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Tipperary and Wexford renew rivalry for the first time since Davy Fitzgerald stormed the field

It was an eventful game that set storylines in motion for the summer of hurling.

TONIGHT WILL MARK the first meeting between Tipperary and Wexford in 10 months.

Davy Fitzgerald and Aidan Nolan clash with Jason Forde Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The previous contest between these sides – Tipperary’s 11-point league semi-final win last April – set new storylines in motion that ran right through the summer.

It wasn’t quite a seminal moment for both counties, but they did take diverging paths after that eventful afternoon in Nowlan Park.

Tipperary wouldn’t win another game until July, Wexford wouldn’t lose another until the same month.

Wexford arrived into that semi-final showdown high on confidence, on the back of a quarter-final where they achieved a first competitive win over Kilkenny since 2004.

Tipperary, warm favourites to retain the All-Ireland at that stage, won the game well in the end, but it wasn’t until the final 10 minutes when they looked comfortable.

The significant moment of the game arrived shortly after Tipperary’s second goal, when Fitzgerald was aggrieved Wexford weren’t awarded a free earlier in the same move.

Davy Fitzgerald Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

In an ill-conceived bid to gee up his team and stop the Premier momentum, he stormed onto the field towards referee Diarmuid Kirwan. Tipperary midfielder Jason Forde moved across and got involved in a physical altercation with the Wexford boss.

The fall-out from that game is still rumbling on. A Tipperary motion will go before Congress later this month seeking to ‘define a melee’, which arrived as a result of their difficulty in dealing with the GAA’s disciplinary system last April.

Forde was initially slapped with a two-game ban for ‘assaulting an opposition mentor’, before it was downgraded to a charge of ‘contributing to a melee’ and he was suspended for one game.

“I won’t do it again, if that’s any consolation,” Fitzgerald said after the game. “Whatever it is, it is.”

He ended up with an eight-week touchline ban, which left him in the stands for Wexford’s Leinster SHC games against Laois and Kilkenny.

They won by 5-18 to 1-19 against the Model County, but Galway inflicted a heavy beating on Tipperary in the subsequent league final. Forde had been impressing at midfield during the spring but, like many of his teammates, his form nosedived against Galway.

“I’d like to think that (Forde’s suspension appeal) didn’t get in on the guys,” Michael Ryan said after the league final. “I certainly heard no chit-chat about it whatsoever. So I don’t think it derailed us in way, shape or form.

“Could it possibly have been on his mind? Of course it could. It would certainly be on mine if I was in his shoes.

Ryan added: “Nobody likes to have any kind of an accusation hanging over you and these guys simply want to play hurling. The seriousness of a two-match ban, for any player, is horrendous, to be honest.”

As Ronan Maher noted in media interviews this week, that 16-point loss to the Tribesmen sent their season into a tailspin that they struggled to get out of.

Jason Forde’s suspension appeals process ran for the next month, before a one-game ban was eventually upheld four days out from their Munster opener against Cork.

Shane Kingston Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

In the wake of their shock four-point defeat to the Rebels, Cathal Barrett wasdropped from the squad by Michael Ryan for a breach of discipline.

It would be August before Tipperary returned to the sort of form they enjoyed pre-Wexford.

The Model County, on the other hand, were seemingly unaffected by Fitzgerald being forced to watch from the stands. Strictly speaking, Fitzgerald was supposed to be banned from attending Wexford training sessions, but it’s one of those GAA rules that isn’t really enforced.

Despite Lee Chin’s assurances in May that Fitzgerald was solely contacting his players via mobile phone during his ban, it was obvious that wasn’t the case.

One newspaper accompanied Fitzgerald and some of his backroom team on their trek from Sixmilebridge to Wexford for training the week before they played Kilkenny – when the Clare native was supposedly still banned from the training ground.

Unperturbed by the chaos surrounding their manager, Wexford easily accounted for Laois in the Leinster quarter-final and then took down the mighty Kilkenny in an epic summer’s night at Wexford Park.

Fitzgerald emerged from his custom-made box in the press-area after the full-time whistle to rapturous cheers from the Wexford supporters who had flooded the field.

A view of the specially built box to accommodate suspended Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald Source: James Crombie/INPHO

For a man accustomed to figuratively pucking every ball on the sideline, Fitzgerald even enjoyed watching the game from his new aerial vantage point.

“It wasn’t a bad thing,” he said before the Leinster final. “You can actually see the game so much better up there, 100%.

“I can’t tell you I won’t be there the next day. There’s a chance I might. I’m going to consider it. I might be down on the sideline, I haven’t made up my mind yet. I’m 100% considering it. You’ll see the game better. Now, you can make mistakes up there as well.

“It was good. And it’s whatever is better for the team, it’s whatever suits the team while they’re trying to do their best. It wasn’t a bad experience.”

In the end, he lasted about 20 minutes of the Leinster final against Galway from the stands before he made the move back onto the sideline.

Davy Fitzgerald Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Wexford gave a good account of themselves in before Galway’s firepower eventually told and, although they looked flat in the All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Waterford, they finished the year with far more positives than negatives.

When they meet Tipperary in Semple Stadium at 7pm tonight, they’re seeking to pick up a third win from three in the top flight.

Fitzgerald has continued with Shaun Murphy in the sweeper role and two deep-lying half-forwards. But with Wexford in need of more firepower, it’s the flashes of attacking form from Cathal Dunbar and Jack Guiney will have pleased him most this spring.

Having picked up one win from two, Tipperary have found their spark again, while they’ve tested out a mouth-watering middle diamond of Paudie Maher, Ronan Maher-Brendan Maher, Noel McGrath to good effect.

Paudie Feehan has shown promising form at wing-back as Ryan continues his mission to build squad depth, while Cathal Barrett is back in the set-up and moving well.

We may not get the sort of fireworks we witnessed in April 2017, but this game is another important one in the development of both teams.

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Kevin O'Brien

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