In various conversations with the three Kilkenny Sunday Game analysts — Henry Shefflin, Jackie Tyrell and Eddie Brennan — over the last couple of months, you could almost sense the manic, primal Kilkennyesque ferocity in them anytime Wexford and June 10 was mentioned, writes Anthony Daly.
Without having to ask any of them if they’d like to be playing this evening, I’d say if Brian Cody offered them a jersey, they’d all suspend their retirements for a couple of hours to take up arms.
One of them said to me recently that he thought if Cody never won another match, he wouldn’t care as long as he won this one. Cody and the whole of Kilkenny never like losing, especially in Nowlan Park, but the manner of the defeat to Wexford in the league quarter-final in April left a bitter aftertaste. Kilkenny felt they were bullied, that Wexford sewed it in to them.
There was, allegedly, some ‘extras’ going on, something which Kilkenny absolutely despise, and usually give only one answer to at the next available opportunity.
The cynics would say that Davy Fitzgerald overdid it, that he should have kept his powder dry, that he shouldn’t have showed his hand that day in Nowlan Park, that he was off his rocker to dial up the heat and poke the big pussycat. I don’t blame Fitzy. It could have often seemed that Clare and Dublin teams that I managed threw games over the years but I never believed that counties like Clare, Dublin or Wexford couldn’t take a match against a ‘ big three’ side desperately serious, that we couldn’t really go for it.
Wexford know now that they can compete with Kilkenny. They may not necessarily beat them again this evening but anytime you can take down Kilkenny, it has to mean something.
For Wexford, that win in April is stored in their memory bank. It is something significant that those players will hope to borrow from when the heat is white hot later on and even in seasons to come.
The terms and conditions have still changed slightly since that meeting two months ago.
The surprise element is gone from Wexford now. They have had their injury concerns in the meantime, whereas Kilkenny have got bodies back, including some marquee players like Michael Fennelly (maybe) and Ger Aylward. Kilkenny’s attack struggled against Wexford’s sweeper system but this evening’s Kilkenny forward line has a far more threatening and menacing look to it.
I saw a lot of Kilkenny’s game during the league. Richie Hogan’s form was largely poor but I thought Richie was only gliding throughout the spring. That’s a mindset experienced players often adopt in the second part of their careers, where they feel the need to take the foot off the accelerator and store some gas for later in the season.
I felt that happened to some of the Tipperary lads after the epic with Kilkenny in mid-March. They coasted for a while afterwards and found it hard to pick it up again but I don’t see that as being an issue for Richie or any of the other Kilkenny lads here given what is at stake.
Psychologically, it’s a huge boost anytime you beat Kilkenny but you also appreciate that the beast has been wounded and you sense the impending retribution on the way. When Dublin hockeyed Kilkenny in the 2011 league final, we couldn’t drown out the noise ahead of our Leinster final meeting with them two months later. All we were hearing from people was the impending backlash, the snarling teeth, the potential pain about to be visited on us.
We did our best to focus on ourselves but we still got sucked into what Kilkenny could do to us. In the end, it became a self-fulfilling prophesy because Kilkenny did to us what most lads expected them to. That is the key for Wexford now. They know there is going to be ferocity in the air but they just have to accept that and concentrate on their own task. There is no point getting wound up trying to meet the onslaught head on. If Wexford are so psyched up that it clouds the mental clarity they need for this battle, there will only be one result.
Kilkenny are like the beast who gets the sniff of blood is his nostrils — they sense the kill is close and they go for it. I always found that with Kilkenny, that they can easily smell blood. There was nearly always a moment in the game where if they scored a goal, or forced a massive turnover, the whole lot of them ignite.
It was almost a collective roar, ‘Now is the time to drive it down their neck.’ If they sense any doubts or insecurities from Wexford this evening, Kilkenny will.
There is pressure on Wexford too. There is also the danger of a Wexford meltdown. It has happened Fitzy’s teams before in big games with huge expectation; the 2008 All-Ireland final; the 2011 Munster final. This game has almost been built up to be as big as a Leinster final. I saw a photograph during the week of Martin Storey in a queue trying to get a ticket for this evening, which further underlines how big this game is.
That type of public expectation can get in on players but I’m Fitzy will have learned from those painful defeats of the past to ensure that the pressure doesn’t swallow them up again.
The way this has bubbled up though, I’m sure Cody is relishing the furnace Wexford Park will be. The way he often rubs his hands together during games, like he’s trying to heat his hands on a cold day, is often an indicator of how pumped and into it he is when the heat is rising.
I’d say the skin could come off his palms this evening. In a way, it’s a pity Fitzy isn’t on the line beside him to ramp up the drama and intrigue even more.
From the soundings I’m getting, Kilkenny are sore from more than just that earlier Wexford defeat. At any of the championship preview nights I was at in May, they were hardly even mentioned as All-Ireland contenders. They are not as good as they were. Even looking at the U21s recently against Dublin, there didn’t look to be too many attacking options that Cody will be using this year.
But then you look at the forward line they can still name this evening and you know that, deep down — especially after Tipp’s performance against Cork — Kilkenny are convincing themselves that they can win this All-Ireland.
In other years, Kilkenny would have one eye on what’s going on elsewhere but everything has been poured into June 10th. Even before the league quarter-final defeat, this date has been etched on all of their minds. It might not even be coming from Cody. I’m sure guys like James McGarry, Derek Lyng and Kilkenny’s main players have been asking all week, ‘Hi, do we not owe this man this one? Are we going to let him down here.’
The Lion and his pride have been wounded in their own den.
The claws have been sharpened. And I expect to see a backlash later this evening.
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