The defending champions did the business and secured a semi-final spot, but it wasn’t all plain sailing for Kilkenny in Wexford Park.
The gulf in class between the Division 1A and 1B representatives was generally obvious and was underlined by the finishing scoreline, but still there was a lesson for Kilkenny in the vicious way a hurling game can swing.
The winners oozed class and were full of invention and spontaneity during a thrilling opening when they zipped 2-8 to 0-6 ahead after 23 minutes. You feared for Wexford in this Allianz National Hurling League tie.
Twice subsequently the divide was secured at what appeared a handy eight point advantage, yet determined Wexford all but dismantled it and were a mere point down at the break (2-10 to 1-12).
Within 30 seconds of the restart Kilkenny had the ball in the Wexford net, Mark Kelly engineering the opening for T.J. Reid to score after a busy Richie Hogan launched the attack. However, it was the period between the 27th and 35th minutes when Kilkenny all but lost a big lead that served as a reminder that no matter how good a team is travelling, it has to keep the foot to the floor.
“We know an eight point lead in hurling is nothing special,” manager, Brian Cody, said when asked afterwards for his thoughts on that passage of play. “The players got back on track and the quick goal after half time was crucial.
“It shouldn’t be overlooked that Wexford are a good team. They played some great hurling at times. They showed serious potential. I was impressed by them.”
It is not that we want to home in on the negative. Far from it. The team, the panel is evolving, and these things are part of the process. However, the game turned away from Kilkenny during that period. A few questionable calls by the referee, the most blatant being a trip on Joey Holden that went unpunished and led to a Wexford score, prompted cries from the Kilkenny fans that is no way could be interpreted as approving.
“A couple of things coming up to half-time had a serious bearing on the game, and then Wexford had a goal just before the break which was a huge lift for them,” was all Mr Cody was prepared to say on that matter. “The lads settled down early in the second half and got and created a good number of scores.
“Six, seven, eight points of a lead in hurling is nothing,” he added.
Victory was rewarded with a semi-final place against Galway on Sunday fortnight in the Gaelic Grounds, Limerick.
Kilkenny’s early hurling was ever so sweet; a delight to watch as they rifled inch perfect passes all over the park. Richie Power and Walter Walsh were a right pair of mischief makers as they sprayed passes across the field to each other before taking scores.
While Wexford had the opening point from wing-back, Diarmuid O’Keeffe, the winners had the ball in the net through Walsh after only 90 seconds. Power was the provider.
The home team nearly conceded a second big score from close range to Mark Kelly after Colin Fennelly split the defence, but goalie Mark Fanning brought off a first class save. The slick Kilkenny hurling continued. The second goal arrived in the 20th minute from T.J. Reid after Kelly laid off a beautifully weighted pass after claiming a sideline cut from Hogan (2-7 to 0-6).
Wexford conceded the next minor to Reid from a free following a head high tackle on Hogan. The next four points were equally divided so that eight minutes off the break Wexford were 0-8 to 2-10 behind.
From there to the rest the game was taken over by the losers. Ian Byrne started an unanswered run of 1-3 with a point from a free. The Ferns clubman snapped up the goal in the 35th minute that capped a great finish to the half by the Slaneysiders and blew the match wide open.
The divide was suddenly down to 2-10 (16) to 1-12 (15). The change in fortunes was dramatic. At their best Wexford looked good, in fact, very good.
The new half was barely 30 seconds old when normal service was resumed. Kilkenny plundered a goal. T.J. Reid provided the finish from close range at the country end after Mark Kelly drew the cover before parting with the ball.
A minute or so later Kelly stole a ball off a defender before shooting a point. Rory Jacob landed one at the other end - awarded after the referee spoke with the umpires who had first ruled it out - before Kilkenny reeled off three in quick succession. Reid, Jackie Tyrrell and Power were the scorers.
The contest was at an end - 3-14 to 1-13. If it wasn’t then, it sure was a minute later when T.J. Reid slammed a low free at goal from the right. The ball ended in the net off a defender’s hurley.
An interesting showing from Kilkenny. Joey Holden was the most consistent performer, hurling well during the team’s good times and bad. Jackie Tyrrell looked good at centre-back. When going full blast, the attack looked oh so capable, with T.J. Reid special.
Wexford’s best were Rory Jacob, who was a handful throughout, Lee Chin, Ian Byrne, Matthew O’Hanlon in the first half and Ciaran Kenny.
Scorers: Kilkenny - T.J. Reid (3-8, 1-4 frees, one 65); Walter Walsh (1-3); Richie Power, Mark Kelly (0-3 each); Michael Fennelly (0-2 each); Richie Hogan, Jackie Tyrrell, Eoin Larkin (0-1 each). Wexford - Ian Byrne (1-8, six points frees); Rory Jacob (1-2); Liam Og McGovern (0-2); Diarmuid O’Keeffe, Harry Kehoe, Jack Guiney, Podge Doran (0-1 each).
Kilkenny - Eoin Murphy, Paul Murphy, J.J. Delaney, Joey Holden, Conor Fogarty, Jackie Tyrrell, Kieran Joyce, Padraig Walsh, Richie Hogan, Walter Walsh, Colin Fennelly, T.J.Reid, Richie Power, Mark Kelly, Eoin Larkin. Subs - Michael Fennelly for P. Murphy 49th min; Brian Hogan for Delaney 53rd min; Henry Shefflin for Larkin 58th min; Tommy Walsh for Fogarty 63rd min; Aidan Fogarty for Walsh (inj) 64th min.
Wexford - Mark Fanning, Keith Rossiter, Matthew O’Hanlon, Eoin Moore, Diarmuid O’Keeffe, Lee Chin, Ciaran Kenny, Shane Tomkins, Harry Kehoe, Paul Morris, Conor McDonald, Ian Byrne, Rory Jacob, Jack Guiney, Liam Og McGovern. Subs - Andrew Shore for Tomkins 18th min; Liam Ryan for Rossiter 46th min; Podge Doran for Morris 48th min; Willie Devereux for O’Keeffe 51st min; Eanna Martin for Kenny 55th min.
Ref - C. McAllister (Cork).