Cool Kilkenny shape up as required
Kilkenny 0-22 Wexford 0-19 - Allianz HL Div 1A
Kilkenny's return to equilibrium after a disappointing start to the League has been completed and Wexford continue to build on the solid foundations put down last year.
Those were the clear conclusions to emerge in Nowlan Park yesterday where Kilkenny did what they had to reach the League quarter-finals and Wexford, who had already qualified for the knock-out stages, were sufficiently competitive to suggest there's much more to come when the stakes are higher.
Like, for instance, next Sunday when they host Galway. The Tribesmen may have been outgunned by Limerick in the 1B promotion shoot-out yesterday but they are still All-Ireland, League and Leinster champions and will be smarting after having their 13-month unbeaten run ended.
Yesterday's setback will increase their determination to remain in League contention and with Wexford's stock continuing to rise, Innovate Wexford Park will be a major centre of attraction.
Would Davy Fitzgerald have preferred to avoid Galway in the quarter-final?
"Not at all. I'm delighted we're playing them. I think they are starting to pick up. I wish we met them a few weeks ago when they weren't as good. We'll be trying everything next week," he said.
They tried a whole lot yesterday too but with Kilkenny's need much greater, a home win was always likely. And so it proved as the hosts led all the way to secure the victory that earned them a quarter-final clash with Offaly.
They led by seven points after 28 minutes but saw it pared back to two points seven minutes into the second half as Wexford raised their game to levels which belied the fact that victory wasn't necessary to book a knock-out place.
"On the field they appeared to be driven - that's for sure.They didn't seem to be saying 'it doesn't matter - we're through to the quarter-finals.' Of course it mattered," said Brian Cody.
He was a contented figure after Kilkenny completed their third successive win with a performance which was full of energy and grit.
That was the case too in their early round defeats to Cork and Clare, results which were wildly exaggerated as providing evidence of a serious Kilkenny demise. Their overall game wasn't as compact back then but the fundamentals remained solid and have now taken to where they want to be in mid-March.
"We lost the first two games and were being strongly tipped for relegation. We lost both of them by three points - a small margin really," said Cody.
Yesterday's margin of victory ended up smaller than seemed likely when Kilkenny took a six-point lead (0-21 to 0-15) into the final 15 minutes.
As Wexford launched a fightback, it took an excellent save from Kilkenny goalkeeper Darren Brennan - deputising for the injured Eoin Murphy - to deny Cathal Dunbar a goal before the visitors scored four unanswered points. The change of events raised the anxiety levels among Kilkenny supporters in the 9,793 crowd as the game moved into five minutes of stoppage time.
A Walter Walsh point took the lead out to three though, and while Wexford had a late flourish which might have yielded a goal, Brennan made a good catch under pressure in the final minute.
He was one of several inexperienced Kilkenny players who did well, which is most encouraging for Kilkenny as the re-building project continues.
Enda Morrissey, James Maher, Conor Delaney and the ultra-impressive Richie Leahy are progressing swiftly and with Padraig Walsh, Paddy Deegan, Cillian Buckley, TJ Reid and Ger Aylward all having plenty of good moments too, there was a nice balance to the team.
Leahy was an inspiring figure in the first half, scoring three excellent points and generally looking like a young man who will develop into a super talent.
He wasn't as influential in the second half as the energy-sapping conditions took their toll but then others stood up to take the challenge to Wexford.
Aylward marked his return after a lengthy absence with a solid performance while Reid's accuracy from placed balls and general play was backed up by a work ethic which suggests his appetite for action is as voracious as ever.
Still, most of the attention among Kilkenny supporters is on the less experienced players and whether they are good enough to fill jerseys formerly held by some very famous names.
"They are making good progress. Every day we go out, it's a big test for the inexperienced players but they are doing well. They are being tested. They have to take serious positions on the team and produce the goods," said Cody.
Fitzgerald had much to satisfy him too, notably the performances of Paudie and Kevin Foley, Liam Ryan, Jack and Rory O'Connor. And while their attack missed the influence of the absent Lee Chin, their direct running stretched the Kilkenny defence on several occasions.
While Fitzgerald insisted that Wexford would spare no effort to take their League adventure as far as possible, the new-look championship, where one of the assignments involves a return to Nowlan Park, is on their minds too,
"We both know what the story is. Today will be 100 miles away from what it will be here in June. It will be a lot faster surface; the game will be a lot quicker. I don't think there will be a puck of a ball in it.
"For me, the most important thing now is that Wexford is competitive. No matter what happens, we have to stay there or thereabouts. We won't be afraid coming down here - we'll look forward to the challenge. To me, it's actually too long to wait for. I'd rather it was coming quicker and we could tear into it," Fitzgerald said.
Of course, he might not have to wait for the championship for another clash with Kilkenny since both look well-primed for the next phase of the league.
Scorers - Kilkenny: TJ Reid 0-12 (9f 1'65'), R Leahy 0-3, J Maher, W Walsh 0-2 each, C Buckley, G Aylward, J Donnelly0-1 each. Wexford: R O'Connor (3f, 1'65), P Foley 0-6 (0-5f) each, K Foley 0-3, C Dunbar 0-2, D O'Keeffe, C McDonald 0-1 each.
Kilkenny: D Brennan 7; J Holden 7, P Walsh 8, P Deegan 7; C Delaney 7, C Buckley 8, E Morrissey 8; J Maher 7, R Leahy 8; M Keoghan 5, TJ Reid 8, P Lyng 7; J Donnelly 6, W Walsh, 7 G Aylward 7. Subs: L Scanlon 6 for Keoghan (50), L Blanchfield 7 for Lyng (50), L Ryan 7 for Maher (63), A Murphy for Donnelly (67) O Walsh for Leahy (70).
Wexford: C O'Leary 7; C Firman 7, L Ryan 8, W Devereux 7; P Foley 9, M O'Hanlon 7, D O'Keeffe 7; K Foley 8, S Murphy 7; A Maddock 5, H Kehoe 6, J O'Connor 7; C Dunbar 7, C McDonald (0-1) 7, R O'Connor 8.Subs: P Morris 7 for Kehoe (47), D Reck 6 for Maddock (53), A Nolan 6f or O'Keeffe (57), S Donohue for Firman (61),E Martin for K Foley (65), M O'Regan for Dunbar (71)
Ref - J McGrath (Westmeath)
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