Time to plan for 'The Plan' as trip to Wexford Park looks on the cards

John Knox

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John Knox

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sport@kilkennypeople.ie

Time to plan for 'The Plan' as trip to Wexford Park looks on the cards

Kilkenny goalkeeper Eoin Murphy

The shuddering ‘don’t hold back’ tackle by goalie Mark Fanning on a forward charging Colin Fennelly defined Wexford in Nowlan Park.
And Kilkenny can expect plenty more of the same when, or if, the counties clash in the Leinster senior hurling championship semi-final in Wexford Park on Saturday, June 10.
Wexford, under driving new manager, Davy Fitzgerald, are on a serious journey, and you know, it could take them anywhere this season.
Sunday will be another big, testing day when the Slaneysiders play All-Ireland champions, Tipperary, in the Allianz National Hurling League semi-final in Nowlan Park.
Expect nothing less than the same 100mph, ‘don’t hold back’ hurling that saw them kick Kilkenny out of the ’League recently.
Right now Wexford are the only unbeaten side left in the ’League. They are probably the fittest and most driven squad in the country too.
Both give them an advantage over all others, so Wexford are quite capable of winning the ’League - they haven't done so since 1972/73 -and who knows what could happen beyond that.
Knocked back
The recent defeat in the ’Park, it has to be said, knocked Kilkenny back a bit.
A squad reshaped after last year’s All-Ireland final defeat by Tipperary was beginning to throw up some sort of shape for a possible team for the Summer hurling, but it ended up being badly beaten.
One defeat is a setback, nothing more, but it is a warning. And Kilkenny took heed of the warning.
The squad has been called back to training.
The scoreline at the finish - 2-18 to 0-19 - suggested the difference was only five points.
A bit, not much, was made of the 70th minute goal Wexford scored to swell the divide at the end. Kilkenny were in the game right to the finish was the undertone.
Yes, but were it not for three outstanding saves by home goalie, Eoin Murphy, and a missed penalty by Wexford (a possible 12 points), Kilkenny might easily have hit that 70 minute mark much further behind.
Misses at the other end? There were none.
Well, maybe one, a half chance near the finish. T.J. Reid pulled first time and met perfectly a ball dropping from the sky and no one saw the sliotar it as it flew wide of the left post at the city end goal.
You could add in that Fanning/Fennelly incident when the latter looked certain to score a goal.
The full on tackle should have earned Kilkenny a penalty at least, and a possible card, of either colour, for the visiting goalie. The tackle, whatever ones thinks about it, showed that Wexford will go to the wall for the cause.
We could add comment about how a penalty at that stage - the scores were level 1-6 to 0-9 - could have changed have changed the course of the game, but to what end?
Wexford were the better team. They dictated the heartbeat of the game for long stages having reached half-time level at 1-7 to 0-10 after playing against the breeze.
Through their fiercely driven approach, all action game plan, fingering of key Kilkenny players to be shadowed for the afternoon, and, of course, their extra defender game plan they controlled most of the match.
When midfielder, Shaun Murphy, dropped back to play between the full and half-back lines, where he mopped up an ocean of ball, and all the forwards adopted a go everywhere and anywhere approach, Kilkenny found it hard to get a handle on things.
Wholehearted chase
Kilkenny’s chase was wholehearted and determined, but as the match wore on the shape of the team became more and more fragmented.
That was a concern. Sadly, there was an element of desperation about the effort at the finish.
It must be said in defence of the losers, Wexford executed their plan to perfection, whipping the ball cross field out of defence, always with a forwarding address. This wasn’t traditional Wexford hurling. This was the ‘Davy Way’.
How Kilkenny tried to counter Wexford’s game plan was the most disappointing aspect of the defeat.
They never succeeded in coming to terms with the demands as Murphy cleaned up at the back and Conor McDonald, Paul Morris and Lee Chin roamed all over the place in the front line.
In fact, in trying to cope under pressure Kilkenny abandoned their own shape, which is always a dangerous thing to do.
The county has faced this seven man defensive game plan from opponents before, against Dublin and Clare in Anthony Daly’s tenure, for example, but generally when we encounter it we struggle.
Wexford didn’t come to Nowlan Park and suddenly spring this tactic. Reading reports of their ’League games suggested this was their new approach.
Neutralising the edge Wexford had in fitness won't be a problem, if there is to be a meeting in June.
Kilkenny don’t need telling in this aspect of team preparations. They are past masters at it.
The levels of fitness required heading towards the end of the ’League on April 2 and ten weeks later at the start of the championship on June 10 are very different.
Different journey
You see Wexford are on a different a journey to most, including Kilkenny.
Davy Fitzgerald has their fitness at a very high level as he attempts to develop a winning habit in Wexford, a winning mentality after years of wandering in the hurling wilderness.
He has made a great start. Regaining Division 1A status was good, not only for Wexford, but for hurling too.
Sure, Kilkenny fans were disappointed with the defeat in Nowlan Park, but looking at the wider picture, it would be good for the game if Wexford can drive on and become a force again in hurling.
The shape of the Kilkenny team going forward?
As ever, training between now and the start of the championship will dictate. Because of fitness issues, players could fall in or out of contention.
We might see former All-Star, Ger Aylward, Kevin Kelly from last year’s All-Ireland final team and others burst on to the scene.
It would be a huge leap for former Hurler of the Year, Michael Fennelly, who has not played a game since last August to make the June 10 deadline, but we wish him well in the effort.
The Walsh Cup and ’League campaigns threw up some positives.
The form of Eoin Murphy, Cillian Buckley and Conor Fogarty has been outstanding.
Buckley has looked really good in a new roving role in midfield, with his natural athletic ability enabling him to be a force in defence and attack.
Fogarty has such a range of skills he can be employed in any number of roles.
The fact the Glenmore goalie has been the county’s busiest and best player during the ’League raises an issue. Why so, you have to ask?
No matter how good he is, he won’t always stop the sort of bullets he did against Wexford, Cork and Tipperary.
Despite the systems collapse against Wexford, one would feel the experiment of playing Padraig Walsh at full-back - a key position to be sorted - is too far advanced to be abandoned now.
The Tullaroan man has thrown himself wholeheartedly into the challenge of a new and very demanding role, and he is making a decent fist of things.
Alternatives
When you look around for alternatives, bearing in mind the way the game is played now and how free running Tipperary pulled our full-back line apart last year, there are very few options.
Walsh has great pace and agility, and he is a hurler who can adapt to different challenges as he showed when playing centre-forward with his club.
One would love to see Walsh employed at centre-back, but to the fair to the selectors, they have to twist and shape things as best they can.
T.J. Reid, for me, is driving back towards his very best form, while Walter Walsh has driven his game on. One especially liked the support and back-up Walsh has given some new arrivals when opponents tested them physically.
New guys need back-up, like Richie Leahy did after he knocked an opponent with a well timed shoulder in Ennis. Suddenly the opposition headed for Leahy and the pushing and shoving started.
Walsh dashed 10 metres to lend assistance and take off some of the heat. Support in situations like that are vital for new players trying to find their way on the inter-county stage.
Of the new arrivals, Liam Blanchfield, Jason Cleere, Paddy Deegan, Conor O’Shea, Leahy, Conor Martin and Pat Lyng kicked on well, and Ollie Walsh was given decent game time.
Remember a guy by the name of James Maher (St Lachtain’s) who showed real promise during the ’League last year before injury stunted his development. He is still around, and he could yet feature.
June 10 is a big, big date. The losers of that semi-final will be diverted into the treacherous Qualifiers, where no one really wants to go.
Who knows, Kilkenny could be facing the ’League champions on June 10.
Believing that Wexford will be the opponents in the championship in eight weeks time, the priority with Kilkenny now is to work on a plan on the training ground that will suck the venom from that crippling, 7-man defensive game plan the Slaneysiders will employ, for most if not all the game.