Wexford were full value over Cork in Semple Stadium two weeks ago. As they were dancing at the crossroads in the south-east, there was a sense that the Yellowbellies are back in the big-time.
However, bigger challenges lie ahead, with a wounded Waterford side lying in wait.
While 2014 was somewhat an anti-climax on the hurling landscape following the drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll of 2013, Wexford were the shining light. Liam Dunne’s side were knocked out of the Leinster Championship by holders Dublin, but upset all the odds with qualifier wins over All-Ireland champions Clare, as well as Waterford.
The Model County was back in business.
Limerick were quick to dampen all that, with a 24-point demolition job in the quarter-final, but progress was still made.
Last year, it was very much a backwards step, as Wexford were hammered by Kilkenny and Cork to put an early end to their summer.
As they trudged off the Croke Park turf following another defeat to Dublin in monsoon-like conditions ten weeks ago, it seemed as if things were as bad as ever for Wexford.
Dunne had little to hope for, and another qualifier exit seemed imminent.
Now we find ourselves with six teams left in the race for the Liam McCarthy Cup, and Wexford are in the thick of it. How did this happen?
Was this a run inspired by a young side announcing themselves on the big stage? Or was it simply that the draw opened up for them?
This writer would argue that it is somewhere in between the two.
In the Leinster quarter-final, the Dubs badly exposed their weaknesses. By running directly, Eamon Dillon, Dotsy O’Callaghan and co. tore through the Wexford rearguard and were it not for some cynical (effective) play from the backs, the Yellowbellies would have been hammered.
Two weeks ago, Cork played right into Liam Dunne’s hands. As Matthew O’Hanlon put in a barnstorming performance at the edge of the square, the Rebels looked out wide to avoid sending high balls into the area of the St James’ clubman.
Intent on integrating the likes of Conor Lehane and Luke O’Farrell, Cork then played ball after ball into the corners, which was inaccurate for the most part.
This was not the sole reason the Yellowbellies won this game, as they still needed the firepower of Conor McDonald and the raw talent around the rest of the field to see the result home. However, Wexford did enough, and march on to the next stage.
Next up is Waterford, who will present a different challenge. All indications suggest that Derek McGrath will stick to his system, which will, in its own way, present Wexford with an opportunity. The Déise’s reliance on long-range scores is an integral part of their style of play, and most of the battles are fought in the middle third; an area in which Wexford are particularly strong.
If the likes of Liam Óg McGovern and Lee Chin can hold their own in that area of the field, Waterford may resort to long balls into Maurice Shanahan and their numerically depleted full-forward line. If that transpires, cue another field-day for O’Hanlon.
To put all of this simply; Waterford are not set up to exploit Wexford’s clear weaknesses. We saw in the League quarter-final that Dunne’s rigid outfit have the tools to match the League and Munster finalists.
Are Wexford among the top six teams in the country? On the balance of League and Championship over the last two years, they are not.
Do they have a chance on Sunday? Absolutely.
This one might not be as straightforward as some would have you believe.