Monday 23 September 2019

Good discipline vital for Davy's system to work on return to Headquarters

Leinster final focus

Davy Fitzgerald points to Wexford’s togetherness and believes it will be a key factor when they take on Kilkenny at Croke Park tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile
Davy Fitzgerald points to Wexford’s togetherness and believes it will be a key factor when they take on Kilkenny at Croke Park tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It's a long time ago now - 22 years in fact - since Billy Byrne inflicted more damage on Kilkenny in six minutes than his colleagues had done over the previous hour. Aged 37, and with his long career winding down, he was held in reserve by manager Rory Kinsella until the 64th minute of the 1997 Leinster final, when he was despatched close to the Kilkenny goal.

Wexford, who had battled back from an early second-half six-point deficit, were leading by a point at the time. By the end of the game, they were six ahead, with Byrne top-scorer on 1-2 having caused mayhem in the Kilkenny full-back line.

It ensured that Wexford completed a superb treble (two Leinster titles and an All-Ireland) in the space of 12 months, leaving the county giddy with excitement as the good times rolled. But even as supporters celebrated, the dark clouds were beginning to form on the horizon, stocking up enough downpours to saturate the county for a long time.

Only one Leinster title has come Wexford's way since then, secured with a win over Offaly in the 2004 final. It means that when they line up in Croke Park tomorrow, they will be seeking their first win over Kilkenny in the Leinster final since 1997.

Prior to that, they hadn't beaten their greatest rivals in the final since 1977. That's two wins in 42 years, underlining a balance of power in favour of the black-and-amber, which has also seen them win 12 of the last 14 Championship meetings with Wexford.

Byrne still fondly recalls the 1977 final and, like the rest of Wexford, is at a loss to understand why the past two decades have been so barren.

Still, their sense of optimism never faded and the upturn eventually came. Now, for the second time in three seasons, the N11 will be jammed with traffic tomorrow morning as Wexford supporters head towards Croke Park for a double-booking with Kilkenny.

Byrne will be among them on his way to cast an expert eye on all the action for South East Radio.

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"It's an early start (the minor final throws in at 11.30), but isn't it great all the same to be in the minor and senior finals. And against Kilkenny in both - it doesn't happen very often. It has made for a great atmosphere in Wexford," said Byrne.

Sentiment

He certainly didn't think in 1997 that more than two decades later Wexford would still be waiting for their next win over Kilkenny in a Leinster final.

Of course, the long wait means nothing in the harsh world of sporting reality, which doesn't trade in sentiment.

"Just because we haven't beaten Kilkenny in the final for such a long time doesn't mean that we will win this time. On the other hand, because we haven't beaten them doesn't mean we won't this time. It's all about how a team hurls on a given day," he said.

Handling the occasion will be very important, according to Byrne. For Kilkenny, it's very much second nature; not so Wexford, for whom this will be only their second appearance in the final in 10 years.

Their first ended in a nine-point defeat in 2017 on a day when Galway's aerial power and long range shooting overpowered Wexford.

Davy Fitzgerald was convinced there was a psychological issue too, with Galway's greater experience giving them an advantage.

"I could tell we were half-doubting ourselves at times. And when you're doubting yourself, you're not going to contest those balls the way you should. When we lost our way a bit, they capitalised.

"They've played in two All-Irelands. Today is by far the biggest day we've played in - before 60,000 people. My guys weren't used to playing in anything remotely like that," Fitzgerald said.

Wexford have played 11 Championship games since then, none of which were in Croke Park. However, Fitzgerald will feel that the experience gained over the last two years has left them much better prepared for tomorrow's test. Byrne agrees.

"You'd hope that would be the case. But playing in Croke Park is still a big thing, especially against Kilkenny who are so used to it. The wide open spaces make it different too. Games are more stretched than at other venues. Play can become that bit looser," Byrne said.

He has closely monitored Wexford's performance line throughout Fitzy's reign and believes they are now in a better position than before.

"Wexford can go into any pitch in the country against any county and feel they can win. They have beaten them all at one stage or another over the last few years. The issue now is consistency. Can they maintain it? That's what makes all the difference at this level," he said.

In a tactic straight from Fitzgerald's hurling philosophy, Wexford have been jamming the middle third very effectively, turning it into a war zone. It has resulted in their games usually returning fewer scores than others.

They conceded only 2-75 in their four round-robin games - by far the lowest in their group and beaten only by Limerick in the entire competition.

It's impressive security, but it carries a negative spin-off at the other end, where only Carlow had a lower scoring total in Leinster.

"Closing things down in the middle third is the way Davy wants to play and, in fairness, it has worked well because that's where games tend to be won and lost.

"Wexford haven't been scoring as much as some of the other teams so they have to be tight defensively. That type of system took a lot of getting used to, but it's working, although doing it in Croke Park won't be as easy as in other grounds.

"Our half-backs have been brilliant, going forward all the time, and we'll need that again. They'll have to be good on the defending side too, because Kilkenny will drive at you every chance they get. It's the way they always try to play."

Ingredient

He points to Wexford's togetherness as a key ingredient in their rise and believes it will be crucially important tomorrow.

"You need it most of all against Kilkenny. They test you as individuals and as a team. You have to get both right, because otherwise they will make you pay. There's no let-up. Fair play to Davy, he has instilled a great team spirit into the squad.

"You could see in all the Leinster games. The tougher the going got, the more the players responded. You don't come through games unbeaten against the likes of Kilkenny, Galway and Dublin without having real battling qualities. Wexford have that now," he said.

Good discipline will be vital for Wexford as TJ Reid remains one of the most accurate free-takers in the game, having scored no less than 3-34 from placed balls in Kilkenny's last four games.

Wexford did reasonably well on that front two weeks ago - restricting Reid to seven points from frees - but whether they can replicate that discipline in Croke Park remains to be seen.

"We need to get that side of our game right too, so that TJ doesn't get too many free shots at goal. But then we'll have to get most things right. On what we've seen so far, there's no reason to think we won't."

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