Eddie Brennan says tomorrow’s NHL semi-final between Wexford and Kilkenny will be “as close as you can get to championship fare”.
The sides will also face each other in the Leinster championship later in the year, and Kilkenny icon Brennan says the league semi-final may not suit their preparations for that summer clash.
”In a way I don’t know if either team would have wanted the game. Looking at the last round of games in the league Davy (Fitzgerald, Wexford manager) might have wanted to keep his psychological advantage.
“Looking at the fixtures from a long way back, I felt if Wexford could win the Walsh Cup game in Nowlan Park they’d be happy, but that Davy would be looking to keep his powder dry for the big day, because that game could be a Leinster semi-final — or, potentially, if something didn’t work out along the way, a game that would knock one of them out of the championship.
“I think Brian (Cody, Kilkenny manager) will love it, and Davy can’t but treat it as a championship game, really. There’s a lot at stake for Wexford in terms of reaching a league final. Would they have wanted to make a league final? Absolutely. They probably didn’t want to go this route but that’s what they have.
“I think Brian will put a massive amount into winning this. I think it’ll be as close as you can get to championship fare and you’ll have a really spicy affair tomorrow. It’s been bubbling.
“One aspect of Davy’s system is that lads don’t get pushed around, and he does pinpoint opposition players — there are a couple of Wexford lads he’s developed into abrasive players, ‘bold’ in the right sense. Last year they showed that, they were in Kilkenny’s faces, and they’re a big, strong team.
“Aside from the league, by the way, it’s also very good for Leinster hurling. It’s creating a much bigger interest in hurling in the province, which was something we were crying out for for years.”
Wexford made the semi-final by knocking out All-Ireland champions Galway last week; Brennan feels Galway boss Micheál Donoghue will be relatively happy with his side’s league campaign: “I’d say Micheál wouldn’t have minded another game but as All-Ireland champions his lads are just a week or two behind other teams, so he can send them back to the clubs and then get that training into them for the championship.
“The likes of Joe (Canning) got a good run-out, for instance, in a similar role to last year, when he seemed to play out the field more, putting in tackles and collecting balls from the others — and hitting points from 90, 100 yards. Micheál’s tried another few lads too and he’ll have the likes of Jason Flynn, Niall Burke ready for the championship — and younger lads like Tom Monaghan and Sean Loftus who are creating all competition in the squad.
“Micheál will know his 15 but he’ll have a few options as well, and the reality is that this year’s championship format will really test your squad. Lads who might have seen themselves as the last sub for the first championship game might find themselves as starters two games into it. All teams have been using a lot of players in the league and pre-season competitions to build that squad.”
Kilkenny among them. Brennan sees grounds for optimism for the Cats this year.
“There are a few problems there to shore up but have they settled things down a bit? I think so.
“Brian’s found a few lads who might not start every championship game but they’ll be able to do a job. There’s plenty there to be happy about.
“Richie Hogan I thought was close enough to full fitness a few weeks ago, so they may be holding him a bit to make sure, but I think they may have to plan without Colin Fennelly and Paul Murphy (on army duty in the Lebanon) for the first couple of games, because they won’t be back too long and they won’t have much done. They may need to try Richie in midfield as a result.
“The one thing I was worried about for Kilkenny was their first championship match, against Dublin, but they haven’t been going well at all. Playing against 14-man Tipp the last day, I thought that was the ideal tee-up for them to go out and give a performance to set up their championship, but it went the other way.
“For Kilkenny, given the disappointment from last year’s championship through to the morning after losing to Cork in the league, and given where they are now, I think Brian will be sending a very bullish Kilkenny team out tomorrow.
“He’ll put a massive value on this match because it’s another high-stakes, high-tempo, pressurised match for the younger guys in particular, and if they got to a league final, and another game like that, all the better.
“The only concern would be TJ Reid getting injured, because his form is so good at the moment. He’s helping the younger lads, too — the likes of Richie Leahy plays well off him, so he gives you even more than his scoring and ball-winning.
“To be honest, I can’t wait for the game.”
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