There is only one way most hurling people can see tomorrow’s decider between Kilkenny and Wexford going — and it isn’t to the purple-and-gold.
Only once since Cody took over this Kilkenny team back in 1999 have the Cats failed to win Leinster, when Wexford caught them with a last-second goal in the semi-final of 2004.
During that period Kilkenny have administered some whopping defeats on all the other Leinster counties, the kind of defeats that leaves deep scars and burning memories.
Wexford have been on the end of several of those defeats. 2001 was particularly painful, 2003 not a whole lot better; significantly, however, and encouragingly for those who wish for a real contest tomorrow, Wexford have also been the team closest to Kilkenny. The thrilling win in 2004 apart, Wexford ran Kilkenny to two points in 2002, to three points in 2005, so the signs are there that they can compete.
That’s the last seven years taken care of, but what of the last seven months?
When John Meyler took over the Wexford hurlers this season, their fortunes were at a low ebb.
Well beaten by Kilkenny in last year’s Leinster final, (1-23 to 2-12), they fell even more heavily to Clare in the All-Ireland quarter-final, (1-27 to 1-15). It was a poisoned chalice, in a sense, but no better man than Meyler to take it up. A former All-Ireland winner with Cork, dual star with St. Finbarr’s in the city, the Wexford native was the man in charge of Kerry when they caused the biggest upset for decades in the Munster championship, when beating Waterford in 1993.
His time with Cork was less successful and John was one of the selectors forced to jump ship during the players’ strike of 2002, his blunt, uncompromising style not going down too well.
The experience gained in Cork, however, the attitude, the confidence, was what he brought to Wexford, and during the league, there was a new approach apparent.
They won a few, lost a few – the win over Clare in Ennis stands out – but overall, the impression was that Wexford were definitely improving under their new manager. A morale-boosting win over Galway in the league quarter-final added to that impression so that when Wexford went on to face Kilkenny in the semi-final, it was with a new spring in their step. Unfortunately for them, they came away with a familiar old result – another bad beating. So, where does that leave us now? After that game, John Meyler turned to Nigel Higgins, persuaded him to come back from self-imposed exile, made him captain. Nigel is in no doubt.
“They were 14 or 15 points ahead of us, so we had a lot of work to do,” he candidly admits. “Hopefully now we have most of that work done, bring it through tomorrow.”
But then, you ask Nigel his own memories of playing Kilkenny. “Getting beaten,” is his honest reply. Has he ever won against them? “No, I don’t think I’ve been on a winning team against Kilkenny at any level up along. I’ve played them at minor, U-21, twice at senior level — third time lucky, hopefully!”
And there’s the rub. For all Brian Cody’s admirable defence of the Leinster championship, for all that last year’s captain Jackie Tyrrell does his utmost to talk it up, Kilkenny travel in confidence, Wexford travel in hope.
“It’s another year, another All-Ireland series,” says Tyrrell. “And starting tomorrow we have a chance to win another Leinster title. In the long run there’s an All-Ireland title, everyone wants that and we’re no different. We might have won it last year alright but the drive and hunger is still there, driving us on. It starts tomorrow with a Leinster final. We’re going to have to be on top of our game because Wexford will be coming with a huge test.”