Experimental side made Cats earn win
Kilkenny 0-22 Wexford 0-19
The team with the greater need for the points ultimately prevailed before a 9,793 crowd in Nowlan Park on Sunday, but Kilkenny were pushed all the way by an experimental Wexford side before joining their neighbours in the last eight of the Allianz Hurling League.
Some of the sting may have been taken out of this latest clash of the age-old rivals given that the visitors had already qualified for the knockout stages, but it's nigh on impossible for these counties to hold back once the ball is thrown in.
And that was certainly the case once more as, while Kilkenny may have ended Wexford's three-game winning sequence over them in league, championship and Walsh Cup, it's patently clear at this stage that the sides are extremely well matched.
It's all set up perfectly for the big game at the same venue on June 9, while the possibility exists that they might meet again beforehand in the league semi-final.
The head-to-head ruling meant that Kilkenny pipped Wexford for second spot after the teams were deadlocked on points (6) and scoring difference (+6).
And that, in turn, gave Brian Cody and his men the easier quarter-final against Offaly, whereas another searching test is in store for our charges when Galway visit Innovate Wexford Park this coming Sunday.
They may have missed out on promotion in their head-to-head with Limerick, but the All-Ireland champions will provide the acid test for a developing Wexford team and they ought to relish the challenge.
Beating them in Salthill last year was the second sign that this squad was bursting with potential, and we shall see next Sunday if sufficient progress has been made since the Leinster final loss that followed.
Davy Fitzgerald had flagged his intention to give game time to some of the lesser-used squad members thus far last Sunday, and he was true to his word as netminder Conor O'Leary, defender Willie Devereux, midfielder Aaron Maddock and attacker Cathal Dunbar were all thrown into the fray from the off.
And there was also a first-ever league start for young Rory O'Connor, with the promising forward ending the afternoon as his team's joint top scorer on six points along with accurate wing-back Pádraig Foley.
However, hitting the target proved a problem for Wexford in the first-half when they faced the wind, and the better spread of Kilkenny scorers was reflected in their 0-14 to 0-9 interval lead.
Just three of Wexford's nine came from play, with the first from a lively Dunbar not arriving until the 24th minute.
It was his first game with the Naomh Eanna club listed under his name in the programme, and he did well given his exposure to the limelight as a result of that contentious move from Ballygarrett.
Indeed, Dunbar also popped up with Wexford's second point from play nine minutes later, with midfielder Kevin Foley adding the third from a Conor Firman clearance just 40 seconds afterwards.
That capped the visitors' best sequence before the break, a run of four scores on the trot following earlier frees converted by Pádraig Foley and Rory O'Connor.
Cathal Dunbar was the only forward to register from open play in that first-half, whereas both Kilkenny midfielders and four of their attack raised white flags.
And the stand-out performer was undoubtedly stylish midfielder Richie Leahy who enhanced his growing reputation with three beauties as Kilkenny looked to build on their one-point win over Tipperary and avoid being potentially dragged into a relegation game.
T.J. Reid was as sharp as we have seen him this year to date, and his three points in the opening seven minutes gave the locals a lead they would never relinquish.
The middle score was a lovely effort from the left flank, immediately after Rory O'Connor was off target from a tricky free for the first of Wexford's nine wides (Kilkenny had eight).
However, Pádraig Foley underlined his credentials for looking after the long-range placed balls with some mighty shooting, and he got his side up and running from 85 metres in the eighth minute after James Maher overcarried.
A tug on Martin Keoghan's enabled Reid to convert free number three, and he landed an exocet from well behind his own 65-metre line in the eleventh minute to make it 0-5 to 0-1.
The fluid nature of Wexford's attacking gameplan saw full-back Liam Ryan fouled close to the centre-forward slot on their next attack, and Rory O'Connor duly split the posts.
The young gun quickly added a booking to his name for taking down James Maher, but for once Reid's eye wasn't in as the free veered wide.
Jack O'Connor did well to intercept an Enda Morrissey handpass, only to miss the target, and it took some determined defending to deny Kilkenny a goal in the 16th minute after their forwards capitalised on an unforced error.
Conor Firman threw himself at T.J. Reid's pull and, when the siege was lifted, a foul on Matthew O'Hanlon brought welcome relief with the added bonus of Pádraig Foley driving the free over to reduce arrears to 0-5 to 0-3.
Although he was wide with his next attempt, he made no mistake in the 21st minute after Rory O'Connor was impeded to make it a one-point game.
A trip on the returning Ger Aylward led to Reid's next point, with Richie Leahy winning Conor O'Leary's puck-out and sending it back over the bar with interest.
Wexford's opener from play followed, with Conor McDonald catching a long Pádraig Foley free and handpassing to new club colleague Cathal Dunbar who did the rest.
Instead of spurring the team on, they endured a very poor spell as Kilkenny hit five scores without reply between the 24th and 28th minutes to surge 12-5 clear.
James Maher, Walter Walsh, John Donnelly, Richie Leahy (a brilliant solo effort down the left flank) and Ger Aylward finally took some of the scoring burden away from Reid, but Wexford's response was almost as good.
They arrested the slide with four points on the bounce from free-takers Foley and O'Connor plus Dunbar and Kevin Foley, with the scores from play set up by Shaun Murphy and Conor Firman respectively.
A hook on Diarmuid O'Keeffe after an astute crossfield pass by Jack O'Connor resulted in a tame wide, and Kilkenny stretched their lead to 14-9 by the break after Reid earned and converted a free before Richie Leahy robbed Harry Kehoe and lofted the ball over from long range.
O'Keeffe resumed at midfield with Aaron Maddock at left half-back, and as the second 35 minutes progressed a number of positional switches were put to the test.
Indeed, Wexford went 15-on-15 for a long period, with Shaun Murphy assigned marking duties on Richie Leahy, while a number of different players were tried at full-forward after a three-man inside line was deployed.
The gap was reduced to two points on a couple of occasions, but the goal that was needed didn't arrive.
It took one superb save by Darren Brennan to deny Cathal Dunbar, although Conor O'Leary needed to be at his best, not once but twice, to keep out efforts from T.J. Reid and Ger Aylward at the other end.
An early Conor McDonald wide was followed by a monster point from deep inside his own half by Pádraig Foley.
Kevin Foley then availed of a Diarmuid O'Keeffe pass to make it 14-11, but Kilkenny captain Cillian Buckley kept their side of the scoreboard ticking over after a clever pass back out of traffic by John Donnelly.
Reid missed his second free, from long range, and a poor Kilkenny handpass was seized upon by Diarmuid O'Keeffe who tapped over a point in the 41st minute.
When Richie Leahy was booked for a slap at Shaun Murphy, and Pádraig Foley converted from 85 metres, we were looking at a two-point deficit and Wexford were very much in contention.
Kilkenny had the knack of keeping them at arm's length all the same, a fact underlined by points from James Maher and another Reid free.
Conor McDonald caught a Conor O'Leary clearance and picked off a neat point, and he followed up with a wide before it looked like the Wexford net was going to shake.
A crossfield Pat Lyng ball from left to right was caught over Liam Ryan's head by T.J. Reid who duly turned and bore down on goal, but his shot wasn't clean and Conor O'Leary did well to deflect it for a '65 that Kilkenny's top marksman converted (0-18 to 0-14).
New arrival Paul Morris and opposing defender Paddy Deegan struck wides before a couple of attempts from Diarmuid O'Keeffe and Conor McDonald dropped short.
Kevin Foley and Rory O'Connor also posted wides, the latter by virtue of being hooked, but in the middle of that sloppy spell for Wexford they also conceded points to Reid from a free and play.
It left the home side leading by 0-20 to 0-14 entering the last 15 minutes plus the five added on.
And one of the most pleasing aspects of the game was that Wexford struck five of the last seven points and took the fight to the eventual winners with some spirited play.
A rare stray handpass by Pádraig Walsh was gobbled up by Kevin Foley whose third point was also Wexford's first in a ten-minute period.
Reid's twelfth and final point followed, from a free, but it took 16 minutes before Walter Walsh landed the last score for Kilkenny deep into added time.
In between, Wexford pushed forward in waves, and they were very unlucky when Cathal Dunbar's low missile after a break off Conor McDonald was brilliantly turned around his post by Darren Brennan in the 61st minute.
Rory O'Connor pointed the '65 and added another from a free, with his first from play - courtesy of a pass from big brother Jack - narrowing arrears to three (21-18) with five minutes of regular time left.
A missed long-distance free by Reid was followed by a harsh decision when Liam Ryan appeared to be fouled after a looping handpass by Pádraig Foley gave him space to embark on a run.
That was one of a few strange late non-calls from referee James McGrath, but there was still hope when Damien Reck teed up Rory O'Connor for another point just over 90 seconds into the five added minutes.
Luke Scanlon hit the game's last wide before Joey Holden caught the puck-out, starting a move that ended with Walter Walsh picking off their precious last point.
The Kilkenny margin was nearly widened to a flattering six at the death when Reid broke through and handpassed across into Ger Aylward's path, but Conor O'Leary darted out and his body kept the flick out.
The last throw of the dice saw substitute Eanna Martin drop a probing ball into the goalmouth, but a foul was called on netminder Darren Brennan after he claimed possession.
It was a pulsating finish to a game featuring 14 frees for Wexford, and one more for the victors, although Wexford were only awarded three in the second-half. Yellow cards were distributed to Rory O'Connor, Pádraig Foley and Jack O'Connor along with Kilkenny trio Richie Leahy, Liam Blanchfield and John Donnelly.
Wexford: Conor O'Leary; Conor Firman, Liam Ryan, Willie Devereux; Shaun Murphy; Pádraig Foley (0-6, 5 frees), Matthew O'Hanlon (capt.), Diarmuid O'Keeffe (0-1); Kevin Foley (0-3), Aaron Maddock; Jack O'Connor, Harry Kehoe, Conor McDonald (0-1); Cathal Dunbar (0-2), Rory O'Connor (0-6, 3 frees, 1 '65). Subs. - Paul Morris for Kehoe (47), Damien Reck for Maddock (54), Aidan Nolan for O'Keeffe (56), Eanna Martin for J. O'Connor (65), Simon Donohoe for Firman, temp. (70-end), Michael O'Regan for Dunbar (70+2).
Kilkenny: Darren Brennan; Joey Holden, Pádraig Walsh, Paddy Deegan; Conor Delaney, Cillian Buckley (capt., 0-1), Enda Morrissey; James Maher (0-2), Richie Leahy (0-3); Martin Keoghan, T.J. Reid (0-12, 9 frees, 1 '65), Pat Lyng; John Donnelly (0-1), Walter Walsh (0-2), Ger Aylward (0-1). Subs. - Luke Scanlon for Keoghan (49), Liam Blanchfield for Lyng (49), Lester Ryan for Maher (63), Alan Murphy for Donnelly (67), Ollie Walsh for Leahy (70).
Referee: James McGrath (Westmeath).