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Saturday 20 July 2019

It's time to deliver

Leinster Hurling Final

Lee Chin soloing away from Kilkenny’s Paddy Deegan
Lee Chin soloing away from Kilkenny’s Paddy Deegan

Brendan Furlong

It was supposed to be a case of who would meet Galway in the provincial final.

Many felt that's what Leinster hurling was about, that the westerners were the favoured force.

However, Dublin shattered that argument with a final round robin victory as both Wexford and Kilkenny played out an epic draw in Innovate Wexford Park.

That set up a provincial final showdown between these great rivals, the first since 2008, when it was the Cats who emerged with a handsome victory.

After the four teams slugged it out on an epic night of Leinster hurling in their final series round robin games, which left Munster hurling in the shade, it is now left to Wexford and Kilkenny to continue what has been a magnificent Leinster championship campaign when they set foot on the green sward of Croke Park on Sunday (4 p.m.).

After the round robin series, the four top sides finished on five points apiece, with scoring difference deciding the three top teams.

And Kilkenny and Wexford ended up in the ideal places, first and second, to secure a coveted spot in the provincial final. Both teams find themselves in a great position following that epic draw, and the respective sides will bring a high degree of confidence into the final.

Having gone through the round robin undefeated, with three draws and a victory, compared to Kilkenny, who emerged with two victories, a draw, and that sole loss to Galway, it's Wexford who will carry great momentum with them into this final clash.

Having bagged five points, Wexford will be happy, as they could have taken victory from their two away draws with both Dublin and Galway.

And they will be pleased to be alongside Tipperary as the only two unbeaten teams left in the race for the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

Wexford have been hard to beat. With each game this year they are becoming more difficult to break down as the players have settled into the Davy Fitzgerald gameplan.

Fitzgerald's tactical approach has come in for some recent criticism, but such is his confidence in his gameplan and tactics, which the players are delivering upon, that one cannot expect any real change for this final showdown.

In the drawn game with Kilkenny, the side showed so many qualities that, should they take them to the wide open spaces of Croke Park, they will ask many more questions of their arch-rivals.

Wexford will welcome a return to headquarters, as many feel their style of hurling is well suited to the venue, so if they deliver on the gameplan Kilkenny will find it mighty difficult to break them down.

If Wexford can find a way to neutralise the Kilkenny defence, and particularly curb the prominence of Pádraig Walsh and Joey Holden, two players who spent so much time on the ball in the drawn game, they could become stunningly effective in creating a path towards Eoin Murphy's goal.

Goals can be so crucial in a game of this stature, so it's crucial for Wexford to turn their forward possession into big opportunities.

And in both Conor McDonald and Rory O'Connor they have two top-class finishers, players who can punish any defence once the opportunity is afforded.

Basically that's what Wexford will be seeking - at least one goal, to go along with their ability to pick off points, and with that in mind initial targets will be set in order to win this game.

McDonald has shown quality in the inside line, and should he receive the support of the remaining forwards, they have the skill and ability to unhinge this Kilkenny defence, which can be somewhat suspect under pressure. That is where the speed and ball-carrying ability of Liam Og McGovern can come into play.

Wexford will set out to improve on the drawn game, as will Kilkenny of course. Very little change is likely in the starting team, although Jack O'Connor - who has been such a success as an impact substitute in recent outings - must be pushing strongly for a place in the starting 15.

That's a quandary that Davy will welcome as it helps to keep players focused and pushing for positions in the starting team.

It's going to be a tricky game for Wexford, starting against a Kilkenny team whose players are so well used to playing in Croke Park from under-age through to Senior.

Kilkenny took Galway to a replay in last year's provincial final which they subsequently lost, so they will be determined to go one better on this occasion, and return as the aristocrats of hurling in the province.

The Kilkenny forwards are so reliant on T.J. Reid, who this year has blossomed into the top hurler in the country, so Wexford will be looking to a repeat display from joint captain Matthew O'Hanlon, who held the attacking ace scoreless from play in the drawn round robin game.

Then there is the match-up between Liam Ryan and Colin Fennelly which is also so crucial. Fennelly is a known goal-poacher, while he can also win ball to utilise for colleagues in threatening positions. These are two huge match-ups, and it be the same in the battle between Paudie Foley and Walter Walsh.

However, it's in midfield that the foundations for victory can be laid, and it's in this sector, that one could see one of the great duels of the game involving Diarmuid O'Keeffe and Cillian Buckley.

O'Keeffe turned in a masterly display in the drawn game, getting the better of Buckley who was returning from long-term injury.

While Buckley will have benefited from this game, O'Keeffe is in sparkling form and playing the best hurling of his career, giving his side that bit of extra class from this area.

Wexford have a hunger to succeed, and to end that barren spell without silverware. Wexford need a victory to give them a direct path to the All-Ireland semi-final and avoid that dreaded quarter-final hurdle. Now they have an opportunity to deliver on the big stage.

And I firmly believe they can secure that long-awaited victory and lift the Bob O'Keeffe Cup for the first time since 2004.

Wexford People

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