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Saturday 21 September 2019

Cats show no mercy

BRENDAN FURLONG In Nowlan Park

WEXFORD MAY have had the perfect start, but Kilkenny were miles ahead as they eventually moved on to a comfortable eleven-point victory in this one-sided Leinster Under-21 hurling championship semi-final at Nowlan Park, Kilkenny, on Wednesday last.

This defeat was all the more startling since, after just twelve minutes, Wexford had enjoyed a six-point lead after what was quite an impressive opening. Thereafter it all fell apart as Kilkenny upped the tempo of their game, taking control in most lines of the pitch as they turned the scoreline around with quite an amazing spell of hurling.

And let's not forget that Wexford defeated Kilkenny in last year's provincial semi-final, but the home side had already boasted that this bunch of players was the most unlucky side not to have won an All-Ireland Minor title, losing out in the final to Tipperary. Local hurling experts would say they were a far better side than many Kilkenny teams which tasted Minor success, and this assumption was backed up as they handed out a real hurling lesson to the Model county side.

Wexford went into this game with a high degree of confidence in continuing their improvement of the past two seasons, but that progress was abruptly halted as they played second fiddle apart from that opening twelve-minute spell. Wexford were unable to match their opponents in hurling skills, composure and teamwork, while they were also outmuscled in the physical stakes.

But having said that, it was the ability of the Kilkenny players to move into space and create that extra option for the crucial pass that helped to contribute to so many crucial scores. In the technical aspects of the game Kilkenny were streets ahead of their opponents who seemed to lack the creativity that separates teams from being exceptional to very very average. Wexford for some unknown reason on the evening looked an average outfit as they failed dismally to deliver on their potential.

Unfortunately for Wexford they lacked the composure and skill levels to match their opponents. It's always more difficult when you're battling to live off scraps of possession, which makes it all the more crucial that one utilises the limited possession that comes your way. The Wexford finishing was not what one would expect when compared to the clinical finishing of the home side as they picked off some excellent scores, even from the most acute of angles.

In the lead-up to half-time, after Kilkenny had turned an early six-point deficit into a seven-point lead, Wexford's forwards missed out on crucial scoring opportunities, hitting four poor wides with point attempts, while Jack Guiney had a semi-penalty blocked down on the line and cleared to safety. These were the type of misses that Wexford could not recover from as Kilkenny went on to control the second 30 minutes, with only two late goals from Jack Guiney frees putting a more respectable look on the final scoreline as the game was long gone by then.

Wexford started so impressively that they shocked home supporters. Michael O'Regan lofted over a point inside two minutes, which was followed by a Barry Carton point two minutes later. Wexford were dominating proceedings at this stage, leading to Gary Moore lofting over a huge point out of midfield with Michael O'Regan, having taken a Jack Guiney pass, also finding the target.

Quite astonishingly Kilkenny had to wait until the tenth minute for their opening score, a Kevin Kelly pointed free, but it did little to halt the Wexford start as they returned to the attack straight from the puck-out. It was Gary Moore who won possession and cut through the home defence, but his goal attempt was blocked into the air by 'keeper Dylan Walsh. However, Barry Carton reacted quickest, rising high to firsttime the ball to the net, giving his side a 1-4 to 0-1 lead after eleven minutes.

Realising their plight, Kilkenny stormed back to the attack straight from the puck-out with the ball reaching tall attacker Walter Walsh. The Tullogher-Rosbercon lad took on the home defence and shook off several would-be challengers, before planting his shot past 'keeper Mark Fanning into the corner of the net.

Walsh, who was listed at full-forward, spent most of the game roving between the two corner positions, and his physical presence along with the skilful hurling of Kevin Kelly was soon to tear gaps in the Wexford defence. Despite the fine netminding of Mark Fanning, along with the excellent defending of Matthew O'Hanlon, helped by the fine play of Diarmuid O'Keeffe who started out in the right half-back position, Kilkenny went on to assume control. Midfielder Lee Chin was hurling lots of ball but lacked support, while Michael O'Regan and Gary Moore were the only attackers who seemed capable of outwitting the home defence.

By the 18th minute Kilkenny were level (1-4 each), but when Wexford could only manage a further point from the eleventh minute, it was clear they were in considerable trouble. Kilkenny tagged on a further five points along with John Power's 19th-minute goal, when he was allowed to carry the ball a considerable distance along the endline before easily beating Mark Fanning from close range.

In a dramatic transformation, Kilkenny went in with a seven-point interval lead (2-9 to 1-5), leaving Wexford with much to think about during the half-time break.

Kilkenny killed off any hope of a Wexford recovery within 30 seconds of the re-start. Walter Walsh won possession out close to the sideline and waltzed around corner-back Alan Nolan, continuing to drive forward some 20 metres before cracking an unstoppable shot beyond 'keeper Mark Fanning, who stood little chance.

Now trailing by 3-9 to 1-5, it was only a matter of damage limitation as far as Wexford were concerned. Matthew O'Hanlon and Diarmuid O'Keeffe put up a staunch defence, but they were further hit after 35 minutes when defender Willie Devereux was sent-off on a second yellow card offence.

After Kevin Kelly had lofted over two points, Wexford briefly managed to lift the siege through a fine Michael O'Regan goal, but they still trailed by 3-18 to 2-5 after 49 minutes. Jack Guiney managed to blaze home goals from frees on 51 and 55 minutes but it was too little too late to alter the result, as Kilkenny emerged the most comfortable of winners in the end.

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