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Tuesday 19 November 2019

Cats' claws are out

ALLIANZ HL DIV 1 WEXFORD v KILKENNY (Wexford Park, Tomorrow, 2.0, TG4)

Kilkenny’s Paddy Deegan in action against Robbie Hanley of Limerick when the sides met in the Allianz Hurling League at Nowlan Park
Kilkenny’s Paddy Deegan in action against Robbie Hanley of Limerick when the sides met in the Allianz Hurling League at Nowlan Park

"When I walked the pitch, I knew it would be called off," Davy Fitzgerald asserted as this match in its original incarnation fell foul of last Sunday's unexpected blizzard.

"I could see the surface water, 100 per cent it was the right thing to do."

Given the bite displayed in Ennis when Clare/Limerick was given the all-clear on the same afternoon and the noted escalation of this particular rivalry since Fitzgerald arrived in Wexford, it would have been interesting to see how the game might have panned out had Alan Kelly decided the pitch was playable.

Allowing for the phoney war hypothesis that routinely gets rolled out in all analysis about this year's league, this game has subtle fascination on a number of levels.

Because even in the thrillingly uncertain landscape of inter-county hurling, we can't be sure of anything with either of these teams just now.

Not that it's particularly relevant but, for contrast, it's worth recalling how this time last year, Wexford were charting a steep and positive line on their performance graph and seemed destined to be a significant factor in the Leinster and All-Ireland shake-ups.

Yet they wilted as summer heated up, most notably in the second half of their defeat to Kilkenny in their one-point defeat in Nowlan Park and looked empty for their spring efforts by the time they limped out with an anaemic performance in Páirc Uí Chaoimh against Clare.

And Fitzgerald was roundly denounced for his methods.

This year, Davy has publicly and deliberately hinted at some unseen force that could propel Wexford into the realms of deep summer contenders but so far, they have served up the same regularity of good and bad as most of the rest of this division.

Certainly, you couldn't accuse him of making the mistake of investing all his team's energies on this competition.

Kilkenny meanwhile, are perhaps the most fascinating team in hurling just now, compelling in both their flaws and ominously rapid rate of improvement.

"I think they are back in the shake up, I didn't think it would happen as quick," observed Anthony Daly this week.

"Outside of Limerick I don't think anyone got as much out of last year as Brian Cody.

"I can't believe that Wexford or maybe Tipp didn't go all out to win the league (last year), there was a trip to Australia for the winners, it would have been nice with a lot of young fellas coming through and you could build a training camp around that without breaking your county board (financially).

"That did so much for all these guys coming through and all the guys were very prominent in the Fitzgibbon as well this year, (with) the Ballyhale contingent missing."

All of which is true but it's still difficult to picture this Kilkenny team going all the way.

"Would they be good enough to win? If they could win a Leinster title…," said Daly, trailing off.

Incredible

"If they got to a quarter-final game and have to win three massive battles - one with a major Munster team and a semi-final and a final - that's three very tight ones and that might tighten them.

"If they could win Leinster and get to a semi they'd have a real chance but they are back up there; it's incredible.

Slowly, things seem to be taking shape, although educated word has it that Cillian Buckley may be struggling to get back from injury in time to have any influence on Kilkenny's summer.

In his continued absence, Paddy Deegan is beginning to look like a probable, rather than a possible, number six while Conor Delaney has forcefully played his way into the number three jersey Pádraig Walsh has left behind in favour of the open prairies of midfield.

Most of their cast of rotating forwards have had good spells in the League, even if none of them has individually put together a consistent body of work pressing enough to guarantee summer selection.

The side Fitzgerald named for the postponed game featured five changes to the starting line-up for Wexford's three-point loss in Ennis, although changes were expected.

Optimum

Rory O'Connor was their best forward against Clare, scoring 0-4 (1f) from wing-forward but was listed as a substitute for last weekend.

The week's rest should see both of these teams closer to optimum strength.

Uncharacteristically, Kilkenny haven't created many goal chances in this year's League and have taken just three of those although the sporadic positioning of Walter Walsh at full-forward has generated occasional panic in opposition defences since his return against Limerick.

Tomorrow is unlikely to be the game where Cody's attack suddenly click but no team looks as geared for war just now.

ODDS: Wexford 11/8 Draw 8/1 Kilkenny 4/5

VERDICT: Kilkenny

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