NEWS of Kilkenny’s demise has been greatly exaggerated! Wexford had a lot going for them on Saturday in the Leinster senior hurling championship.
A home tie against their great rivals, a successful under-21 encounter between the same counties four days earlier and a resounding victory for their senior footballers at the same venue just before the hurling game commenced.
All of this came on the back of a relatively successful National League run which saw the county retain its Division 1 status and an impressive championship opener against Antrim. But once the news filtered through before the throw-in that captain and unquestionably their most influential players, Darren Stamp, would be sidelined by injury, one sensed the Model County was in trouble.
Stamp is a tough, uncompromising defender who relishes playing against Kilkenny. From the opening moments his loss was obvious. His presence would not have altered the result, but it would have helped to significantly bolster a Wexford defence that was run ragged by a marauding Kilkenny attack.
Doubts as to Kilkenny’s well-being emerged after the League final, but this was as impressive an opening championship performance as one could have expected. The Cats won in a canter. Wexford were lucky to lose by 11 points.
Kilkenny’s successes over the past decade owed much to the physicality of the side. The ability of each player to dominate his immediate opponent was the hallmark of this great team.
Upper body strength
Wexford knew that to have any chance of matching the Cats they would need to significantly improve the upper-body strength of their players. A few counties can now match Kilkenny in the physicality stakes. Wexford, though, are not one of them.
The ease with which Kilkenny players shoved their opponents aside during the 70 minutes makes you wonder what type of preparation the Model County undertook since the start of the year.
Wexford are a long way off matching the top teams in championship hurling. I have already mentioned their lack of physicality, but the naivety of their players shows how far they have fallen down the pecking order.
Kilkenny’s constant running at the Wexford defence saw them exert almost total dominance from the throw-in. Darren Stamp’s presence would have provided a formidable obstacle, but he was sitting in the stand.
His centre-half-back replacement, Ciarán Kenny, succumbed to an injury early on and he too had to be substituted. With two of their first choice outer defenders absent Wexford were going to struggle. And struggle they did!
The most glaring statistic from the opening half was that Wexford won just three of their 17 puck-outs. Rarely have I seen a midfield pairing as dominant as the Kilkenny duo.
The performance of Michael Fennelly was particularly noteworthy. The Ballyhale star has not played for weeks due to a hand injury, and while he would have participated in all the physical training, the sharpness of his hurling was incredible.
Fennelly’s midfield partner, T.J. Reid worked industriously throughout and the Ballyhale duo could yet develop into the top midfield pairing in the championship. Such was their dominance that their direct opponents at the start had long departed by the time referee Johnny Ryan blew the final whistle.
A goal and 26 points is a satisfactory return from any attack, but one sensed that had the Cats needed a goal or two those three-pointers would have been forthcoming. If the outer line of the Model County’s defence had a torrid afternoon, their full-back line fared only marginally better.
Rossiter at full-back
It is puzzling why Wexford will not deploy Keith Rossiter at full-back. Young Matthew O’Hanlon had a decent game on Eoin Larkin, but Rossiter would deliver a more commanding presence at the edge of the square.
Richie Hogan looked busy and eager all through, but he has a tendency to drop his concentration occasionally. Still, he can be well-pleased with his performance.
The importance of Henry Shefflin and Richie Power to the Kilkenny attack was very obvious. Both are strong under the dropping ball and have an unerring eye for a score.
Shefflin’s presence instilled renewed confidence in the attack, something that has been absent to a significant degree over the past few months. Of equal importance was Shefflin’s accuracy from frees.
A woeful lack of discipline by Wexford saw Shefflin point nine frees.
Conceding that amount of frees to a player of Shefflin’s ability proved extremely costly.
The switch of Michael Rice to right-half forward before the throw-in worked particularly well for Kilkenny. The Carrickshock player gave a man of the match display. His inter-play with his Carrickshock colleague, Richie Power had the Wexford attack mesmerised on occasions.
The performance of David Herity in the Kilkenny goal will have delighted every Kilkenny supporter. On a number of occasions he was called on to save at point-blank range and he responded brilliantly. It was a dream debut for the Dunnamaggin custodian.
Proud day for Danesfort
Two of the other debutants, the Danesfort duo of Paddy Hogan and Paul Murphy, can also look back on this game with lots of satisfaction. Indeed, it was a remarkable feat for the Danesfort club to have three players in the Kilkenny starting line-up.
While Kilkenny supporters left Wexford Park satisfied with a job well done, there would have to be some unease at the performance of the inner line of defence. The experienced trio had a difficult opening 35 minutes, but improved after the break.
Kilkenny’s difficulties in this area stem principally from not having a settled full-back. J.J. Delaney has, without question, been one of Kilkenny’s best defenders during the past decade but he is a reluctant volunteer for the No. 3 jersey. Number seven is by far his favoured position.
If Noel Hickey is to figure on the full-back line, he is best suited to a central position. Having played most of his career at full-back is it fair to ask the great Dunnamaggin stalwart to now move to a corner?
Our best prospect right now for full-back is John Dalton. He has plenty of experience in the role and has the ability to develop into an outstanding No. 3.
Tyrrell to bounce back
Jackie Tyrrell had a rare off-day. He remains one of the county’s best defenders and we can expect to see him bounce back. Given the amount of possession which Rory Jacob gained against Tyrrell, he should have raised a few more flags.
The message to emerge from Wexford Park was that this Kilkenny team is in very good health with a new found determination clearly visible. The team had its detractors after the League final and while some criticism was justified, there is nothing to instill the passion in a Kilkenny hurler than a Cat scorned.
Impressive and all as the result was, we need to keep it in context. Wexford were very poor. Sadly for the Slaneysiders it turned out to be yet another false dawn.
Kilkenny can expect a much sterner test from the winners of next weekend’s other semi-final between Galway and Dublin.