Confident Cats never forced out of the comfort zone

NOT quite a damp squib, but this disappointing Guinness Leinster hurling final in Croke Park yesterday sadly lacked the key ingredients of competitiveness and atmosphere which delighted fans in Thurles the previous week.

Blame it on the predictability of the outcome, on the poor finishing which seriously undermined Wexford’s performance or on the fact that subconsciously, an eighth title in nine years didn’t stretch Kilkenny ambitions beyond doing what was necessary on the day.

After the excellent provincial football semi-final which preceded it, the game was dull and often pedestrian — not what the highly respectable 44,000 attendance would have wished for. It might have been different if the challengers had been able to mount a sustained challenge after a promising early second-half recovery, but even that proved impossible once Brian Cody’s team lifted its standard.

It was to Wexford’s credit that they got quickly into their stride at the start after conceding three points in the opening six minutes. Eoin Quigley began at centre-forward (swapping with Darren Stamp) and a rearrangement in their full-back line saw David ‘Doc’ O’Connor given the task of man-marking Henry Shefflin in the right corner. And, in the sense that he managed to clear a decent amount of ball, it proved a good move.

What was especially impressive about the Wexford play was their industry around the field — more impressive than Kilkenny, who appeared sluggish enough at stages — and a greater alertness to the breaking ball. It saw them create plenty of chances in attack, with Quigley prominent and Rory Jacob winning good possession on the left wing.

However, with the exception of scoring one point (the team’s first, in the 11th minute), Jacob’s striking left him down, undermining the team at a time when they had generated more momentum and Quigley was prominent at midfield. In addition, Kilkenny began to tighten up in defence, where Noel Hickey was very steady under pressure and JJ Delaney improved as the game developed.

Though they drew level in the 15th minute, Wexford had accumulated half of the ten wides they would hit by the interval, and it was no surprise when the more dependable Kilkenny went back in front shortly afterwards through Richie Mullally. Notably, that score came about through the hard work of Martin Comerford, who was proving the biggest threat in the right corner. In contrast, Eoin Larkin looked out of place at full-forward and made no headway against Keith Rossiter.

Comerford set up Henry Shefflin for the team’s only goal in the 19th minute, when the Kilkenny sharpshooter calmly doubled on the ball to the net.

As Wexford continued to spoil good approach work and very effective defending from Declan Ruth at centre-back, Kilkenny picked off a few scores with relative ease to open up a widening gap on the scoreboard. Twice they came close to getting goals, first when Shefflin uncharacteristically blew the ball wide in the 30th minute after goalkeeper Damien Fitzhenry had battled a clearance in his direction.

Shortly afterwards, with Fitzhenry caught off his line, O’Connor had to deflect a powerful shot from Comerford over the bar.

Earlier, Fitzhenry himself had an opportunity to put the ball in the net when the energetic Rory McCarthy was fouled by Delaney in the small square. However, he hit the resultant penalty too high and it sailed over the bar. At the break, Kilkenny enjoyed an eight-point lead, 1-9 to 0-4.

Significantly, a more determined Wexford had managed to match their meagre first-half total within seven minutes of the resumption. Three were frees scored by Stephen Doyle, who also impressed in general play for a while. And the team’s determined play was rewarded with a superb goal from Rory Jacob, which was noteworthy for the great skill he showed in finishing as four Kilkenny defenders converged on him.

With the margin down to a mere three points, there was the expectation of the game at last coming to life. But even that promise wasn’t realised. Kilkenny upped the tempo in defence, where Jackie Tyrrell and Tommy Walsh came into their own in the half-back line, and helped by a number of substitutions, they produced six points in a ten-minute period. But for a vital interception by Malachy Travers, when he spoiled Eoin Larkin, the total would have been even greater.

Nevertheless, the damage had been done — to Wexford and the game. The best that could be said about the losers was that they continued to put in a big effort, with Ruth again to the forefront, and were to be rewarded with a second goal from substitute Michael Jacob in the last minute.

However, in terms of being able to dislodge the champions, they just weren’t up to the mark.

Scorers: Kilkenny: H. Shefflin 1-7 (0-5 frees); M. Comerford 0-4; R. Power 0-3; E. Brennan and J. Fitzpatrick 0-2 each; R. Mullally, D. Lyng, J. Tyrrell, M. Rice and M. Fennelly 0-1 each. Wexford: M. Jacob 1-4; R. Jacob 1-2; S. Doyle 0-3 frees; E. Quigley, D. Ruth (free) and D. Fitzhenry (penalty) 0-1 each.

KILKENNY: J. McGarry; D. Cody, J.J. Delaney, N. Hickey; J. Tyrrell (c), J. Tennyson, T. Walsh; D. Lyng, R. Mullally; E. Brennan, J. Fitzpatrick, M. Rice; M. Comerford, E. Larkin, H. Shefflin.

Subs: M. Fennelly for Mullaly (46th minute); R. Power for Larkin (66th); W. O’Dwyer for Fitzpatrick (65th).

WEXFORD: D. Fitzhenry; D. O’Connor, K. Rossiter (c), M. Travers; R. Kehoe, D. Ruth, D. Lyng; D. Stamp, C. Kenny; R. McCarthy, E. Quigley, P.J. Nolan; S. Doyle, M. Jordan, R. Jacob.

Subs: M. Jacob for Kenny and M.J. Furlong for Jordan (second half); T. Mahon for Stamp (57th minute); M. Doyle for Nolan (64th).

Referee: D. Kirwan (Cork). *Diarmuid Kirwan had an easy job of refereeing and did it well.

*Attendance: 44,081 (last year, 35,010).