Monday 11 December 2017

Cyril Farrell: Rumours of Cats' demise may be just as far off the mark as they have been in the past

Cats have recovered from setbacks before to regain top spot - who's to say they won't do it again?

Shaun Murphy has been operating as the Wexford ‘sweeper’ this year. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Shaun Murphy has been operating as the Wexford ‘sweeper’ this year. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

Cyril Farrell

They came from far and wide to Kilkenny on Thursday to pay their respects to 'Georgie' Leahy, a great hurling man whose impact on the game spread far beyond his beloved James Stephens club.

It extended beyond Kilkenny too into many clubs and counties where Georgie (incidentally, christened Sean) spread the gospel over many years. They were all represented in large number at his funeral and inevitably, the chat later turned to this year's championship and, more specifically, to the Kilkenny-Wexford game.

I talked to a lot of Kilkenny people, all of whom were convinced that Cody and Co will be back in another Leinster final by 8.30 this evening. The rest of the hurling world may have doubts about where exactly Kilkenny stand at present but the locals see it differently.

As far as they are concerned, Cody isn't rebuilding, but rather reloading the big guns to unleash some furious fire.

That's very apt for this evening's game, where the ferocious battle for physical dominance will be as interesting - and as important - as the tactical showdown. Referee Fergal Horgan can expect to be a busy man, certainly in the settling-in period.

This was always going to be a sell-out game once Wexford's improvement under Davy Fitzgerald took them out of 1B, but interest levels soared even higher when they beat Kilkenny in the league quarter-final. And in Nowlan Park too!

Wexford lost to Tipperary in the semi-final after putting up a great show for an hour so, given their starting point, the league was a real success story for them.

Not only did it enable Fitzy to stamp his particular philosophy on the squad, it was done in a successful environment. That made it all the easier, as players will buy into fresh ideas much quicker if they are seen to be working.

It will take more than a few months for Wexford to embrace Fitz's full range of tactics and tricks but they have already covered quite a bit of ground.

The sweeper system has been effective, with Shaun Murphy playing the extra man in defence very well but this is big-time championship action where the demands are much higher.

It will be interesting to see how Kilkenny react, but my guess is that they won't deviate too far from a straight line-up, albeit with complete lines moving back and forward as required.

I would be surprised if Kilkenny allow Murphy to be the spare man. I have always believed that when the opposition plays an extra man in defence, you don't allow them to decide who it is.

Murphy has hurled a lot of ball unchallenged this year but what if Kilkenny designate someone to mark him? That will leave another Wexford defender free but it won't be the man they want. I would try to counteract a sweeper by marking him and forcing a situation where a corner-back is the spare man. Corner boys tend to be more interested in minding the house than in building it - in other words they leave the creativity to others.

So if there is to be spare sentry lurking in defence, it's best if he's not the man the opposition want or half-backs, who are better than corner-backs at pinging passes and scoring from long range.

It has taken the Wexford public a while to get used to Fitzy's new systems but they have been impressed by what they have seen.

Hence the new-found confidence coursing through the county. High expectations are fine but fans need to be realistic as well. Wexford looked fitter than most of the opposition the encountered in the league, which gave them an advantage, but everyone else will have caught up by now.

Even more importantly, Wexford are playing Kilkenny, the ultimate experts at getting things right for the championship. Their demise has been predicted at various stages over the years, most notably after 2005, 2010 and 2013 but, on each occasion, they recovered from championship setbacks to resume control.

There's a view that it's going to be much more difficult this time. Certainly, the supply lines have not been as productive as in the past, but Kilkenny still have enough talent to remain right in there among the main contenders. I expect them to win this evening because of the vast experience differential between the counties.

How teams react in the white heat of battle often decides the outcome.

Kilkenny are far more accustomed to coping with that sort of pressure than Wexford, leaving them less prone to mistakes.

This evening's game will be hugely beneficial to Wexford on a whole range of fronts but winning it might just be beyond their range at this stage of their development.

The main focus will be on Wexford Park but we can't forget the big day out in Croke Park for the Christy Ring (Antrim and Carlow), Nicky Rackard (Armagh and Derry) and Lory Meagher (Leitrim and Warwickshire) finalists.

In fairness to the GAA, the introduction of these competitions was a great idea, one that serves counties below Liam MacCarthy Cup standard very well.

Of course, there's added interest in the Ring Cup final this year, as the winners play Laois in the All-Ireland qualifiers.

A final point. I was invited to the 60th anniversary celebrations of Tooreen hurling club in Mayo last weekend, a wonderful occasion which once again underlined the great work that's being done for the game in small pockets away from the main strongholds.

Those involved deserve enormous credit.

Irish Independent

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