Reality check as rampant Cats run riot
Allianz Hurling League semi-final: Kilkenny 1-27 Wexford 2-15
The debrief after Sunday's Allianz Hurling League semi-final disappointment will surely be no place for the faint-hearted, as Wexford's gathering momentum was brought to a jarring halt by rampant Kilkenny who had nine points to spare before a bumper 16,452 crowd in Innovate Wexford Park.
The general level of performance in earlier rounds had created a huge surge of optimism around the county, so when the hard reality hit home it was even tougher to take than usual as the home side simply couldn't live with their considerably sharper rivals.
And while Davy Fitzgerald has worked wonders in the development of this squad, he will need to be at his managerial best to get the players back on track for the new-look round robin championship campaign which is only around the corner.
There's no point in sugar-coating the outcome, because few, if any, supporters saw this one coming, certainly not the margin of defeat and the manner in which Wexford were outplayed in so many areas.
Quite incredibly, the losers didn't score at all from open play in the first-half, having opted to face the wind after joint captain Matthew O'Hanlon won the toss.
The failure to raise a flag for more than 25 minutes, after a bright start, was another damning indictment on a day when so many of the positives from the earlier games weren't repeated.
The scoring threat provided by the half-backs was completely absent for starters, and it was also unusual to see the likes of Kevin Foley, Lee Chin and Paul Morris all missing from the list of marksmen.
Jack O'Connor's threat in the air was nullified too, and just about the only bright aspect of a day to forget was the second-half display of his younger brother, Rory, who picked off four points from play, notwithstanding one glaring miss from a handy free in the course of also nailing eight placed balls.
A great deal, if not all, of the credit for the taking down of the pre-match favourites in such clinical fashion must be placed firmly at the door of the rampant winners.
Kilkenny's raw desire in attacking every ball simply wasn't matched by the opposition, and in team captain Cillian Buckley they had the best player on the field.
A Rolls Royce of a centre-back, his reading of the play, distribution and strength in the tackle inspired all those around him, with some of their newer recruits such as Enda Morrissey, Martin Keoghan and Bill Sheehan coming of age.
Their spare defender, Paddy Deegan, also had a huge role to play in the win, as he was a constant support for the man in possession as they worked their way upfield with handpasses out of tight areas and short deliveries with the stick.
It was a master class in how to manage a game from the victors, and it remains to be seen whether or not Wexford can make up the necessary ground ahead of the 'big one' in the championship in Nowlan Park on June 9.
Happily, Conor McDonald recovered from injury to take his place beside Paul Morris in the two-man full-forward line, with Aidan Nolan replacing David Dunne from the starting team versus Galway.
Willie Devereux came in for Damien Reck at corner-back, but when the St. Martin's man was forced off with an injury after 15 minutes, it was a positive to see the Oylegate-Glenbrien youngster replacing him, having retired at an early stage in the quarter-final.
Heavy traffic around the ground led to a 15-minute delay in the throw-in time, but it didn't appear to unduly concern Wexford as they started well and moved clear by 1-2 to 0-1 in the seventh minute.
Rory O'Connor had popped over two frees on either side of a similar effort from T.J. Reid before the goal arrived.
O'Connor was taken down from behind by Paddy Deegan as he tried to make the most of a Pádraig Foley delivery, and Aidan Nolan dispatched the penalty to the top left corner of the net with admirable conviction.
The roar from the large Wexford following was a powerful reminder of how supporters react so positively to a team in good form, but they were silenced over the next 25 minutes as Kilkenny built from the platform of a dominant half-back line to reel off an incredible 1-11 without reply.
Their attack had come close to goaling before Wexford rattled the net, with Willie Devereux clearing the danger from a T.J. Reid pull after Simon Donohoe and Matthew O'Hanlon had initially thwarted John Donnelly when the Thomastown man caught an Eoin Murphy puck-out.
It was a sign of the threat they posed, and they started to click into gear as Reid, Donnelly and Bill Sheehan all reeled off points before wing-back Enda Morrissey equalised in the 17th minute from a Reid handpass (0-5 to 1-2).
A monster free by Eoin Murphy from inside his own 45-metre line gave Kilkenny the lead for the first time, with Reid making it 0-7 to 1-2 from a placed ball after Matthew O'Hanlon was booked for denying the attacking ace a clear goal chance.
Donnelly doubled his own tally before Mark Fanning advanced smartly off his line to keep out his goal attempt after Reid opened up the defence with a pass.
The pressure from the visitors was relentless, with Richie Leahy splitting the posts from long range after Cillian Buckley picked him out.
Reid added another point from a free, while Buckley returned a wayward Wexford clearance over the bar with interest as the gap widened to 0-11 to 1-2 by the 27th minute.
And it got worse, with another successful Reid placed ball followed by the Kilkenny goal from a familiar source, shortly after Kevin Foley had struck the fifth of Wexford's six first-half wides.
Eoin Murphy's long puck-out broke into the path of big Walter Walsh who shook off Simon Donohoe and then Damien Reck on his way towards goal from the right before beating Mark Fanning from close range (1-12 to 1-2).
The respite, albeit brief, finally came in the 32nd minute when Kevin Foley was fouled after catching the puck-out and Rory O'Connor pointed the free.
Ger Aylward responded from a crossfield Martin Keoghan pass before the half ended with another brace of converted O'Connor placed balls.
However, Kilkenny were within a whisker of adding a second goal in added time after a quality lay-off by Bill Sheehan into the path of Aylward whose attempt was swept clear by Shaun Murphy.
The first Wexford score from play finally arrived just shy of 90 seconds into the new half, with Conor McDonald pointing from a Pádraig Foley handpass.
It was quickly followed by another from Rory O'Connor, set up by Diarmuid O'Keeffe, with T.J. Reid breaking the momentum from a free before O'Connor narrowed the deficit to 1-14 to 1-8.
This was more promising at least, and the hoped-for revival got the big boost it needed in the 39th minute in the form of a second Wexford goal.
Conor McDonald was one-on-one with Pádraig Walsh as they contested a Matthew O'Hanlon delivery, and the full-forward gained possession before firing high and handsome to the net from close range.
Reid and Rory O'Connor went on to swap points from frees, but Kilkenny never looked like losing their grip despite conceding that goal at such an early stage while facing the elements.
Indeed, it needed good tackles by Jack O'Connor and Lee Chin respectively to put an end to menacing solo runs by James Maher and Pádraig Walsh, with Rory O'Connor firing left and wide from what appeared to be an easy free in between.
Two more successful Reid frees came on either side of a Walter Walsh point, with the second won by Conor Fogarty who made a huge impact off the bench, repeatedly winning possession on the ground in crowded areas.
A long-range Shaun Murphy point, from a Mark Fanning puck-out, made it 1-18 to 2-10 in the 54th minute, and the next four scores were shared between the respective free-takers, Reid and O'Connor.
Reid drifted in to full-forward and stretched the gap to 1-22 to 2-12 before knocking over another free, and a solo point from Richie Leahy left nine in the difference.
Rory O'Connor brought his own tally to four from play after handpasses from Pádraig Foley and Matthew O'Hanlon respectively, but Kilkenny always had an answer and Ger Aylward, Reid (free and play) duly completed their scoring.
The last Wexford point was a Harry Kehoe goal attempt that Eoin Murphy got his stick to, while Joey Holden intercepted a Liam Ryan handpass as the quest for a late consolation continued.
A Conor McDonald free was stopped by the same defender at the expense of a '65, but a lot of the large crowd were back in their cars by that stage as the outcome hadn't been in doubt for so long.
Wexford hit ten of the game's 21 wides and were awarded ten of the 25 frees, while yellow cards were shown to Matthew O'Hanlon, Simon Donohoe, Lee Chin, and Kilkenny's Enda Morrissey and Liam Blanchfield.
Wexford: Mark Fanning; Willie Devereux, Liam Ryan, Simon Donohoe; Shaun Murphy (0-1); Pádraig Foley, Matthew O'Hanlon (joint capt.), Diarmuid O'Keeffe; Kevin Foley, Aidan Nolan (1-0 pen.); Jack O'Connor, Rory O'Connor (0-12, 8 frees), Lee Chin (joint capt.); Conor McDonald (1-1), Paul Morris. Subs. - Damien Reck for Devereux, inj. (15), Harry Kehoe (0-1) for Morris (49), David Dunne for Nolan (53), Cathal Dunbar for J. O'Connor (69).
Kilkenny: Eoin Murphy (0-1 free); Joey Holden, Pádraig Walsh, Paddy Deegan; Conor Delaney, Cillian Buckley (capt., 0-1), Enda Morrissey (0-1); Richie Leahy (0-2), James Maher; Martin Keoghan (0-1), T.J. Reid (0-15, 12 frees), John Donnelly (0-2); Ger Aylward (0-2), Walter Walsh (1-1), Bill Sheehan (0-1). Subs. - Conor Fogarty for Maher (47), Liam Blanchfield for Donnelly (60), Lester Ryan for Leahy (67), Luke Scanlon for Sheehan (69), Pat Lyng for Keoghan (70).
Referee: Colm Lyons (Cork).