A sting in the cats' tail
Cody's men have slipped from peak but a ferocious backlash could be just around the corner
FOR the first time since God, or even Cody, knows when, there's a frisson of excitement about Kilkenny's opening championship collision with a Leinster rival.
We use the word 'Leinster' advisedly, because the Kilkenny/Galway showdown in Tullamore two years ago certainly caught the imagination -- and lived up to its advance billing.
Still, you get our drift. It's a rare event that Kilkenny set out in June with myriad question marks hovering over their form/health/mileage/Plan B options (of the non-VHI variety). In their wilder moments of reverie, some Wexford fans may even have spent the past few days dreaming that the unthinkable is about to become reality.
Can it? Well, stranger things have happened -- involving these very same counties.
The 2004 Leinster semi-final, when Wexford hurled with wonderful pace, movement and intelligence but still required a last-gasp goal from Michael Jacob to seal the deal, stands out as the most stunning example of a Brian Cody team being 'ambushed' when no one saw it coming.
It also just happens to have been the last time Kilkenny lost a match within their own province.
Fast-forward seven years and you can proffer several reasons why it could happen again, but the emphasis must be on the world 'could'.
For Wexford to topple the 1/8 favourites, almost everything must go their way. Rory Jacob, brother of the now omitted Michael, will have to enjoy one of his red-hot days. His forward colleagues may also have to shoot the lights out ... but do they possess the weaponry to do so?
The stats aren't overly comforting: they were the least prolific scorers in Division 1 this spring with a seven-game tally of 5-96, compared to Kilkenny's 12-114.
Wexford may spy hope in the fact that Kilkenny's right flank of defence contains two SHC debutants in Paul Murphy and Paddy Hogan. In theory, this could be a profitable route of attack for the home side, especially if they target the bulldozing Stephen Banville against the smaller Hogan from puckouts.
Then again, there is some speculation that some of the Kilkenny defenders could shuffle into different positions before throw-in. A case of watch this space.
In truth, Wexford's best (only?) chance of a seismic result is dependant on Kilkenny being floored by a collective tremor of their own.
It happened during the league final against Dublin -- the worst performance of the Cody era -- but it's inconceivable that Kilkenny could be so listless again. Indeed, that very capitulation is more likely to induce a backlash -- the one thing Wexford will dread more than anything. Still, the perennial kings of Leinster have rarely looked so potentially vulnerable on the cusp of summer. They have four championship newcomers, hinting that a period of transition may well beckon.
True, the injuries are healing -- JJ Delaney, Richie Power and Henry Shefflin are back as expected while Michael Fennelly returns at midfield, somewhat more surprisingly -- but there must be a small, nagging doubt about match sharpness -- not to mention the fact that Tommy Walsh doesn't even make the bench because of his ongoing shoulder travails.
Despite their horrendous injury problems, Kilkenny still finished top of the regulation league table, but this masked some erratic form within games.
Bizarrely, given that they finished eight points ahead of Wexford, the latter arguably took greater momentum from the competition. Obviously this has something to do with Kilkenny's final implosion and the fact that Wexford conspired to escape relegation with a remarkable finish (beating Cork and drawing with Tipperary) but it still offers Colm Bonnar's men a reason to believe that the tide could be with them.
Even their Nowlan Park defeat last March -- when they lost 2-16 to 0-17 -- offered a modicum of hope because the visitors won the second half by four points. Last Tuesday night was another fillip of sorts, when a Wexford U21 team including two senior starters -- full-back Matthew O'Hanlon and centre-forward Harry Kehoe -- toppled the Black-and-Amber in Wexford Park. For all these caveats and question marks, however, this is Kilkenny we're talking about.
Their bench doesn't look as deep as normal but the first four names are all former All Stars -- 'keeper PJ Ryan, Michael Kavanagh, Eddie Brennan and 'Cha' Fitzpatrick, the latter reportedly back in form and unlucky to be squeezed out of a midfield recall.
That tells you something about the challenge awaiting Wexford. Expect the shaken Cats to be stirred to victory.
ODDS: Wexford 11/2, Draw 14/1, Kilkenny 1/8
WEXFORD: N Breen; P Roche, M O'Hanlon, K Rossiter; L Prendergast, D Stamp, C Kenny; W Doran, D Redmond; PJ Nolan, H Kehoe, S Banville; R Jacob, G Sinnott, J Berry.
KILKENNY: D Herity; P Murphy, N Hickey, J Tyrrell; P Hogan, B Hogan, JJ Delaney; M Fennelly, M Rice; TJ Reid, R Power, E Larkin; C Fennelly, H Shefflin, R Hogan.