Fitzhenry fired up for action as Cats clash beckons

YOU might be inclined to think that Damien Fitzhenry could have picked a different game to make his comeback in the Allianz National Hurling League after injury, rather than lining up against All-Ireland champions Kilkenny on Sunday, even though it’s a home game in Wexford Park.

However, apart from the fact that the choice was not his, that John Meyler and his co-selectors decided it was opportune to reintroduce him after sitting on the bench for the games with Waterford and Antrim, he says he always enjoys playing against Kilkenny.

Yes, they have subjected them to a lot of misery, with no fewer than three big beatings from them last season alone, but 15 years on from making his senior debut, Fitzhenry is still motivated by the desire to test himself — and the team — against top opposition. And, he has no hesitation in saying that Kilkenny are still the best around.

“It’s the same as the fellow playing soccer,’’ he explains. “You want to play against the best and if he ends up playing against Manchester United, he is able to judge himself against the best there is. And, at the moment Kilkenny are the best that’s out there. You have to be striving to play the best!’’

This will be his first competitive game this year since being injured at the end of last season playing football with his club. He tore a medial ligament in his knee and that put him out of action for up to four months. At the same time, he considered himself lucky that he didn’t need surgery.

After a promising opening to the campaign, Wexford suffered a surprise defeat away to (Walsh Cup winners) Antrim.

Watching from the stand, he says it was easy to understand when it happened. “We didn’t perform at all, to be honest, and that’s not taking away from Antrim. They gave a great performance on the day. They were full of hunger and desire whereas our lads didn’t look as hungry. And when you are playing a team like that, it’s very hard to beat them.

“Okay, after starting with a great victory over Waterford, that was a bit of a ‘down’ day. But we’re looking forward to Sunday, looking forward to putting ourselves out against the best team in the country. After a game like this, you’ll really see where you are at this time of the year.’’

Unusually, they ran up against Kilkenny three times last year, in the league semi-final, the Leinster final and the All-Ireland semi-final.

They lost by a margin of 15 points in the first two and they went under by 13 points in the last game. That came after the high of the All-Ireland quarter-final win over Tipperary, when Fitzhenry goaled from a late free to give them a dramatic victory.

Other than the league semi-final last season, Wexford hadn’t played Kilkenny in a preliminary round since 2005, when they lost in Nowlan Park by a 30-point margin, their biggest defeat in over 30 years. Their best result in the league in recent times was a draw at the same venue five years ago, and they last defeated them (3-14 to 2-11) in New Ross in 2000.

What it shows is a continuing gap between themselves and their neighbours which successive management teams have been unable to bridge. Yet Fitzhenry is able to face up to that reality. “That’s just the way it is,’’ he commented. “There’s 10 of the top businessmen in Ireland and there are probably 500 behind them. You just go out there and give it your best.

“John Meyler brought a new impetus to the set-up. He has a lot of things under his belt from his time in Cork over the last 25 or 30 years. He brought some change to us last year. We’d be hoping we can up it a small bit this year and go one better!’’

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