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Kilkenny defy the doubters


Henry Shefflin returned to inter-county hurling last night for the first time since limping off in last year's All-Ireland final. Photo: Pat Murphy

Henry Shefflin returned to inter-county hurling last night for the first time since limping off in last year's All-Ireland final. Photo: Pat Murphy

Henry Shefflin returned to inter-county hurling last night for the first time since limping off in last year's All-Ireland final. Photo: Pat Murphy

THERE comes a time when the death knell will sound for even the greatest of teams and while concerns remain about the durability of this Kilkenny side, their age of supremacy is not yet complete.

In the lead-up to this match, following an All-Ireland final tanking at the hands of Tipperary eight months ago and an even bigger battering against the Dubs in the recent league final, serious questions were asked of Brian Cody's team.

Last night Wexford, through the likes of debutant Garrett Sinnott, revealed a few more weaknesses in their armour, but the reigning Leinster champions easily withstood that challenge and held firm.

It was the first time since 1944 that the Purple and Gold hosted Kilkenny in the championship and on that occasion the Cats won a lot more handsomely. Last night, for 50 minutes, the hosts put up a much greater fight even though the pre-match withdrawal of Darren Stamp through a calf injury hindered them, but by the end it was a mismatch.

Indeed, Stamp's experience was badly missed as an impressive attacking display saw Kilkenny five points ahead at the break. It would have been even more only for a Jim Berry goal on the stroke of half-time. By then each of the visiting forwards had scored, as Richie Power and Richie Hogan shone brightest in this department.

And while they may not hold that invincible aura of old and their defence may not be as watertight as it once was, they had more than enough to get out of Wexford Park alive, principally thanks to their midfield, which reigned supreme for most of the 70 minutes.

Others to impress for Kilkenny were the brilliant David Herity, Brian Hogan, Paddy Hogan, Michael Rice and the two Richies, Power and Hogan. Wexford were best served by Sinnott and Keith Rossiter.

Cody changed things around last night; their starting 15 featured only eight of the side who lost that All-Ireland final, as marquee names like Cha Fitzpatrick and Eddie Brennan were jettisoned while the likes of the inexperienced Paul Murphy, Paddy Hogan and Colin Fennelly were drafted in. Hence a feeling in some quarters that if ever there was a time to play Kilkenny, it was now.

Colm Bonnar's men certainly embraced that attitude and the lively Sinnott picked three early points off full-back JJ Delaney to send the 16,000 crowd into a frenzy. But having lost centre-back Stamp through a calf injury before the game, they went on to lose Ciaran Kenny through injury and then substituted Kenny's replacement Willie Doran, meaning that Rossiter was their third centre-back in just 30 minutes.

Such uncertainty in defence allowed the likes of the bustling Hogan time to find his feet; he buried a smashing goal after nine minutes and from there on the likes of Shefflin led them further ahead with continuous placed balls.

Having Shefflin back on the pitch was a calming influence in itself. Everything that is good about this team has always been channelled through the Ballyhale man, the ultimate modern day hurler. He won frees and then took them, battled for ball and laid off breaks. But Wexford kept apace for the entire first half. In fact, they missed two goal chances: Rory Jacob saw his goal-bound shot blocked by Delaney while Jacob again coughed up a great chance when Herity made a superb save.

Eventually, they broke through when Berry blasted a free to the back of the net to cut the deficit to just five points, 1-14 to 1-9.

They cut the deficit to four after the break but their discipline let them down a little as Shefflin tacked on three points while midfielder Michael Fennelly broke through twice to send his side seven points clear after 48 minutes as the Wexford midfield and half-back line wilted.

With 15 minutes left, they couldn't sustain that pressure and Kilkenny's lead was back up to 11 points as the ball barely even crossed into the Wexford half-forward line.

Frees were conceded at will and they must have sighed to see the likes of Brennan coming on as a second half substitute.

It was a brave effort from Wexford and they can look to the qualifiers with more confidence but their challenge completely petered out in the last quarter as many expected it would. They only managed six points in the second half, not good enough.

Kilkenny are back in a Leinster final -- you sense their season will only gain momentum from here.

Scorers -- Kilkenny: H Shefflin 0-9 (7f, 1 '65'), R Hogan 1-1, M Rice, R Power (1f) 0-4 each, TJ Reid 0-3, M Fennelly 0-2, E Larkin, P Murphy, C Fennelly 0-1 each

Wexford: J Berry 1-4 (1-3f), G Sinnott 0-4, R Jacob, P Roche ('65') 0-2 each, S Banville, PJ Nolan, M Travers 0-1 each.

Kilkenny: D Herity; N Hickey, JJ Delaney, J Tyrrell; P Murphy, B Hogan, P Hogan; TJ Reid, M Rice; M Fennelly, R Power, H Shefflin; C Fennelly, E Larkin, R Hogan. Subs: M Kavanagh for J Tyrrell (59), E Brennan for C Fennelly (60), J Mulhall for E Larkin (53)

Wexford: N Breen; P Roche, M O'Hanlon, K Rossiter; L Prendergast, C Kenny, M Travers; W Doran, D Redmond; PJ Nolan, H Kehoe, S Banville; R Jacob, G Sinnott, J Berry. Subs: C Farrell for C Kenny (inj), M Jacob for W Doran (30) E Quigley for D Redmond (50), B Doyle for PJ Nolan (53), T Waters for H Kehoe (66)

Referee: J Ryan (Tipperary)

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