The results in the quarter-finals of the National Hurling League went according to plan with the four Division 1A sides coming out on top against opponents from Division 1B, writes Nickey Brennan.
In the Kilkenny v Wexford and Galway v Limerick ties the gulf in class was very evident. The match between Tipperary and Cork was always expected to be close while the surprise was the performance from Laois, who came mightily close to getting the better of All-Ireland champions Clare.
It is a long time since Kilkenny faced Wexford in a serious competitive game. I expect that was the reason for the fine attendance in Wexford Park.
Kilkenny made their intentions clear from the start with Walter Walsh causing endless problems. The Cats first goal, scored by Walsh, typified the difference in class between the teams.
Walsh won the ball at midfield and delivered quickly to Richie Power. The Carrickshock player switched the play with the deftness of passes to the other side of the field where the Tullogher player was now positioned to collect it and score a great goal.
On numerous occasions Kilkenny’s quick thinking caught out the Wexford men. Players get more time on the ball in Division 1B, but not so in the top division.
Too often Wexford players delayed clearing the ball and this played into Kilkenny’s hands. This is a young Wexford team. It is still on a learning curve and they were taught many lessons last Sunday.
The losers could have thrown in the towel when Kilkenny led by eight points midway through the first half but they battled on gamely. A couple of pointed frees plus a well taken goal left the minimum between the sides at the interval. However, with Wexford facing the breeze in the second half, the odds still favoured Kilkenny.
Wexford should have expected an immediate Kilkenny onslaught. Within a minute Kilkenny had another goal, this time courtesy of the superb T.J. Reid. It was a score from which the home side never recovered.
Speed of thought and movement was again at the heart of Reid’s goal. Every time Kilkenny moved the ball up the field the Wexford defence was stretched.
The Model County was too often over reliant on short passing and players were constantly surrounded and dispossessed by their eager opponents. Wexford’s woes were compounded when their defence allowed a weakly-struck 20 metre free from T.J. Reid to hit the back of the net. It was now a damage limitation job for the Wexford men.
Kilkenny’s ability to create space all over the field and find players with radar-like passes was at the heart of many of their scores. I am sure it was frustrating at times for the home side, but this is the standard players have to match if they want to complete with the top sides.
Despite Kilkenny’s impressive win, the concession of 2-16 will have to be examined. Kilkenny will face stronger forwards in the months ahead.
There are many differences between the top two hurling league divisions but the primary one is the intensity of the play. Kilkenny are well used to a high-octane game; Wexford are young and largely inexperienced and will have found Sunday’s game a different level than the games they played in Division 1B.
Still, we saw enough in Wexford Park to suggest that Liam Dunne’s side is heading in the right direction. They need more games like last Sunday but, unfortunately, the current league structure will not help them in that regard.
I would still expect them to be highly competitive in the championship. They had a very decent campaign last year and they now need to build on that.
The performance by Laois against Clare was the story of the weekend. It was a long way from the drubbing the Laois men received from the same opponents last Summer. Due credit to Seamus Plunkett and his players for this uplifting display!