Cats answer Cody's critics to put Wexford on the back foot
Kilkenny 1-27 Wexford 2-15
Three minutes after the restart at Innovate Wexford Park yesterday there was a spike in voltage among the home support in the 16,452 crowd, when Conor McDonald grabbed Matthew O'Hanlon's delivery, held off Padraig Walsh and smashed home a second goal from close range to reduce the deficit to three.
Having trailed by 10 points at one stage in the first-half and eight at the break, 1-13 to 1-5, momentum had whipped viciously Wexford's way and with wind assistance for the home side and an ocean of time with which to maximise the impact of it, now it was Kilkenny's character that was in the dock.
Their response should gratify manager Brian Cody as much as anything he has seen from them over the last 18 months, since their last All-Ireland final defeat to Tipperary. Cody's faith in many of these young players is something he has repeated at every opportunity, and with some justification it seems.
It may not give them any guarantee in next weekend's Nowlan Park league final against Tipperary, a 10th national final between hurling's greatest modern rivals (including the 2014 All-Ireland final replay) in 10 years. Or even in a new-look Leinster championship.
But Kilkenny are reforming and re-organising quicker than anyone could have expected, especially in the absence, still, of some senior cabinet members.
They saw this game out with frightening ease from a Wexford point of view, leaving manager Davy Fitzgerald a perplexed figure afterwards.
For every two steps forward Wexford take, there's at least one back. Some of the gains of the last two months will feel like they've been lost after this, but that doesn't mean they are irretrievable.
Lee Chin and McDonald, his goal and point apart, made little impact, while Jack O'Connor, so dominant aerially the previous week against Galway, never got a look-in. Without that platform, they struggled to make inroads.
It was a sobering reality check, not lost on the locals as they filed away from Wexford Park, and far greater than last year's Leinster final reversal to Galway.
Fitzgerald vowed that lessons would be learned, describing the performance as "unacceptable" and he was unwilling to bend to the view that an extra week's preparation played into Kilkenny's hands.
"The bottom line is they wanted it more than we did. I thought they played great stuff today. They ran at us unreal, they took us apart, I thought it was as good as I've seen them play in four or five years. I know it's very early days, but if they play like that they'll be right there as contenders," he said. Once again the solid defensive framework provided by Walsh and Cillian Buckley laid the foundations for everything. McDonald may have planted his goal in Walsh's company, but the mood was set by the aggression of the full-back throughout.
With Conor Delaney keeping tabs on Chin and Enda Morrissey denying Jack O'Connor the freedom to claim Wexford's puck-outs, Kilkenny were able to get to the heart of what had taken the Model men to wins over Waterford, Clare, Cork and Galway.
Richie Leahy zipped in for two points, Martin Keoghan struck for one and was fouled for at least three of TJ Reid's 12 frees, while John Donnelly got under some good ball early on and made it work.
Bill Sheehan grabbed an early point and produced a beautiful reverse scoop to put Ger Alyward in just before half-time, but Wexford goalkeeper Mark Fanning saved smartly.
Once again Reid looked in a different class at times, effortless but clinical in his anticipation of what was going to happen next. He missed just one from 13 placed balls and struck three points from play in another leadership masterclass.
The one bright note for Wexford was the continued development of Rory O'Connor. He may have missed a 20-metre effort when there was just three points in it early in the second-half, but he kept pressing and kept chasing, four second-half points from play bringing his tally to 0-12 for the day.
Operating in a loose role between the full-forward and half-forward lines, he was fouled for Wexford's penalty, which Adian Nolan dispatched after just seven minutes for a 1-2 to 0-1 lead.
Remarkably, it was their last score for 25 minutes as Kilkenny stepped it up, hitting 1-11 without reply. Walter Walsh got the goal, ushering his powerful frame through Damien Reck and Simon Donoghue to deliver a deft finish on 31 minutes for a 1-12 to 1-2 lead.
O'Connor converted three more frees to bring Wexford's drought to an end, but, even at that, they went an entire half without a score from play.
Maybe O'Connor's missed free did have an impact as Kilkenny got the next three scores to double their lead, one from Walsh following a storming run.
Conor Fogarty made quite an impact on his return after a long absence because of a virus and that helped to lock down the game in the closing quarter.
Cody doesn't believe the result will have an impact on their June 9 Leinster meeting, a date Fitzgerald had etched in his mind minutes after this defeat.
For now a league final with Tipperary, their fourth since 2009 when their rivalry went up a level, has helped to reshape a potentially tricky season.
Scorers - Kilkenny: TJ Reid 0-15 (0-12f), W Walsh 1-1, G Alyward, J Donnelly, R Leahy 0-2 each, E Murphy (f), C Buckley, E Morrissey, B Sheehan, M Keoghan all 0-1 each
Wexford: R O'Connor 0-12 (8fs), C McDonald 1-1, A Nolan 1-0 (pen), H Kehoe, S Murphy 0-1 each.
Kilkenny - E Murphy 7; J Holden 7, P Walsh 8, P Deegan 6; C Delaney 7, C Buckley 8, E Morrissey 7; R Leahy 7, J Maher 6; M Keoghan 7, TJ Reid 8, J Donnelly 7; G Aylward 7, W Walsh 7, B Sheehan 6. Subs: C Fogarty 8 for Maher (48), L Blanchfield 6 for Donnelly (59), L Ryan for Leahy (67), L Scanlon for Sheehan (68), P Lyng for Keoghan (70)
Wexford: M Fanning 7; W Devereux 6, L Ryan 7, S Donohoe 6; P Foley 6, M O'Hanlon 7, D O'Keeffe 6; K Foley 5, S Murphy 6; J O'Connor 5, C McDonald 6, L Chin 6; A Nolan 5, R O'Connor 8, P Morris 5. Subs: D Reck 6 for Devereux inj (15), H Kehoe 6 for Morris (49), D Dunne 5 for Nolan (53), C Dunbar for J O'Connor (69).
Ref - C Lyons (Cork)