Resilient Wexford denied a late Kilkenny fight-back to preserve their Liam MacCarthy Cup status with Sunday's rousing closing round-robin derby victory at sun-drenched Chadwicks Wexford Park.
With Westmeath losing to Antrim, only defeat would have condemned Wexford to relegation.
And despite a couple of Liam Óg McGovern goals generating a 4-13 to 2-12 home advantage, Wexford’s worst fears resurfaced on 62 minutes after Eoin Cody and Tom Phelan bolted Kilkenny back in front (5-17 to 4-18).
But Wexford’s unstoppable force, with Diarmuid O’Keeffe supreme in the quarter-back role, responded with a closing flurry of points to sweep aside the danger of dropping out of the top-flight for the first time since 1923.
It wasn’t all bad news for Kilkenny either, as Dublin’s failure to get past Galway means that it is a Kilkenny-Galway provincial decider for the second summer running.
Wexford emerged amid a rousing rendition of the rebel song 'Boolavogue’ by world renowned Tenor, Anthony Kearns.
But, despite aid of the considerable wind, Wexford were off-tune early on as Kilkenny hummed sweetly, with Eoin Cody and Martin Keoghan sinking second and sixth minute goals respectively to help generate a 2-7 to 0-5 divide after seventeen minutes.
Wexford were struggling to make an impact while Cody, Adrian Mullen, Tom Phelan (two), Walter Walsh and TJ Reid sprinkled points around those anchor-goals.
A fine burst by John Donnelly paved the way for Cody to lash home the first goal to turn the tables by 1-0 to 0-1, before the Cats really sank in their claws when Walter Walsh fed Keoghan to blast open a 2-1 to 0-2 gap on six minutes.
Wides were hurting Wexford. But they gained a much needed infusion of energy when a puck-out found Jack O’Connor to force a penalty, which Lee Chin stitched to peg it back to 2-8 to 1-6 after 24 minutes.
Although TJ Reid struck back with a pointed free, Wexford’s resurgence gained added momentum when Rory O’Connor located Kevin Foley to make an angled dash from the right and net to have the gap down to 2-9 to 2-6 after 26 minutes.
While Wexford soon went six ahead on the wides (8-2), they continued to enthuse their large support amongst the 9,725 attendance when tying on 2-9 apiece with a chain of scores from Conor McDonald, Lee Chin (free) and Rory O’Connor between the 28th and 32nd minutes.
McDonald threatened for a goal amid an exchange of points, while Wexford ‘keeper James Lawlor was twice called into evasive action before springing a counter-attack, from which Diarmuid O’Keeffe arrowed Wexford in front at the break (2-11 to 2-10).
Kilkenny twice regained parity on the resumption – Reid (‘65) and Billy Ryan sandwiching a Chin free – before Wexford dug in when blasting 2-1 without reply to shoot 4-13 to 2-12 clear by the 44th minute.
Liam Óg McGovern was the goal maestro in this spell, firstly ghosting in to space on 40 minutes to collect an over-the-top delivery from McDonald to net a 3-12 to 2-12 lead.
And after the Kilkenny goal survived further mayhem – with Chin putting over a ‘65 – Wexford returned with further menace on 44 minutes as McGovern overcame initially being thwarted by the netminder to force home.
But these Cats were most definitely up for the fight, and amid helther skelter of excitement, Eoin Cody bagged his second goal on 50 minutes to peg it back to 4-13 to 3-13, before Tom Phelan repeated the dose to have it down to 4-17 to 4-16 on 57 minutes.
An exchange of scores followed before Wexford connections were on alert again when Cody completed his hat-trick to haul Derek Lyng’s charges back in front after 62 minutes (5-17 to 4-18).
Wexford refused to buckle, a flurry of scores from Chin (two), Cathal Dunbar (line-ball) and Oisín Foley ushering them back into a lead that they refused to relinquish as they overcame a most trying of weeks to avoid drifting into Joe McDonagh Cup territory, a fate befalling their conquerors a week earlier, Westmeath.
Wexford: James Lawlor; Simon Donohoe, Matthew O'Hanlon, Conor Devitt; Joe O’Connor, Liam Ryan (0-01), Ian Carty; Diarmuid O’Keeffe (0-01), Kevin Foley (1-01); Jack O’Connor, Liam Óg McGovern (2-01), Oisín Foley (0-02); Rory O’Connor (0-04), Conor McDonald (0-01), Lee Chin (1-10, 1-0 pen, 0-6 frees, 0-1 '65).
Subs: Conor Foley for Joe O’Connor (19), Mikie Dwyer McDonald, temp. (35-HT), Cathal Dunbar (0-02, 1 line-ball) for Jack O’Connor (54), Conor Hearne for K. Foley (65), Dwyer for McGovern (68).
Kilkenny: Eoin Murphy; Mikey Butler, Huw Lawlor, Tommy Walsh; David Blanchfield, Pádraig Walsh (0-01), Darragh Corcoran; Walter Walsh (0-1), John Donnelly; Adrian Mullen (0-01), Martin Keoghan (1-00), Tom Phelan (1-04); Billy Drennan, TJ Reid (0-07, 4 frees, 1 ‘65), Eoin Cody (3-01).
Subs: Conor Delaney (0-01) for Butler (12), Billy Ryan (0-01) for Keoghan (14), Conor Fogarty for Mullen (25), Alan Murphy (0-01) for Drennan (49), Cillian Buckley for W. Walsh (66).
Referee: Colm Lyons (Cork).