Padraig Walsh is shaping up as Kilkenny's full-back for the championship
One would suspect it is a far from ideal situation for either Kilkenny or Wexford bearing in mind what is coming down the road in the Leinster championship, but the counties have to get on with it.
And so for the third time this season they will clash in a hurling contest, each time with the stakes rising, and this time in the Allianz National League semi-final in Wexford Park on Sunday (2pm).
A mere 10 weeks to the day further down the line, on Saturday, June 9 to be precise, the counties are booked in for their fourth and most serious clash of the season in the last round of the Round Robin Leinster championship series in Nowlan Park.
By any yardstick that would be classed as a heavy block of bookings, and one thing is for sure, the Kilkenny and Wexford players will know each other by the time this season runs it course.
Of course it is all adding to the intrigue of the broader hurling agenda.
Wexford are emerging from the darkness under the inspiring leadership of new manager, Davy Fitzgerald.
Kilkenny, or as we like to remind these times, ’New Kilkenny’ are finding their way with a seriously reshaped squad following a batch of retirements after an unprecedented run of success over nearly two decades.
There is not much room for ducking and diving now, what with both counties interested in winning the League.
Fans will get a fair idea this weekend of the thinking of Fitzgerald and his backroom team on Wexford’s best XV, while Kilkenny boss, Brian Cody and his selectors, Michael Dempsey, James McGarry and Derek Lyng will definitely field the finest they have at the moment as both bid for a place in the decider on Sunday, April 8.
The reference to Kilkenny “at the moment” is because there is doubt about the involvement of regular goalie, Eoin Murphy because of a neck injury; serious doubt about Richie Hogan (back injury) and Conor Fogarty (virus), while Irish Army peace keepers, Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly are away in South Lebanon and Kevin Kelly (St Patrick’s) is out of all hurling until July at least with a serious knee injury.
Cody never paid much attention to the ‘what if?’ situation in terms of injuries and so on. Therefore take it that the majority of those who make the XV on Saturday are the leading contenders for the opening match against Dublin in Leinster on Sunday, June 13.
Of course injuries and who shows up well in pre-championship training will ultimately decide things for June, but the players who will be given their head on Saturday can be considered the current leading contenders.
It will be either Murphy or Darren Brennan in goal. The full-back line of Joey Holden, Padraig Walsh and Paddy Deegan seems to be settling in, and in front of them Conor Delaney (5) and Cillian Buckley (6) could easily be joined by Enda Morrissey, who is making sure and steady progress.
After that things become complicated. For the most recent clash with Wexford the young pairing of Richie Leahy and James Maher got the nod in midfield.
The make-up of the attack will be interesting. T.J. Reid is the leader. He scored 24 points in his last two matches, which is some going.
He will be joined by Walter Walsh and probably Ger Aylward, with Liam Blanchfield, Martin Keoghan, John Donnelly and Pat Lyng the ones battling for the balance of the places.
Brian Cody restated his well known standard position after the quarter-final win over Offaly that Kilkenny were interested in winning the League. There were no ifs, buts or maybes. The position was absolute.
While that performance showed what could be considered a dip in form after good momentum was built up with earlier victories over Waterford, Tipperary and Wexford, it must be taken in context.
The selectors have been very good at measuring the extent to which they can stretch the squad in various contests. For example, against Offaly Conor Browne, Ollie Walsh and Richie Reid were all given game time after missing out on action before that.
The inclusion in defence of the young James Stephens lad was the only change at the back, while Walsh formed a new midfield pairing with Richie Leahy and Reid and Liam Blanchfield were introduced in attack. Blanchfield certainly made the best of the opportunity.
Changes like that can interrupt the flow on things, and on top of that, Offaly’s much improved form impacted seriously on the situation too.
Expect the Kilkenny team for Saturday to be more along the lines of the one that beat Wexford in Nowlan Park three weeks ago, as suggested above, because that shape/combination appears to be the direction the Cats are heading at the moment.
Wexford are chopping and changing too. In Nowlan Park they had Conor O’Leary in goal, Conor Firman in defence and Aaron Maddock in attack.
That trio didn’t figure against All-Ireland champions, Galway in Saturday’s quarter-final as regular guardian, Mark Fanning was recalled, Willie Devereux was back in defence and that wonderful athlete, Lee Chin was started in attack.
Wexford’s find of the season has to be wing-back, Paudie Foley, who, by the way, shot six points (five frees) against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park.
He added five more against Galway, so the dangers of conceded frees around midfield or the opposing ‘40’ are obvious. Foley, for whatever reason, didn’t figure among the 26 listed against Kilkenny in the championship last year, but he has been a huge player this season.
Wexford are getting their championship face on, no doubt about it.
Okay, by now we all know about Wexford’s sweeper system and the employment of great game reader Shaun Murphy in the pivotal role.
Their free running game was curtailed to a degree by Galway’s tight match plan on Saturday, and in the end the balance tilted when the All-Ireland champions had a man sent off nearing the finish.
Still the form of Matthew O’Hanlon, Murphy, Conor McDonald, Chin, Diarmuid O’Keeffe, Foley and Jack O’Connor was hugely impressive. And the way Wexford won in a tight finish must have boosted confidence no end.
Wexford are a physically imposing team, and the backing they are sure to get in Wexford Park should be worth a few points to them.
To be honest, one would expect that there will be more of an edge to the exchanges than was the case last weekend when Kilkenny visit Wexford Park. And the crowd will swell well way beyond the 7,100 who were in the venue last weekend.
Kilkenny appear to have a better handle on managing the sweeper system now, and they are doing so without dropping their busy bee approach. The Cats have made significant progress since they were last beaten by Clare four games ago, but Wexford will pose huge, huge questions this time.
The championship and June 9 will be at play in the background this time. Consequently, neither side will hold anything back.
If Kilkenny can survive this test, the significance will go way beyond winning a place in the League final!
Wexford’s odds to win the League (Dr Croke Cup) were slashed in half after they knocked out defending champions, Galway at Innovate Wexford Park.
The Model County set up a semi-final clash with Kilkenny following a 1-23 to 0-23 win over Galway and can now be backed at 9/2 for the National Hurling League Division 1 after shortening in from 9/1.
Kilkenny bagged their spot in the semi-finals thanks to a 0-24 to 1-19 win over Offaly on Monday at O’Connor Park and were cut from 7/2 to 3/1 as a result.
Tipperary have shortened further as the ones to beat, now 6/5 from 6/4, for the Dr Croke Cup.