Saturday 24 August 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Wexford are better equipped than they were two years ago but it still may not be enough'

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody. Photo: Sportsfile
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Draws don't usually leave both managers so contented, but as the picture of Brian Cody and Davy Fitzgerald after the Wexford-Kilkenny clash two weeks showed, deadlock can sometimes mean that both teams win.

The scowling glares of the previous 70 minutes were replaced with beaming smiles as they realised that the draw had secured a provincial final place for both.

It has also knocked Galway - the rather large cuckoo which had thrown its weight around the Leinster nest over the past two seasons - out of the All-Ireland race. The rest of the province weren't sorry to see them go out. A good evening's work all round then, but it wouldn't have taken long for the focus to turn to the next target - specifically tomorrow's Leinster final.

Unlike the round-robin game, it can't end the season for either outfit, but that will make no difference to the ferocity of the exchanges, which zoomed high into the red zone a fortnight ago.

It will be the same again as both sides seek to guarantee themselves a prize from the season at a time when the standard between so many teams in Leinster and Munster has never been so high.

Provincial titles still matter. Even when Kilkenny were racking up All-Ireland titles with near-monotonous regularity, they still valued the Leinster honour. Okay, so they didn't parade the Bob O'Keeffe Cup around the county but still regarded the Leinster title as important to their season.

Now that it has become more elusive - they are trying to avoid going three successive years without a win for the first time since the mid-nineties - they will be even more determined to reacquaint themselves with the big trophy.

Wexford's need is even greater. Without a Leinster title since 2004 and without a win over Kilkenny in the final since 1997, they are desperate for a breakthrough.

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The entire county showed how much a Leinster title would mean to them when they were by far the majority contributors to a record crowd of over 60,000 for the clash with Galway in 2017. The painful memory of that day (Galway won by nine points) took a long time to ease, but there were lessons to be learned too which could still be relevant two years later.

The occasion seemed to get to the Wexford players, which made an already difficult challenge ultimately unmanageable. They have accumulated a lot of experience since then, so it won't be as much of an issue, but trying to out-manoeuvre Kilkenny in a Leinster final is always a very difficult assignment.

Still, there has been a significant shift in the dynamic between the counties in recent seasons.

From a position of total Kilkenny dominance for so long, Wexford have gained parity.

Wins stand at three each with one draw from seven championship and league games since the start of 2017, an equality which has released Wexford from the tight psychological grip Kilkenny exerted for many years.

Of course, none of those games were in finals so the big question now is whether Wexford can cope with the different demands that a title day brings. They will need to as there's no better outfit to exploit a weakness than Kilkenny.

Wexford are certainly better equipped for this type of challenge than they were against Galway two years ago, but it still may not be enough against the greatest exponents of all when it comes to chiselling out wins in the most demanding of circumstances.

Kilkenny's defeat by Galway highlighted defensive issues, but they did much better against Wexford conceding no goals. A marginal improvement could be enough to land the Leinster title for the 72nd time.

Verdict: Kilkenny

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