Relax. We won’t say ‘they haven’t gone away’. We won’t inflict ‘write Kilkenny off at your peril’. We promise to stay away from talk of nine lives.
It’s difficult, though. Yesterday in Wexford Park a battle was expected but a rout ensued. Kilkenny got their place in the league final a lot easier than anyone anticipated; in the words of Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald, they bossed the proceedings.
The game was deferred by quarter of an hour due to traffic congestion, which left the crowd, a hefty 16,400, looking at the empty field that bit longer than usual.
Although evaluating what happens before throw-in is about as effective as making predictions based on the swirl of leaves in your teacup — the body language! the fluffed pick-ups! — it was striking to contrast the two halves of the field before the players even came out.
There were cones and poles and bags and sliotars laid out in the Wexford half of the field in patterns and pairs, linked and intricate.
In the Kilkenny half nothing more than a dozen balls scattered around the D.
Based on that it would be soothing to report an irresistible, purring start from the Cats, but that’s not how it looked early on. Wexford had a seventh-minute penalty which Aidan Nolan hung in the corner of the net and the home support roared their approval as their side led 1-2 to a point, and then...
Kilkenny took over. They stitched 1-11 into their opponents without reply and left another two goals behind them, though Wexford ‘keeper Mark Fanning deserves credit for bravery on both occasions. The home side were scoreless for 25 minutes and went in at the break eight points adrift, 1-13 to 1-5.
After half-time Wexford rallied — Rory O’Connor, their stand-out player, converted a couple of frees and Conor McDonald crashed a close-range chance home. The home side got to within three points of Kilkenny, touching distance, only for the black and amber to cruise away all over again.
At the end Kilkenny had 1-27 on the scoreboard: 1-13 in the first half, 0-14 in the second. Consistent to the very end.
“We didn’t have it our own way,” said Cats boss Brian Cody after the game. “We got the scores but it was competitive all through the game and we had to fight very hard.
“That (penalty) was early on in the game, and the game lasts a long time. The reaction of the players was good, we competed very well, and we found ourselves in a position where we could go ahead.”
Fair enough. But how did they manage it?
By any metric, the eternal virtues were on show in Kilkenny’s performance. Their workrate was top class, particularly up front, where newcomers like Martin Keoghan and John Donnelly stopped Wexford from building through the lines the way they’d done against Galway.
Further back the field Kilkenny shut down another weapon which proved potent for Wexford in the quarter-final — Jack O’Connor’s fetching broke Galway hearts, and half-backs, the previous weekend. Yesterday Enda Morrissey refused to let O’Connor dominate, and Cillian Buckley picked up plenty of loose ball as a result.
Above all they had TJ Reid, who is enjoying a rich vein at present.
Reid’s technical excellence is matched only by the coldness of his calculations, which seem to be unaffected by crowds, managers, temperature, the global financial markets, the weather, or any of the factors which impinge on mortals’ decision-making.
As a sketch in opposites, Rory O’Connor was heroic in a losing cause yesterday, but he missed one second-half free right in front of goal which would have narrowed the gap to two.
The comparison isn’t altogether fair, as O’Connor is in the foothills of a promising career and Reid is on a peak in Darien, Ballyhale being notoriously level.
Davy Fitzgerald wasn’t making excuses afterwards, the Wexford boss paying due tribute to the winners: “The first 10 minutes we were totally in control, the first 10 minutes of the second half we totally owned, then we let them run at us, we let them work the ball out easily from the back.
“And I have to say, I’m delighted to see Kilkenny have changed their game, they’ve changed it completely — they’re working the ball way more, they’re gone from the game they played from about 2004 to 2011, 2012.
“You have to hand it to them, the hard work they did today really paid off. They were honest, they wanted it more than we did, but I’ll tell you one thing, we’ll be back, I’m looking forward to another go off them again.”
That’s the championship. Before that comes the league final against Tipperary, which offers a fascinating reversal of the dynamic between those counties.
It seems like only yesterday that Liam Sheedy was blooding all those Tipp youngsters from the 2007 minor team, the Mahers and McGraths who have backboned the Premier since. They had to learn some tough lessons early on from a Kilkenny side who were much further along in their evolution; how keen will they be to share that kind of education with this new edition of Kilkenny?
How eager will Kilkenny be to throw the lesson back at them?
Scorers for Wexford:
R. O’Connor (0-12, 8 frees); C. McDonald (1-1); A. Nolan (1-0 pen); S. Murphy, H. Kehoe (0-1 each).
Scorers for Kilkenny:
TJ Reid (0-15, 12 frees); W. Walsh (1-1); J. Donnelly, G. Aylward, R. Leahy (0-2 each); C. Buckley, E. Morrissey, E. Murphy (free), B. Sheehan, M. Keoghan (0-1 each).
M. Fanning, W. Devereux, L. Ryan, S. Donohue, P. Foley, M. O’Hanlon (jc), D. O’Keeffe, K. Foley, S. Murphy, J. O’Connor, C. McDonald, L. Chin (jc), A. Nolan, R. O’Connor, P. Morris.
D. Reck for Devereux (inj. 15); H. Kehoe for Morris (49); D. Dunne for Nolan (52); C. Dunbar for J. O’Connor (68).
E. Murphy, J. Holden, P. Walsh, P. Deegan, C. Delaney, C. Buckley (c), E. Morrissey, R. Leahy, J. Maher, M. Keoghan, TJ Reid, J. Donnelly, G. Aylward, W. Walsh, B. Sheehan.
C. Fogarty for Maher (48); L. Blanchfield for Donnelly (60); L. Ryan for Leahy (66); L. Scanlon for Sheehan (68); P. Lyng for Keoghan (69).
C. Lyons (Cork).
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