Friday 28 April 2017

John Mullane: Kilkenny could suffer a lean period like 1990s as failings laid bare by Wexford

 

Wexford’s Conor McDonald finds his path to goal blocked by Kilkenny goalkeeper Eoin Murphy and defender and Paul Murphy. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Wexford’s Conor McDonald finds his path to goal blocked by Kilkenny goalkeeper Eoin Murphy and defender and Paul Murphy. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

John Mullane

Kilkenny's hurlers should strap themselves into a time machine and prepare for a return to the lean years of the 1990s.

Remember that period when winning a Leinster title was no foregone conclusion for the Cats?

Offaly won it in 1994 and 1995, and Wexford followed up with back-to-backs, before Kilkenny won six titles in a row.

I have a funny feeling that Kilkenny are heading back there, to when it was dog eat dog in terms of what they wanted to achieve, and when they had to fight for everything in their own province.

I know people will say it's only the league but yesterday's result against Wexford at Nowlan Park is a game-changer.

This is the spark that's going to push Wexford onto bigger and better things over the next few years.

I remember back in 2014 when Wexford beat Waterford in an All-Ireland qualifier at the same venue, and the atmosphere their fans generated.

Yesterday took me right back there but after taking out Clare and Waterford in the championship three years ago, they didn't kick on. This time, I think they will.

If there is a positive for Kilkenny, it's that they're forewarned about what lies in store when the teams meet in the Leinster semi-final, which they will, but there are far more negatives than positives to emerge from yesterday's defeat.

Brian Cody is none the wiser now about his team than he was after last September's All-Ireland final loss against Tipperary.

Exposed

The old frailties returned and when ran at, a distinct lack of pace was exposed in the Kilkenny defence.

Pádraig Walsh wasn't comfortable at full-back and that left Cody reverting to Paul Murphy there but what will have infuriated the manager was how his players were out-fought.

And, once again, Wexford proved that Kilkenny are simply not able to deal with a sweeper system.

Davy Fitzgerald was in charge when Clare stumped them in last year's league semi-final and he was up to his old tricks again.

Shaun Murphy was excellent in the sweeper role and the five-point margin was kind to Kilkenny. It could conceivably have been double figures but for their goalkeeper, Eoin Murphy, who was head and shoulders above any of his team-mates.

Kilkenny were leaving gaps at the back again, space to be exposed and Conor McDonald took full advantage. Another big concern for Kilkenny is that when TJ Reid is held, they struggle. He scored ten points but nine were frees and other big forwards, namely Walter Walsh and Richie Hogan, only managed a point each. When TJ doesn't fire, the other forwards don't compensate for him having an off-day.

Davy got his match-ups spot on. Matthew O'Hanlon followed Walsh everywhere he went and James Breen likewise with TJ.

Breen was excellent but, overall, Wexford had everything down to a tee. It should be noted too that this is the second time this year that Kilkenny have lost a league fixture at fortress Nowlan Park. The fear factor is gone but Conor Fogarty was a huge loss.

If Kilkenny are missing Pádraig Walsh, Paul Murphy or Fogarty, they're in serious trouble and it now seems that they're pinning their hopes on a 32-year-old, Michael Fennelly, to come back and produce a big summer.

Cody only used one sub yesterday, too, bringing on Jonjo Farrell for Lester Ryan. What that tells me is that there was no real game-changer on the bench and that's another big worry.

The biggest concern of all, however, is the full-back line but to be fair to Wexford, this win had Davy's stamp all over it. They were extremely fit, strong in the tackle and used a variety of plays.

If you pull out that Kilkenny half-back line, their full-backs are exposed and if you think back to the four-in-a-row teams from 2006-2009, they always had their half-back and full-back lines close together.

In recent years, everything in Kilkenny was geared towards winning an All-Ireland title. Bar the odd exception, they were safe in the knowledge that they could concentrate on peaking for August but now there's no guarantee of winning what's becoming a more competitive Leinster Championship. It's no longer just about Kilkenny and Galway - Wexford have arrived.

Elsewhere, Waterford fell to Galway in Salthill and while Derek McGrath, with a much-changed team, will have been pleased with the first 48 minutes of the game, the last thing he would have wanted was to cough up a ten-point lead. That's not good for a team going forward.

Limerick's victory over Cork surprised me. I wouldn't have foreseen that because Cork were on a roll. The Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of Cork returned again, after they produced back-to-back performances against Waterford and Tipperary. Cork manager Kieran Kingston would have been anxious for another game under his belt before May's clash with Tipperary.

Speaking of Tipp, it was always going to be a foregone conclusion against Offaly. It was merely a case of what they were going to win by. And so, in the last four, you have three teams from Division 1B, with only the All-Ireland champions left from 1A.

But maybe the system needs to be looked at, when you can win one game and end up in a quarter-final, like Offaly did.

Irish Independent

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