Nobody likes a spoilsport.
You know, the kind of team who’d go to Wexford Park tonight and, when everyone else is yearning for a home victory, have the temerity to beat the locals and disappoint the nation.
Or the kind of pundit who, when romance and chivalry cry out that he tip Wexford, gets all fusty and logical and declares that while they may confine Kilkenny to a manageable total they’ll almost certainly have trouble compiling a winning tally themselves.
Or the kind of manager who doesn’t do romance and chivalry and isn’t interested in the welfare of small nations.
Or Brian Cody, as he’s otherwise known.
To be as joyless and clinical about it as possible, Wexford are unlikely to outpoint the Leinster champions tonight, meaning that they’ll need two – probably three – goals in order to win. That’s an obvious issue for them. But Kilkenny have an obvious issue too. Full-back. And the only position graver than full-back when it comes to having issues attached is goalkeeper.
Cody having decided against naming a team on Thursday, all will be revealed shortly before throw-in. There’s no truth in the rumour that he’s spent the intervening 48 hours channelling Richard III and moaning, “A full-back, a full-back, my kingdom for a horse of a full-back!”
One can see why he might be worried though. One can equally see why, as one of the finest representatives of the species, he may not have been impressed by the defending of the full-backs in the championship to date.
James Barry, a centre-back by trade and instinct, has done a manful job in the number three jersey for Tipperary but against Cork he was at fault for both goals, failing to stand up Seamus Harnedy in the lead-up to the first and, for the second, bullocking in under the dropping ball when he should have held back and waited for the break.
Against Clare six days ago Richie McCarthy was no better, Shane O’Donnell’s first goal arriving from a bread and butter centre from Tony Kelly and Conor McGrath’s goal to kill off the game a defensive horror show writ large, what with the sliotar being allowed to bounce on the edge of the square and the Limerick defenders being outnumbered.
Therein lies the danger for Kilkenny tonight. They try to fit a square peg into a round hole and through no fault of his own the poor chap fails to cope with the demands of being the watcher on the wall and gets taken for two goals by Conor McDonald.
And demands at full-back there are aplenty, foremost among them self-effacement and the suppression of ego. Good full-backs do not commit or rush in where angels fear to tread. They hold back. They play the percentages. They hook and block. They interpose the upper body as a buffer zone and the hurley as a fly whisk.
They become a hero, if they do, by not trying to become a hero – or, more precisely, by consciously trying not to become a hero. (A subtle difference but a difference nonetheless.) It is not a position for derring-do merchants, which is why Ken McGrath was so wildly unsuited whereas Noel Hickey was to the manner born. In theory Diarmuid O’Sullivan ought to have been too flashy and egotistical. In practice his build, pace, hurling ability, big-day temperament and sheer sense of self saw him through.
The other imponderable tonight is Michael Fennelly, recently injured but not necessarily a non-starter. Whether deployed as defensive bulwark or battering ram he would have been the first name on the sheet. His absence from the field would leave a void.
The man likeliest to fill that void is Lee Chin, Wexford’s moral and spiritual leader, the captain of the pikemen, an athlete and a devourer of ground. Chin is not, however, a sharpshooter. If he manages, say, three points from three shots it may well be his team’s evening. But he mustn’t keep shooting if he’s missing. That would make the air leak from the balloon.
Wexford wouldn’t beat, say, the Kilkenny of 2011. In fact they didn’t, losing the provincial semi-final by 1-24 to 1-15 in front of a raucous home crowd. Then again, look at the visitors’ front eight the same evening. M Fennelly, Reid, Rice, Power, Shefflin, C Fennelly, Larkin, Hogan.
The locals failed to sustain their challenge beyond 45 minutes on that occasion.
There’s no reason to believe they won’t sustain it beyond 60 minutes, and later, here.
Some other observations.
The Leinster Council will be silently hoping for a home win. Of course they will. It would constitute the difference between an attendance of 30,000 at the provincial final and an attendance of 50,000.
When the sides met at Nowlan Park on April 2nd Wexford were a month, maybe two months, ahead of their opponents in terms of fitness, cohesiveness and momentum. It scarcely requires to be stated that such a gap no longer exists.
For the past few weeks the word on Noreside has, unusually, been about how Kilkenny are – ah yes, hello old friend – “flying in training”. Unusually because Noreside folk are by nature far happier deeming, with a heavy sigh, any given glass to be half-empty rather than half-full. The non-announcement of a team on Thursday has returned the glass to its default state.
Obviously Shaun Murphy will be the man with the sweeping brush in front of the Wexford full-back line, as he has been all season.
Obviously. Too obviously..? Is there even the remotest possibility Davy is engaged in a cunning game of double bluff?
He knows that Kilkenny will have done due diligence on his defensive system; after all, they saw it at first hand in Nowlan Park. He knows they’ll have devised methods of isolating Murphy. Might he go for broke and attempt to blitzkrieg the opposition by opting for 15 on 15 for the opening quarter of an hour, then – in the event of a lead being compiled – pull down the shutters for the remainder?
Surely not. It is one thing to be tactically aware. It is quite another to over-poker your hand and risk double-bluffing oneself. Yet he’ll need to come up with something new to throw at Cody tonight and he’ll need David Redmond to rifle a couple of points from distance on those upfield slaloms of his.
Wexford’s freetaking remains an issue. One trusts it won’t be an issue here. A converted free will feel like it’s worth two points to them at certain times: early on and possibly in the closing stages. By the same token every wide from a placed ball will feel like two points spurned.
This will not be Cork and Tipp shooting out the lights again, not least because the confines of Wexford Park forbid it.This will not be an encounter where a team trailing by four points with ten minutes remaining turns it around.
Defending a lead with the finishing line in sight Wexford will resile to four banks of three, three banks of four or whatever variation on a predictable theme Davy deems fit. They’ll also get runners bombing forward from deep at different angles. That won’t be easy for Kilkenny to cope with either.
A potential man of the match? Eoin Murphy.
The evening will take its tone and temperature from the hosts. It will take its bottom line from the visitors and their ability – or lack thereof – to post a winning total. Here’s someone who reckons they’ll muddle through in the end.
Sorry to be a spoilsport.
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