Cats too strong
WEXFORD FOLLOWERS relaxed at half-time in Wexford Park on Sunday last with hope in their hearts after Ian Byrne's goal with the second-last puck before the break left them just one point behind a Kilkenny side which enjoyed a sizzling start to this Allianz Hurling League quarter-final.
However, whatever hopes they entertained of witnessing a major upset were quickly wiped out on the re-start as the clinical Cats rattled the net within 24 seconds and went on to cruise home in an eye-opening experience for the young Model county men.
Kilkenny's movement up front, control of the ball in the air and ability to pick out a colleague with a simple pass put them in a different league to Wexford, but that is the harsh reality of where we stand at present and the only way we will learn and improve is by playing teams of this calibre as often as possible.
Our brightest spell in the lead-up to half-time had yielded an impressive 1-4 without reply as Kilkenny's 2-10 to 0-8 lead was whittled down to the minimum. Perhaps the hot favourites had got a little sloppy, and there's no doubt that all of the contentious refereeing decisions had gone against them, but still it was encouraging to see the Slaneysiders playing with real belief for an eight-minute spell as they worked their way back into the game.
Alas, it wasn't sustained when play resumed as, after Mark Kelly picked Matthew O'Hanlon's pocket to set up T.J. Reid for a third Kilkenny goal, the outcome was inevitable.
Wing-back Diarmuid O'Keeffe had given supporters some early cheer with the opening point from a Harry Kehoe handpass after 18 seconds, but Kilkenny replied as only they can.
Richie Power and Walter Walsh caused havoc throughout the first-half with their constant inter-changing down the right flank, and the former's cross to the latter resulted in their opening goal in the second minute when the big Tullogher-Rosbercon man barrelled his way through before finishing from close range.
That goal ensured there was always some distance between the sides for the rest of the opening quarter, even though Wexford kept plugging away with points from Liam Og McGovern and Ian Byrne (play and two frees).
Kilkenny looked menacing every time the ball went past the opposing half-back line though, and Mark Kelly was only denied a goal by a smart advance and brave block by Mark Fanning in the fourth minute.
Some of their points were sublime, with Walter Walsh (three), Richie Power and the outstanding Richie Hogan all getting in on the act before Wexford conceded the first of just eight frees in the 18th minute and T.J. Reid duly made it 1-6 to 0-5.
The trouble with a team of this calibre is that it's impossible to quieten all of their big guns. For example, Colin Fennelly, the scoring star with 3-5 against Tipperary, didn't raise even one flag on this occasion while Eoin Larkin only contributed one point, but they didn't need to because it was the turn of Walter Walsh and Reid in particular to step up to the plate, with the latter finishing with an impressive 3-8 to his name.
And then there's the significant matter of the quality of substitutes at their disposal: imagine having the luxury of being able to bring Michael Fennelly, Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan, Aidan Fogarty and Henry Shefflin off the bench, although young Liam Ryan should be well pleased with his efficient policing of the latter in the last twelve minutes.
It amounts to an embarrassment of riches and while Wexford are improving in my opinion, they are still light years away from the standard that we witnessed from the victors in this game.
Rival number twelves Reid and Ian Byrne swapped points early in the next quarter before Kilkenny added a brilliant second goal to their tally in the 22nd minute. Richie Hogan's line ball from the right was caught by Mark Kelly who popped a handpass to Reid running off his shoulder, and the speedy winger planted the sliothar in the far corner of Mark Fanning's net to make it 2-7 to 0-6.
The lead had been stretched to 2-10 to 0-8, with Jack Guiney and Ian Byrne (free) getting the Wexford points, before the underdogs produced their brightest moments, starting with another pointed Byrne free after a foul on Liam Og McGovern.
Jack Guiney was blocked when a goal chance presented itself before a harsh charging call against Walter Walsh infuriated the Kilkenny supporters and was punished by Byrne from the placed ball (2-10 to 0-10). They were even more animated when Rory Jacob added another point as they felt he had tripped Joey Holden in the lead-up, while another foul on McGovern enabled Byrne to split the posts again.
The goal arrived right at the end of added time when Ciarán Kenny's clearance broke kindly for the free-taking Ferns forward, and he composed himself before planting a low shot to the corner of the net to leave the minimum between them (2-10 to 1-12).
While the comeback was welcome, it probably came at the worst possible time too as it no doubt gave Brian Cody ammunition to fire at some of his under-performing charges in the dressing-room.
And they emerged with a clear intent, even though they had more than a little assistance in getting their third goal. Matthew O'Hanlon should have done better as he tried to control the ball, but he was robbed by Mark Kelly and seconds later T.J. Reid had chalked down his second major.
Little or nothing got beyond the Kilkenny half-back line for the rest of the game and a lot of the Wexford clearances were poorly directed which didn't help. Three sloppy Kilkenny wides were followed by a similar number of points from Mark Kelly, T.J. Reid and Jackie Tyrrell before the arrival of their fourth goal which again could have been prevented.
Reid has a tendency to hit his frees just a little over head height and sometimes lower, and his effort in the 45th minute took a deflection off Lee Chin's stick and ended up in the net (4-13 to 1-13).
It was just a matter of what the final margin was going to be at that stage, and unfortunately Wexford couldn't keep it below double figures.
Richie Hogan underlined his full repertoire of skills as he glided around the middle third, controlling the sliothar as if he had a wand rather than a hurl and keeping the powerful Kilkenny machine ticking over.
Then Michael Fennelly returned with a point to prove and chipped in with a brace of scores before the end, while Wexford were reduced to living off scraps.
They did manage a consolation goal in the 59th minute when Conor McDonald won a Harry Kehoe centre but saw his batted effort and a follow-up scrambled clear before Rory Jacob followed in to drill the breaking ball to the net. That made it 4-18 to 2-15 but Mark Fanning had to be alert to keep out a Richie Hogan shot just seconds later as the leaders maintained the pressure.
Fourteen of the 22 frees went to Wexford while yellow cards were issued to Eoin Moore, Jackie Tyrrell and Richie Power on a day which only confirmed what we already knew: that Wexford are taking small steps back towards the big time but they are still a long way off where they would like to be.
One welcome sight was the return to action of Andrew Shore a lot earlier than anticipated from his ankle injury, and now the preparations begin for the Leinster championship quarter-final against the qualifier winners on Sunday, June 1, with Laois looking the most likely opponents at this stage.