Tipp’s claims to be a proper competitive and well-organised outfit received further fuel on a hectic day in Thurles. To these eyes anyway, reasonable progress for Tipp was getting out of Munster and getting some experience outside of the province. That still might not happen of course with everything still in flux. But at this point they have a realistic chance of being the only unbeaten team in Munster at the end of the round-robin and even a Munster Final berth beckons. What Waterford will bring to Thurles in the sense of proper stomach for combat when already out of the reckoning remains to be seen. But this Tipp team looks ready to compete and do not have the look of potential complacency about them.
Limerick might win the All-Ireland yet but there is a clear sense that the game is up for them. Some reinvention is needed. Their advantage over other teams in the physical stakes is disappearing and some of their key men are providing diminishing returns. Can that be turned around in mid-season? There is light at the end of the Munster tunnel. A Limerick win over Cork (assuming Tipp beat Waterford) would give them third place in the province.
Three weeks later they would face the Joe McDonagh runners-up in a preliminary quarter-final before meeting either Galway or Kilkenny in a quarter-final. So, they would have a three-week break, a tune-up game before the quarter-final, and then a game every two weeks. In total, three games to win the championship. If the champions survive this weekend, recuperation and regeneration is indeed possible.
Last weekend took the expected pattern – Munster intense and with an outcome in doubt until the last puck, Leinster staggering to an inevitable conclusion. The exception was the extraordinary event at Wexford Park. There were some attempts to put this in a broader historical context of shock results, but they were misguided. There are a couple of angles to this – what is the recent history of Wexford-Westmeath? And what does a deep dive on Wexford against all opponents tell you?
What probably makes this one stand out is the sheer scale of the comeback. In the first-half Wexford led by 2-14 to 0-3 (17 points) albeit still relatively early in the game. But this was against a team which had lost by 34 points at home to Galway in the previous round. This was not, say, a Clare or Kilkenny team which started badly and eventually showed their mettle. This was a Westmeath team with its own struggles, yet they managed to outscore Wexford 3-5 to 0-2 from the 60th minute on. It was a slow comeback ended by a late surge which is hard to rationalise.
Yet it was the manner in which events unfolded which was the shock. The actual result itself is a different discussion. It is easy to forget that Wexford only managed to draw with Westmeath last year so their might have been little enough fear going to Wexford Park. The Model County’s recent loss to Dublin is also the second year running this fate has befallen them. This day is simply the culmination of decline that has been looming for some time during which Wexford have managed to defy gravity. What it lacked was the one big eye-opening flagship defeat to draw attention to the situation.
Just a week or two ago, Noel Connors raised the spectre of Waterford as a team which could fall off the pace in the manner of Offaly if things were not addressed. It is a fear which might also haunt Wexford who are a couple of plausible results away from the Joe McDonagh Cup. Let’s now do that deep dive on Wexford’s recent results. Davy Fitzgerald took over at the helm in Wexford in late 2016 when there had been slight progress under Liam Dunne including a win over Cork. This coincided with a resurgence. Yet, the black and white of the record since is chilling. Since the start of 2017 Wexford have played 28 championship games and won just seven.
Even in 2019 when the county fell just short of at least an All-Ireland Final appearance their record is full of holes. By some statistical quirk they were able to make the top two in the round-robin despite winning just one game – that against Carlow. It is only fair and balanced to acknowledge that they also did not lose a match as their other three games were draws. But when you saw the resilience, they showed in the winning Leinster Final against Kilkenny and for a long period in the semi-final against Tipp that year, you wonder how they still could not produce a performance robust enough to beat Dublin.
Oddly enough of the seven wins Wexford have had in the championship, three of them have been against Kilkenny. They will cling to that this weekend as they look for reasons to be positive.