Cats get back on track
Kilkenny prove they’re no spent force with efficient demolition of Wexford
"THEY haven't gone away, you know." We're only slightly paraphrasing Wexford hurling boss Colm Bonnar – as opposed to a certain Louth TD – and we should also clarify that he wasn't talking up some sinister paramilitary organisation but a different type of ruthless machine altogether.
Despite what you may have thought or heard since last September's All-Ireland final, or more especially last month's league decider, the Cats have not been decommissioned.
On Saturday night, 16,000 supporters (mostly of a purpleand- gold persuasion) had descended upon Wexford Park wondering (and most of them hoping) that the end truly was nigh for Brian Cody's fallen champions.
Long before the end, that sense of hope/expectation had been exposed as a leap of delusion. Kilkenny won every bit as convincingly as the 1-26 to 1-15 scoreline suggests.
Yes, Wexford had goal chances that came to nothing but so, too, did the Black-and-Amber, who advance to that oh-so-familiar setting of a Leinster senior hurling final in early July.
That should prove a more searching examination than the one provided by Wexford, whether it comes from Dublin or Galway.
But as Bonnar surmised: “Kilkenny have been the best team around in the last 10 years and possibly one of the greatest teams around (ever). They haven't gone away by a long shot, and I still think the team that will probably beat Kilkenny will be the team that will win the All-Ireland final.”
Presuming anyone does.
“The only team that gave them a game last year were Tipperary, and Tipperary are possibly the only team that can beat them at the moment,” the Wexford boss suggested.
“I think Kilkenny are still strong favourites for the All-Ireland final. And in my book they're a sore team, they're a hungry team, they're looking to make amends for the All- Ireland final of last year and obviously the manner in which they lost the league final (to Dublin). So, Kilkenny have a huge amount to play for.”
Saturday, it should be stressed, wasn't a flawless performance (especially in the full-back line) but this will certainly suffice as an opening salvo, given the cloak of uncertainty that has shrouded Kilkenny in recent months.
Commitment and intensity – Marble City trademarks marked absent against Dublin – were restored to working order. Many other familiar traits flowed from this fundamental starting point.
A dominant half-back platform? Check. A wide-ranging and prodigious scoring threat? Check (they had nine different scorers from play). Henry Shefflin back nailing the frees as if he'd never been away? Check.
When it was all over, Brian Cody was asked if it was a “relief” to get that league final out of the system?
“I don't see it like that,” the Kilkenny manager countered. “It didn't ever take me over. We had a very bad day and Dublin played very, very well – and that's it.
“We stumbled to the league final in lots of ways, to be honest about it. But that's where we got to and we were punished. Dublin completely outhurled us. But that's no harm either,” he added.
“We just take it on from there and try and work our way back into things. Now, we did reasonably well tonight so we look forward to a Leinster final.”
If Kilkenny were “outfought” against the Dubs, it didn't happen here. This was reflected in how they monopolised the breaks off Wexford's first-half puckout, with centre-back Brian Hogan and debutant Paul Murphy (wearing No 2 but filling Tommy Walsh's giant wing-back boots) both prominent.
At the far end, scores seemed to come far easier for the Kilkenny forwards, be it Michael Rice (operating on the right flank) or the returning Richie Power or the livewire Richie Hogan, who had a notable pep in his step from the moment he accelerated away from Paul Roche for a sumptuous eighthminute goal.
Still, for those visiting fans seeking perfection, there were frissons of first-half doubt whenever Wexford managed to feed their inside line.
By the ninth minute, debutant full-forward Garrett Sinnott had taken the relocated JJ Delaney for three points from play. Jackie Tyrrell also found Rory Jacob a first-half handful, and the end product of two points could have been more.
Delaney scampered across to block one goalbound effort when Jacob should have passed inside to the unmarked Sinnott.
Meanwhile, another piledriver was brilliantly tipped over by David Herity, who capped his Kilkenny summer baptism with another spectacular late save from Stephen Banville.
Only once did Wexford breach Herity's line, via a low and bouncing Jim Berry free with the last puck of the first half. But they still trailed by 1-14 to 1-9; Kilkenny had the fresh wind to come; and it didn't take long for Rice and the marauding Michael Fennelly to push them over the horizon.
By the 48th minute, the gap back out to eight, it was game over.
For Cody, part of the pleasure came in seeing his team thrive in a potentially fraught environment.
“There was huge anticipation down here with Wexford having won the U21 the other night against ourselves, their footballers having won, their home venue, huge crowd … and that's a great place to come,” he enthused.
“I like that opportunity to come down and test your nerve in that situation. And that's what we did.”