When James McGrath sounded the final whistle after five minutes of injury time a majority of spectators in the 9,793 attendance rose to their feet in celebration.
Yes indeed: Kilkenny had beaten Wexford at last. Or, rather, Kilkenny had beaten Davy Fitz’s Wexford after suffering three successive defeats against them. It may have only been a league game but these days the feline folk take whatever they get and are suitably grateful for it.
The better team — slightly the better team — won. That was the verdict of one of the managers afterwards, and not the manager in the black and amber corner.
“Kilkenny got the result on the day and probably just deserved it,” a mellow Davy Fitz accepted. But he added a caveat and he was right to.
The visitors, he pointed out, were “missing eight guys who played championship last year”, among them Lee Chin.
In the circumstances they did about as well as they were entitled to. If Kilkenny were slightly the better team it was because they were the slightly more determined team.
It was tepid fare nonetheless, strikingly lacking in quality. Aimless long clearances to unmarked opponents, short passes that went astray and were turned over: The usual stuff when sweepers are deployed and the game takes an inescapable shape. One passage of play shortly before half-time bears recounting.
Wexford for once had plenty of bodies committed to the attack when they lost possession in the right-corner forward position.
Confronted with a thicket of friends and foes Paddy Deegan, rather than carrying the sliotar out of defence and working it up through the lines, as Kilkenny had been doing up to then, opted to play the percentages and banged it up the field.
It landed between a man in stripes and three opponents. There was only going to be one winner there, Shaun Murphy duly coming away with the ball and zapping it on the diagonal to Cathal Dunbar, who swerved away from Ger Aylward and posted a point.
The cameo captured the Catch-22 dilemma posed by teams with spare men at the back. Go short against them and risk coughing up possession in a dangerous area or go long and risk handing it over anyway and thereby allowing them build from the back?
It is a balance that Kilkenny are some way away from perfecting. Yet at least this particular large feline is trying to change its spots, as Fitzgerald noted.
Unsurprisingly Brian Cody was more circumspect about this supposed New Kilkenny.
“It’s not a question of that. A lot is being spoken about that. You have to play the game that’s in front of you. We were always being labelled as playing a certain way but that wasn’t true either. If you have two or three spare backs and the goalkeeper is looking up the field, it’s better to hit it to one of your own players. You hand it over the players. They see what’s happening.”
After a slow start the game opened up in the second quarter, with the winners reeling off five points in a row from play from five different scorers to lead by 0-12 to 0-5. Come the interval the gap was down to five (0-14 to 0-9), but there was no question as to the identity of the man of the half.
Richie Leahy, continuing the impressive form he’d shown against Tipperary, landed three stylish points from midfield.
For his part Fitzgerald will have taken satisfaction from the performance of young Rory O’Connor, who hit two points from play as well as nailing four placed balls, while the return of Kevin Foley, who weighed in with three points, has increased their options in the middle of the field.
Only once did they threaten a goal, however, nine minutes from the end when they trailed by 0-21 to 0-15. Darren Brennan, in for an Eoin Murphy still suffering the after-effects of whiplash, showed quick reflexes to deny Cathal Dunbar from close range, and though O’Connor converted the ensuing 65 it wasn’t enough to spark a late charge.
Come the championship they’ll have to be a little more ambitious in the other half of the field.
Scorers for Kilkenny:
TJ Reid 0-12 (10fs), R Leahy 0-3, J Maher 0-2, W Walsh 0-2, G Aylward 0-1, J Donnelly 0-1, C Buckley 0-1.
Scorers for Wexford:
P Foley 0-6 (5fs), R O’Connor 0-6 (3fs, 1 ‘65), K Foley 0-3, C Dunbar 0-2, C McDonald 0-1, D O’Keeffe 0-1.
D Brennan, J Holden, P Walsh, P Deegan, C Delaney, C Buckley, E Morrissey, J Maher, R Leahy, M Keoghan, TJ Reid, P Lyng, J Donnelly, W Walsh, G Aylward.
L Scanlon for Keoghan (50), L Blanchfield for Lyng (50), L Ryan for Maher (63), A Murphy for Donnelly (67), O Walsh (Dicksboro) for Leahy (70+1).
C O’Leary, C Firman, L Ryan, W Devereux, D O’Keeffe, M O’Hanlon, P Foley, K Foley, A Maddock, J O’Connor, C McDonald, H Kehoe, R O’Connor, C Dunbar, S Murphy.
P Morris for Kehoe (47), D Reck for Maddock (54), A Nolan for O’Keeffe (56), E Martin for J O’Connor (65), S Donohoe for Firman (70+1 inj.), M O’Regan for Dunbar (70+2).
James McGrath (Westmeath).
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