Vincent Hogan: Deadly Cats dispel talk of their demise
Kilkenny 1-26 Wexford 1-15
THE sounds ricocheting around Wexford Park were of pennies dropping, heavy as anvils.
After all the worry that had begun to circle Kilkenny, their authority seeped into everything now. "In my book, they're a sore team, a hungry team," sighed Colm Bonnar from pitch-side, his players re-acquainted with the coldest of reality.
All that giddiness about U-21s and the arrival of big fish to a small provincial pond had evaporated in the wan sunlight. Winning is the enduring rhythm of a Kilkenny summer and, after their mildly turbulent spring, this was a restatement of old convictions.
They put the kind of distance between themselves and Wexford that was commonplace in their pomp and, if far from flawless, Kilkenny still moved with an ominous intensity.
"They haven't gone away by a long shot," said Bonnar. "They've been the best team around for the last 10 years and, possibly, one of the greatest ever. I think the team that beats Kilkenny this year will probably be the team that wins the All-Ireland final."
Wexford tried to be all the things their people wanted. In the early flurries, their propellers swung like lawnmower blades and, just nine minutes in, Garrett Sinnott had sniped three points from his first three balls. But Richie Hogan's eighth-minute goal just seemed to asterisk the commotion like a disclaimer note.
By the cusp of half-time Kilkenny had eased eight points clear and, if Jim Berry's goal from a 20-metre free then plucked the game back from the brink of slumber, it was no more than a suspension of what everyone knew to be the truth.
With Michael Fennelly subsequently all but declaring midfield his private estate and Michael Rice blowing up a storm from wing-forward, Kilkenny eased away from the inconvenience of fired-up opposition to win, essentially, as they chose.
And the victory finally put sufficient distance between them and that oddly chaotic league final display against Dublin to suggest the May Day slaughter had been an aberration, not a signpost.
Hands in tracksuit pockets after, Brian Cody (right) met the media with a familiarly ambivalent smile.
"It didn't ever take me over or anything like that," he said of that collapse to Anthony Daly's troops.
"We had a very bad day and Dublin played very well and that's it. We were lucky to get to the league final to be fair about it. We stumbled to it in lots of ways.
"We were punished and very much punished on the day, completely out-hurled. But that's no harm either. The real world is where that was that day. But we just take it on from there and try to work our way back into things.
"We were where we were the day of the league final. We're probably a step ahead of that right now."
In Wexford's history with Kilkenny, they need every blessing available in the pursuit of victory, so the portents were ominous even before throw-in. Darren Stamp cried off with a long-standing calf problem and his replacement at centre-back, Ciaran Kenny, lasted just 12 minutes before he too succumbed to injury.
It called for a dramatic restructuring of Wexford's defence and, by game's end, only Paul Roche and Matthew O'Hanlon still manned the positions in which they had been selected.
The young full-back was, at least, spared the trauma of a championship debut in the shadow of the returning Henry Shefflin, Cody choosing to shuffle his deck before throw-in with Eoin Larkin taking the full-forward berth and Shefflin operating on the left wing. The Kilkenny supremo also opted to return JJ Delaney to the full-back slot, with Noel Hickey moving sideways to the corner and, perhaps, a little closer to decommissioning as an inter-county full-back.
Delaney had his hands full with the powerful Sinnott but, with the early pace of Hogan and Richie Power causing Wexford obvious discomfort, Kilkenny scores began to flow with an ease that Wexford could never summon.
Historically, that's been the essential story of this fixture. Kilkenny keeping a scoreboard ticking over ceaselessly; Wexford making sporadic lodgements.
In that narrative, goals have always been the route to an upset and Wexford needed at least another two to escape the hangman's noose here.
Rory Jacob had an opportunity in the 26th minute after Jackie Tyrrell appeared to lose his bearings in the sun, but Jacob's drive caromed off Delaney for a '65'.
Then approaching the half-time whistle, Jacob again got free of his marker only to see his pile-driver brilliantly deflected over by the impressive David Herity in the Kilkenny goal.
Had either of Jacob's strikes found the rigging, the home team might have had the scent of uprising in their nostrils, but as it was, the margin never got narrower than four points and, when Kilkenny accumulated five unanswered scores between the 50th and 65th minutes, the game was just about book-keeping.
It might have been worse for Wexford too, Larkin shooting inches wide after a Shefflin shot came back off a post and Richie Hogan's rasping 55th-minute drive snapping to safety off the same hardware.
Herity did save brilliantly from Stephen Banville with two minutes of normal time remaining but, by then, the traffic outside was already clogging every artery.
"It was enjoyable being out there tonight," said Cody, who expressed confidence that Tommy Walsh will be fit again for the Leinster final. Having blooded four newcomers to championship hurling, he was happy with what he'd seen.
"The league final happened and an awful lot has been written about it," he sighed.
"But we prepared as normal. Obviously what happened happened and we'd be very foolish to close our eyes to it. But you assess it and you carry on. From the point of view of confidence and that, it had no impact whatsoever."
For Bonnar, the mountain-top remains as forbiddingly high as ever.
"We know there is a gap to close and we're still looking to close it," said the Cashel man.
"We just have to take this on the chin. But we're disappointed overall that, with such huge support here, we couldn't get closer to Kilkenny and give the crowd something to shout about.
"The only team that gave Kilkenny a game last year was Tipperary and Tipp are possibly the only team that could beat them at the moment. Obviously, we're wounded but we have to come back from this.
"Kilkenny were just a stronger, more physical team. They're going to go a long way again."
Mass cards destined for the recycling bin, then.
SCORERS -- Kilkenny: H Shefflin 0-9 (6f, 2 '65s'), M Rice, R Power (1f) 0-4 each, R Hogan 1-1, TJ Reid 0-3, M Fennelly 0-2, P Murphy, E Larkin and C Fennelly 0-1 each. Wexford : J Berry 1-4 (1-3f), G Sinnott 0-4, R Jacob, P Roche (2 '65s') 0-2 each, PJ Nolan, S Banville and M Travers 0-1 each.
KILKENNY -- D Herity 8, N Hickey 6, JJ Delaney 6, J Tyrrell 6, P Murphy 7, B Hogan 8, P Hogan 7, M Fennelly 9, TJ Reid 7, M Rice 8, R Power 8, H Shefflin 7, C Fennelly 6, E Larkin 6, R Hogan 7. Subs: M Kavanagh (not on long enough) for Tyrrell (60), E Brennan for C Fennelly (60), J Mulhall for Larkin (63).
WEXFORD -- N Breen 7, P Roche 7, M O'Hanlon 7, K Rossiter 7, L Prendergast 7, C Kenny (not on long enough), M Travers 5, W Doran 5, D Redmond 5, PJ Nolan 6, H Kehoe 5, S Banville 6, R Jacob 7, G Sinnott 8, J Berry 7. Subs: C Farrell 7 for Kenny (12), M Jacob 6 for Doran (29), E Quigley 6 for Redmond (51), B Doyle (not on long enough) for Nolan (62), T Waters for Kehoe (67).
REF -- J Ryan (Tipperary).