KILKENNY 0-22 WEXFORD 1-16 Leinster SHC final FOREGONE conclusions didn't travel to Croke Park for yesterday's Guinness Leinster hurling final, presumably on the basis that it wasn't strictly necessary.
But how wrong they - and indeed the vast majority of hurling observers - were to assume anything about the private duel in which Kilkenny and Wexford like to engage at this time of year. Kilkenny were such hot favourites to regain the title that it must have been difficult for their players to lock on to the concentrated mindset required to deliver.
Certainly, for much of the first half Wexford out-paced, out-fought and out-smarted Kilkenny so comprehensively that their long odds outsiders' rating looked ludicrous. They powered towards the Railway goal from all angles, leaving Kilkenny wondering if it was going to be another of those days when Wexford were inspired, rather than hindered, by their underdogs' tag. Mitch Jordan was lighting fires in front of the Kilkenny goal and, in their efforts to extinguish them, the defenders conceded frees which were gleefully turned into points by Rory Jacob. Adrian Fenlon, who had to retire with a leg injury at half-time, and Rory McCarthy delivered thoughtful, accurate ball from midfield, and when Kilkenny did manage to attack, they were met with fierce resistance from a defence where Diarmaid Lyng, 'Doc' O'Connor and Darragh Ryan were strong and defiant.
It was the perfect start for Wexford who really must have thought that they were set for a truly memorable afternoon when they led by 1-5 to 0-1 after 15 minutes. Kilkenny manager Brian Cody was pacing the line with a worried frown, trying to devise a solution to problems that few anticipated he would encounter.
Some of Wexford's scores were truly brilliant. Des Mythen's 12th minute goal was beautifully crafted by Jordan, who himself scored a fantastic point after a sweeping four-man move, while Eoin Quigley hit a wonder long range point with a delicate flick of the wrists.
Kilkenny continued to bleed for the first 22 minutes, by which stage they trailed by seven points (1-7 to 0-3) and were facing a huge test of their character and resolve. That they delivered in such compelling style from there on proves that their ambition levels are as high as ever. But then there was hardly a doubt about that as they had set out their agenda early in a season where the Walsh Cup and Allianz League trophies were already been placed on the Nowlan Park sideboards.
Just as Wexford's early power surge was quite awesome, Kilkenny's recovery was so expertly manufactured that it deserved the ultimate reward. Eoin Larkin began to find space in the half-forward line, Richie Power and Martin Comerford made progress down the right wing, Tommy Walsh exerted a significant influence and while 'Doc' O'Connor was doing a good marking job on Henry Shefflin, Kilkenny's top scorer continued to slot over the frees which arrived courtesy of an over-worked defence.
Seven unanswered points between the 23rd and 34th minutes brought Kilkenny level and with the sides trading points just before the break, it was level (1-8 to 0-11) at the interval.
Even the most optimistic Wexford fans probably feared the worst at that stage, suspecting that Kilkenny might hit the overdrive button early in the second half. And when Walsh put them ahead for the first time two minutes into the second half, it looked as if Wexford's worst fears would be realised. However, the team saw it completely differently and dug into battle with a pride and a passion that kept them afloat all the way to the finish line.
They had lost Fenlon to injury, but replacement Redmond Barry did quite well, while McCarthy made a number of incisive runs that took Wexford down some productive routes. In fact, they led by 1-13 to 0-13 after 44 minutes and weren't hauled back to parity until Shefflin equalised in the 51st minute. Kilkenny won the final 19 minutes by 0-5 to 0-2, a margin that would have been greater were it not for some heroic goalkeeping by Damien Fitzhenry. He made a fantastic block from Martin Comerford in the 58th minute and later thwarted Shefflin as Kilkenny edged ever closer to grabbing a goal. We have come to expect Fitzhenry's brilliance as a routine experience and, once again, he delivered.
It must be extremely disappointing for him to keep a clean sheet and still end up on the losing side, but then Kilkenny have repeatedly shown over the years that when it comes to improvising, they are the best in the land. They had to hang on in the end as Wexford drove forward but, unlike last year when Kilkenny were beaten by a late goal, the defence held solid when Rory Jacob tried to blast a free to the net with virtually the last puck of the ball. Earlier, Declan Ruth had hoisted a long range free wide, while sub Tomás 'Mossy' Mahon sliced a sideline cut wide.
It may have been too close for comfort for Kilkenny in the end, but they still managed to achieve their ambition of winning the Leinster title for a 62nd time. In fact, in many ways, it was the ideal way to do it as it will eradicate some of the ridiculous assumptions that have been loaded on to the team by those who think that they are certainties to at least reach the All-Ireland final.
It was a good day for Wexford too. Granted, they will be disappointed at surrendering the Leinster crown, but they are still as advanced as Kilkenny in the All-Ireland race. And, on the evidence of yesterday's performance, they have every reason to be optimistic that they can still enjoy a very exciting All-Ireland season.
That's quite a prospect for new manager, Séamus Murphy, who deserves great credit for having the team so well prepared, both mentally and physically. A good day all round then. Kilkenny will be happy to have added another trophy to their haul, Wexford will take genuine hope into the All-Ireland quarter-finals, while the Leinster championship finished on a high with what was probably the best game of the summer so far.
Cats boss Cody's delight at steering Kilkenny to another Leinster hurling title was tempered by the news that his mother had taken ill during the game. Cody dashed from Croke Park afterwards to be at her side.
SCORERS - Kilkenny: H Shefflin 0-8 (7f 1'65'), T Walsh 0-4, E Larkin, R Power 0-3 each, E Brennan 0-2, C Phelan, R Mullally 0-1 each. Wexford: R Jacob 0-5 (5f), D Mythen 1-1, M Jordan, E Quigley, R McCarthy 0-2 each, P Carley, M Jacob, D Ruth, R Barry 0-1 each.
KILKENNY - J McGarry 7; J Tyrrell 7, N Hickey 7, J Ryall 6; R Mullally 7, P Barry 8, JJ Delaney 7; B Barry 7, D Lyng 8; M Comerford 8, E Larkin 8, T Walsh 9; R Power 8, C Phelan 6, H Shefflin 7. Subs: E McCormack 7 for Phelan (40), E Brennan 8 for B Barry (44), M Kavanagh 7 for Ryall (46), J Hoyne for Larkin (68). Yellow cards: N Hickey (62), JJ Delaney (73).
WEXFORD - D Fitzhenry 9; D O'Connor 8, D Ryan 8, K Rossiter 7; M Travers 7, D Ruth 7, D Lyng 8; A Fenlon 7, R McCarthy 8; P Carley 6, E Quigley 7, D Mythen 7; M Jacob 6, M Jordan 8, R Jacob 7. Subs: R Barry 7 for Fenlon (ht), T Mahon 6 for Carley (59), B Lambert for M Jacob (71). Yellow cards: E Quigley (29), D Ryan (50), D Ruth (70).
REF - S Roche (Tipperary)