’Donoghue, who was outstanding, especially considering his inexperience.
Wexford did win 10 Cork puck-outs in the second half but, aside from one overcooked short puck-out over the sideline (when he was trying to do the right thing) Patrick Collins’ striking is still at a really high level. Collins also performed solidly throughout.
Irrespective of the fluctuating nature of this league, and the inconsistencies inevitably attached to spring form-lines, spending a full half effectively under Wexford’s boot won’t have pleased Meyler. Wexford created 26 scoring chances in that period to Cork’s 13 and yet, Cork will still look back and wonder what the outcome might have been if Kingston had scored that goal.
That may have altered the result but it still wouldn’t have altered the reality that Cork’s performance levels throughout the second half still need to be more consistent if this group is to push on.