OVER the past 20 years Kilkenny won 15 Leinster senior hurling titles and only three times during that period has the county failed to reach the final. The year 2004 was the last time this happened, so the odds are heavily in favour of the Cats reaching another final this time.
Statistics may be used in a variety of ways to predict the winners of any contest. On the basis of Kilkenny’s hugely impressive record over the past two decades they will be favourites in Wexford Park on Saturday.
This time, though, the favourites tag rests a little uneasy on the shoulders of the champions. Reaching the National League final, despite missing many key players during the campaign was impressive, but the display against Dublin was disappointing.
In their League encounter in Nowlan Park on March 6, Kilkenny had five points to spare over their great rivals (2-16 to 0-17). The Cats got off to a good start scoring 1-3 early on and went on to dominate the first half.
Wexford was laborious in every aspect of their play in the opening peeriod, leaving Kilkenny deservedly ahead by nine points at the interval. A strong midfield pairing of Michael Rice and Michael Fennelly was at the heart of Kilkenny’s dominance, as was the powerful running of Colin Fennelly.
It turned out to be an altogether different story in the second half. Wexford started to play with more aggression and purpose and out-scored Kilkenny by 0-11 to 0-7. It was still not enough to win the game, but the Model County finally began to display the fighting-spirit for which it is renowned.
Wexford’s fate in Division 1 looked precarious entering the final two rounds, but a win over Cork and a draw with Tipperary ensured they retained their position in the top flight. They already have a successful opening round Leinster senior hurling tie against Antrim under their belts, so Kilkenny will be meeting a side that is high on confidence.
It is a long time since you could say that about the Model County and its hurlers. A clear reason for Kilkenny to be focused and alert on Saturday evening!
Picking the team will not have been easy for the Kilkenny selectors. We have rarely seen so many players carrying injuries and some may well see action without being fully fit.
Definitely absent will be powerful midfielder Michael Fennelly. He will be sorely missed, as will John Dalton, who must sit out this game as a result of his League final misdemeanour. Tommy Walsh and Brian Hogan received knocks in recent club games and their absence would be a huge blow to Kilkenny if they were unable to line out.
J.J. Delaney, thankfully, is ready to return, but is seriously short on match practice due to a hamstring injury. The real bonus for Kilkenny is the availability of Henry Shefflin. His presence alone will surely inspire his colleagues to greater effort.
As this will be his first major outing since last year’s All-Ireland final, we need to be realistic in what we can expect from the Ballyhale star.
We can certainly expect to see a much better display from Kilkenny than we witnessed in the League final. Even without a number of absent stars Kilkenny should get the better of their great rivals, but it will require a big step up in form from every player.
Wexford Park will be a cauldron of purple and gold and that creates its own challenge. Attitude as much as their hurling prowess will be crucial to Kilkenny, yet you just cannot imagine a Kilkenny team under Brian Cody’s tutelage being anything but fiercely competitive as they commence another championship season.