Psychologists advise players to embrace the occasion and the pressure but it doesn’t always work like that. Kilkenny are favourites. However, they arrive into Wexford Park with questions to answer, without the combative Michael Fennelly or Padraig Walsh.
In the quarter-final of the league, the gap in fitness was clearly evident. Wexford were well ahead of the home team in this regard and very close to peak championship fitness. They now have to peak again for this game. This is difficult. Wexford spent a week in Portugal recently to prepare for this year’s championship. Players work hard on physical conditioning in these ‘warm weather’ training camps. However, one has to be very careful not to dull the players’ edge, as less usually means more with physical preparation. Wexford have been training very hard since late last year and it is easy to arrive at this juncture ‘overcooked’ as it’s tricky to get fitness levels spot on, having peaked earlier in the spring.
Kilkenny are always superbly conditioned for championship games. It is an area that gets little media attention but physical trainer Michael Dempsey always has his team in great shape. I cannot recall any championship game where their physical fitness let them down. Kilkenny were well off championship fitness in April. It is a full ten weeks since they lost to Wexford. It’s easier to build up to the required levels of fitness incrementally, with a steady increase in physical conditioning over a period. Dempsey will have planned to peak tonight resulting in superior sharpness.
If I was involved with Kilkenny, I would make midfield the battleground to gain an advantage in two areas. It could unhinge Wexford’s man-marking plans for Kilkenny’s big guns and it would also clog up an area through which Wexford launch running attacks via Lee Chin, Diarmaid O’Keeffe and Aidan Nolan. I would position TJ Reid at centre-half forward, constantly alternating between his position and midfield. Richie Hogan would also operate outside. Both would act as receivers for outlet ball from defence (Diagram 1).
In Nowlan Park, the Cats defenders struck many long aimless deliveries which were gathered up by Wexford sweeper Shaun Murphy, who had a big influence on proceedings. Kilkenny should have learned from this. Hogan and Reid are huge personalities on their team. Their presence in midfield would encourage defenders to look for them with crisp 30/35m deliveries.
Long-range point scoring would form part of the Kilkenny plan and both Reid and Hogan are accurate from distance.They are also instinctive support runners. They would have the freedom to join attacks, to link with their inside attackers and thereby bypass the Wexford sweeper. It is very difficult to track runners when they are coming from deep and this tactic would present a greater challenge for designated man-markers.
Cillian Buckley with Lester Ryan would also operate in this area. This would provide a big physical presence in this sector. All four are effective scorers and carriers of the ball. Running at the opposition, scoring from long range while providing cover for the defence could be achieved with this four in midfield.
I would play Colin Fennelly and Ger Aylward inside. Pace is essential near goal and Aylward carries a big goal threat. Walter Walsh would line out at right-half forward with instructions to track his marker back into midfield and when attacking to run at the defence at every opportunity.
Kilkenny’s defence was dragged about in their quarter-final defeat. I would delegate Conor Fogarty to man-mark the dangerous Conor McDonald, who alternates between full-forward and the wing. This is a compact ground. Mark Fanning’s puckouts will easily reach the ‘D’ and land well beyond it if there’s a breeze. Wexford only play four forwards so the wholehearted Kieran Joyce, who reads the game well, would operate on the ‘D’. He would have no man marking duties, playing as a ‘libero’ (Kilkenny don’t do sweepers), sweeping behind the half-backs while the corner-backs hold their positions.
Davy Fitzgerald is aware that Kilkenny won’t set up in the same positions, particularly up front, as they did in Nowlan Park. In that league game, Wexford’s plans and match-ups were implemented to a tee. However, the Cats have had time to reflect on Wexford’s system and develop their plans to negate or at least to limit their gameplan.
Kilkenny have been using 17v17 games in training to mirror the lack of time and space expected tonight. Wexford’s system works best when they are in front. They can then sit back and defend in numbers. Planning for this game, Fitzgerald will have dissected his system as if he was Brian Cody. He knows that Kilkenny will defend deep to stop his team building any lead and then attempt to hit them on the counter-attack, at pace. Goalkeeper Mark Fanning’s puckout strategy will be crucial to Wexford’s efforts. He has to bypass midfield with accurate deliveries to the wings. Of course, if there is a fresh breeze towards the town end, with the sun in the eyes of the defence, it may be profitable to go ‘route one’ to McDonald or Guiney or both.
But Wexford will get many opportunities to strike short puckouts. James Breen man-marked TJ Reid in Nowlan Park but his defensive skills may be needed nearer to goal, to police Ger Aylward. He may be first receiver for short puckouts but the next offload must be to Shaun Murphy, in a central position to take possession to the 45m line. Murphy will then have the option of moving the ball accurately to the right or left wings, beyond midfield.
Lee Chin, Jack O’Connor or Jack Guiney, all good in the air, would be the targets. In turn, they would look for the support runs in the centre from David Redmond or from the pacy Aidan Nolan breaking forward from midfield. Alternatively, they could swing diagonal high balls across the square, always a problem for full-backs, towards their greatest goal threat, McDonald.
Kilkenny won’t name their team until just before throw-in. It is a more closely-guarded secret than those of Fatima. The only other time this happened in the Cody era was for a replay against Galway in 2014.