For Kilkenny getting to the Hurling League quarter-finals would be real progress

John Knox

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John Knox

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@kilkennypeoplesport

For Kilkenny getting to the Hurling League quarter-finals would be real progress

Wexford manager, Davy Fitzgerald (left) and Kilkenny selector, Derek Lyng

All set for blast off again, this time with perhaps even more propulsion built up by the extended break and maybe even a little cabin fever suffered when we were all incarcerated by the snow and Arctic-like weather.
Kilkenny versus Wexford in the Allianz National Hurling League at Nowlan Park on Sunday (2.30pm) with something big riding on the outcome.
What more could you want in early March?
And with the same pair booked in for an even more important date in the Leinster senior championship at Nowlan Park on June 9, the 2018 season promises to be as special as any in the past when the counties produced some stirring battles.
This is not the first, second or even the third season in which Kilkenny and Wexford have been booked into a busy schedule of clashes, but there is something very different this time.
For one, there is the new mood in Wexford under the intriguing management of Davy Fitzgerald, who, let us be honest, has worked wonders since his arrival in the hot seat.
It would be over stating things to suggest Wexford were struggling pre-Fitzgerald, but he has certainly given hurling in the county a massive lift and given players and fans alike a new found belief.
And Davy being Davy, he gets others to notice and react as he brings his unique style of management into play.
The lift, and what you could call the ’Fitzgerald Factor’, have been good for hurling.
Example, the huge crowd of over 60,000 that attended the Leinster final last season when Wexford qualified. When did that happen before?
Their sweeper system? They are good at it, so they are right to use it.
And like Waterford who employ the same system regularly, if the approach puts hardship on the opposition and poses questions for them, so be it.
Wexford, the strugglers of not so long ago, are a different proposition now since winning promotion from Division 1B last season, then qualifying for the Leinster final during a good run in the championship, when Kilkenny were among their victims.
Fearful start
Then on the other hand you have Kilkenny, or should we suggest ‘new Kilkenny’, who appear to be getting things together nicely after a fearful start to the League after years of dominance.
Good showings or not against Cork and Clare, those matches still ended in defeats.
Thankfully there was a strong, uplifting follow up to the early promise and wholehearted efforts.
Back to back wins over last year’s All-Ireland finalists, Waterford and then one of the powers of the moment, Tipperary, boosted spirits no end in the county.
The threat of relegation is still there in the background as far as the Cats are concerned, but the promising outlook long terms is far out-weighing any negative short term possibility right now.
And so, on to Nowlan Park on Sunday.
There is an important backdrop to the game.
Wexford will arrive seeking their fourth win on the trot against the Noresiders. Last year they beat Kilkenny in the League quarter-finals and the Leinster championship.
In late January they beat Kilkenny in the Walsh Cup final, albeit on a frees shoot-out after extra time failed to separate the teams. Still, the four in-a-row is a possibility.
Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody, doesn’t pay any heed to such matters.
He largely sees them as facts for journalists to play around with.
For him and his management team of Michael Dempsey, James McGarry and Derek Lyng each game is a contest to be taken individually and on the day.
There are no sidebars, no quirky facts or figures that might sway the issue on the day. It is about performance, the players, they correctly point out.
However, and people can protest this issue all they like, a situation that might end in four in-a-row losers doesn’t sit well with Kilkenny. No siree!
Kilkenny haven’t parked their dominance of recent times, the attitude that helped them reach dizzy heights, just like that.
Fans hope. They long. They still believe.
The players who wear the colours are driven. It’s human nature, with a distinct Kilkenny twist.
Wexford have their hopes and dreams too. Ditto the fans.
Irrespective of the outcome of the game at Nowlan Park, the Slaneysiders are still through to the quarter-finals. That shouldn’t change their mood.
Winning a habit
Davy Fitzgerald is aware that you can’t turn on and off for games when you like. He has always expressed the importance of winning, winning, winning.
Their top players like Shaun Murphy, Conor McDonald, Paul Morris, Matthew O’Hanlon, goalie Mark Fanning - he scored 1-2 against Kilkenny in the League last year - the wonderful Lee Chin and company have to believe they have taken a step on a major journey.
The challenge is to drive on this season.
Wexford have already made considerable gains. They won the Walsh Cup, snatching it from Kilkenny. They have secured their stay in Division 1A.
Kilkenny suggested in the Walsh Cup final against Wexford that they have worked out this sweeper system and how to cope with it.
One liked their high pressure, short puck-out, short passing, fluid and free flowing game.
That is a difficult game to play, requiring a high level of accuracy when using the ball and protecting possession.
It wasn’t regular Kilkenny, if you like.
However, it was challenge specific, and it was effective.
In some ways, that is where the game has gone. That is where Kilkenny must go.
Remember that during the early part of the century and up to a couple of years ago when Kilkenny were all powerful they largely set the mood in hurling. Their power game was looked on by others as something to be challenged and countered.
The boot is on the other foot now. While the fundamentals of hurling remain largely the same, the tactical approach can be very different in different matches.
‘New Kilkenny’ are being challenge now!
Not surprisingly, they are rising to the challenge.
Getting to the League quarter-finals would be a sign of progress.
The players know that. Even better, they want it!