Foley points the way to hard-earned win
Wexford 0-16 Kilkenny 0-13
Any victory against Kilkenny, regardless of the time of year or the circumstances, should be regarded as an encouraging sign, so it was no surprise that Wexford followers in the large crowd in Bellefield on Sunday left the ground generally satisfied with a good afternoon's work.
As a spectacle it certainly won't live long in the memory, and it will be completely forgotten by the time the teams lock horns in the championship.
However, the win was particularly significant for the fact that it has handed the winners another game next Saturday in the Bord na Móna Walsh Cup Senior hurling final against Galway - the perfect preparation for the big Allianz League opener at home to All-Ireland champions Limerick on January 27.
In a game completely devoid of goalscoring chances apart from one early scare for Kilkenny, the margin between the teams never rose above three points, but that was the difference in the end after some excellent long-range free-taking by centre-back Pádraig Foley saw Wexford edge ahead after trailing by the minimum (0-8 to 0-7) at half-time.
Manager Davy Fitzgerald was a notable absentee from the sideline, choosing instead to watch the action unfold at an elevated level from a window in the pavilion.
And in terms of personnel he paraded a relatively seasoned starting 15, with right corner-back Shane Reck of Oylegate-Glenbrien the only newcomer in the absence of his brother, Damien, who is still recovering from a broken jaw.
There was a second debutant - their clubmate Seamus Casey - introduced during the second-half, while Ian Byrne of Ferns St. Aidan's returned to the fray for his first game since the Leinster championship quarter-final loss to Dublin in 2016.
Blackwater's Darren Byrne also came into the game for only his second appearance, having featured at full-back against Wicklow in the same competition last year.
And perhaps most notable of all was the selection of the versatile Eanna Martin - now playing his club hurling in Kilkenny with Carrickshock - to man the posts for the first time since the championship exit to Cork in Thurles in 2012.
With neither team deploying an orthodox attacking sextet, opportunities for goals were virtually nil, and the rival netminders hadn't a shot to save between them as they were confined to taking puck-outs and dealing with point attempts that dropped short.
Tactically, the Wexford set-up was broadly similar to the tried and trusted formula under Fitzgerald, but there was a significant change in personnel as Kevin Foley filled the sweeping role occupied last year by Shaun Murphy who was instead deployed as a left half-back with marking duties on Ger Malone.
It wasn't the first time for the Rapparees man to occupy this berth, and he did well enough on his home soil to suggest that he will get an extended run there for the duration of the league.
His club colleague, Liam Ryan, was really bursting to do well on a pitch he knows like the back of his hand, and his defiant full-back display warmed the hearts of Wexford supporters as he repeatedly tore out of defence with Kilkenny men trailing in his wake.
Indeed, it was fitting that the game ended with the big number three in possession of the ball, after grabbing it from the air to snuff out the final threat posed by the visitors.
His central defensive colleague, Pádraig Foley, had an impressive outing on the whole too, even if the speedy and direct Martin Keoghan proved an elusive customer at times, but his top-scoring seven-point haul, all bar one from frees, made a huge difference in such a low-scoring game.
Aidan Nolan and Diarmuid O'Keeffe had their bright moments at midfield, but clearly the most improvement is required in the forward line given that a mere one point of the winning tally - courtesy of Ian Byrne - was recorded from play by a starting attacker.
Having said that, Conor McDonald was really up for this contest and earned a succession of frees on an afternoon when he was one of six players tasked with taking placed balls for the home side.
Kilkenny captain Conor Fogarty only needed 30 seconds to get his side off the mark in the first meeting between the counties in Bellefield since the Walsh Cup final of 2002 when Wexford won by 1-13 to 1-12 to earn an eighth title on the trot.
Ian Byrne mis-hit a free after a long solo run which was blocked and cleared, while Liam Ryan had his first positive influence at the start of a move which ended when Cathal Dunbar was closed down by two defenders as he bore down on the scoreboard end goal from the left flank.
He featured in a two-man inside attacking line with his Gorey team-mate Conor McDonald, with Byrne going to centre-forward after Kevin Foley dropped back while David Dunne spent most of his time on the left wing.
The only goalmouth action in the entire game arrived in the fourth minute when McDonald blocked an attempted Darren Brennan clearance and the sliothar spun across the danger zone, but the Kilkenny netminder recovered to clear his lines.
Luke Scanlon shook off Shane Reck to double the lead before a foul on Conor Firman led to Pádraig Foley landing his first free from all of 90 metres in the fifth minute.
Kevin Foley fired the opener from Wexford's twelve wides (Kilkenny had nine) from long range in between a couple of attempts dropped short at the other end by Liam Blanchfield.
And when Pádraig Foley was fouled in the ninth minute, he composed himself to strike the equaliser before Kevin Kelly missed an easier placed ball for the Noresiders.
Wexford hit the front for the first time with what proved to be that sole score from play by a starting forward in the eleventh minute.
It was a neat move, with Conor McDonald initially finding Cathal Dunbar who popped a handpass to Ian Byrne, and he raced through a gap before firing over the bar when perhaps a goal was on the cards (0-3 to 0-2).
Kevin Kelly and Shane Reck, on a rare foray past midfield, swapped wides before a short pass from David Dunne set up Pádraig Foley for his sole score from play in the 13th minute.
Kilkenny defender Robert Lennon gave away a cheap free for encroaching on a line ball on the right, but Ian Byrne was off target before Kevin Kelly missed a '65.
It was poor fare on the whole, with the stop-start nature certainly not helping matters as 35 frees were awarded in total (20 for Wexford).
A stray handpass by Pádraig Foley led to Conor Fogarty picking out Kelly for a Kilkenny point in the 19th minute, and they quickly drew level when Jason Cleere provided the assist for wing-back Conor Delaney to split the posts from long range (0-4 each).
Ian Byrne then picked up an injury in a challenge by Ger Malone that ultimately led to his removal at half-time, and it also resulted in a change of free-taker up front as Harry Kehoe converted his first attempt from the left to restore the lead.
Kevin Kelly equalised from a free after a sloppy Simon Donohoe handpass led to a foul on Liam Blanchfield, but Kehoe made it 6-5 following a booking for Jason Cleere who had impeded Diarmuid O'Keeffe.
Kehoe struck his next placed ball wide, with Kevin Kelly levelling in the 34th minute when Wexford captain Shaun Murphy was yellow-carded for swinging the hurl back at Ger Malone after he was penalised for over-carrying.
A trip by Pádraig Foley on Conor Delaney led to Kelly edging his side in front, and he duly stretched their lead to 0-8 to 0-6 after Liam Ryan fouled John Donnelly.
However, the last action of the half saw Robert Lennon booked for bringing Aidan Nolan's solo run to a halt, and Harry Kehoe split the posts to leave Wexford behind by the minimum at the break.
With Kehoe, and the injured Ian Byrne, replaced for the second-half by Liam Og McGovern and Jack O'Connor respectively, it also led to the input of a fourth free-taker, but his stay on the field was shortlived.
Ger Malone shot an early wide for Kilkenny and, when Cathal Dunbar won the puck-out and was fouled, the call came from the sideline for O'Connor to take the placed ball and he duly equalised.
However, he was back on the sideline after less than four minutes, getting a straight red card along with Kilkenny's Liam Blanchfield after a brief flare-up close to the visitors' dug-out that managed to enliven what had been fairly dull proceedings up to that point.
Free-taker number five, Conor McDonald, sent his first attempt wide before a timely pull by half-time substitute Paul Murphy - operating at midfield - led to Martin Keoghan restoring Kilkenny's advantage.
Kilkenny wides followed from Conor Fogarty and Kevin Kelly into the breeze before McDonald earned a free after catching a Kevin Foley clearance and duly picked off his sole score (0-9 each).
A short puck-out to Tommy Walsh set in train a flowing Kilkenny move, with John Donnelly and Conor Delaney also featuring down the left wing before Keoghan shot a superb point.
Pádraig Foley levelled after a foul on Simon Donohoe, and the introduction of Richie Hogan presented Conor Firman with a stern test for the final 25 minutes which he came through with flying colours.
A good hook by John Donnelly resulted in a David Dunne wide before Shaun Murphy also fired an effort off target, while Hogan missed a Kilkenny free before Pádraig Foley pushed Wexford into an 11-10 lead in the 52nd minute after Kevin Foley was tripped.
Diarmuid O'Keeffe shot wide before midfield partner Aidan Nolan punished a poor Kilkenny handpass with a point, only for Ger Malone to respond quickly from a crossfield John Donnelly pass.
Malone was booked before play resumed for an earlier slap at Pádraig Foley that was spotted by the umpires, and a small bit of daylight started to finally appear between the sides over the next three minutes.
A foul on McDonald was converted by Foley before O'Keeffe dropped an effort short, but he made no mistake from a weak Kilkenny clearance shortly after Richie Hogan had missed his second free (0-14 to 0-11).
Paddy Deegan pulled a point back, seconds after his first effort was gathered by Eanna Martin, with Cathal Dunbar striking a line ball left and wide prior to Foley making it 15-12 after Seamus Casey earned a free.
Richie Hogan finally pointed from his third placed ball as we moved into the 67th minute, and the outcome was still in doubt as the sides posted two wides apiece in quick succession, with Foley and Casey the Wexford culprits.
However, the last word in the scoring stakes went to newcomer Casey, his team's sixth free-taker, who tapped one over after another foul on McDonald before Dunbar hit the final wide from a line ball.
Wexford: Eanna Martin; Shane Reck, Liam Ryan, Conor Firman; Kevin Foley; Simon Donohoe, Pádraig Foley (0-7, 6 frees), Shaun Murphy (capt.); Aidan Nolan (0-1), Diarmuid O'Keeffe (0-1); Harry Kehoe (0-3 frees), Ian Byrne (0-1), David Dunne; Cathal Dunbar, Conor McDonald (0-1 free). Subs. - Liam Og McGovern for Byrne, inj. (HT), Jack O'Connor (0-1 free) for Kehoe (HT), Seamus Casey for Nolan, temp. (49-51), Casey (0-1 free) for Dunne (59), Darren Byrne for Murphy, inj. (62).
Kilkenny: Darren Brennan; Robert Lennon, Huw Lawlor, Tommy Walsh; Enda Morrissey, Paddy Deegan (0-1), Conor Delaney (0-1); Jason Cleere, Conor Fogarty (capt., 0-1); Ger Malone (0-1), Martin Keoghan (0-2), Liam Blanchfield; Kevin Kelly (0-5, 4 frees), John Donnelly, Luke Scanlon (0-1). Subs. - Paul Murphy for Cleere (HT), Richie Hogan (0-1 free) for Kelly (46), Niall Brassil for Scanlon (65).
Referee: John Keenan (Wicklow).
New Ross Standard