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Saturday 20 April 2019

Walsh Cup clash whets appetite for busy year to come

Brendan Furlong
Brendan Furlong

Brendan Furlong's Hop Ball

Davy Fitzgerald versus Brian Cody is a ratings winner no matter what the sport.

As I grew up Wexford and Kilkenny clashes always brought something special - no matter whether it was league or championship, no matter even the grade let it be under-age or adult.

And despite all those years I have a perfectly clear memory of the many great games I witnessed between the two counties.

Whether in a car on a cold winter's day or in the searing heat of summer, Wexford-Kilkenny games always brought out the best in us.

So much for January being a quiet month on the G.A.A. scene. What's about to happen over the next four months is unprecedented in the history of the G.A.A. as the sport will grab everyone's attention, welcoming the games back despite the cold conditions, all of which will lead in to a summer of a new-look championship.

The season is already about to rock with the Davy and Brian show about to get under way in Nowlan Park next Sunday, and, yes, this is only the third Sunday of January.

This is the first of three guaranteed clashes between the two most high-profile managers in the game as they battle for the first piece of silverware of the season, the Walsh Cup.

Last year Wexford blossomed under Fitzgerald in his first year in office. They enjoyed two victories, league and championship, over their great rivals. Now both are at the frontline as early as January, as life has been breathed back into Wexford hurling, while Kilkenny are on a rebuilding mission.

This is a game which will lay the foundations for future clashes between these two sides, since Wexford have also to travel to Noreside to meet their great rivals head on in both league and championship.

No managers work closer with their players than Davy and Brian. The demands on both of their squads have seen players blossom under their guidance.

Sunday's visit to Nowlan Park is expected to act as no more than a guideline for both sides as they contemplate the opening of the National League campaign seven days later. It's not expected to reveal much more other than the number of players both managers will introduce to the cauldron of such clashes, players who will be trying to be part of the 26-man squad for the opening round league game.

Still, it's a long time since Wexford recorded league and championship victories over their great rivals. This is something that has left Kilkenny hurting, and this will make them all the more determined to try to win back some form of supremacy over their arch-rivals, albeit in the Walsh Cup final.

The two managers approach the game in slightly different ways. Davy Fitzgerald's system has worked perfectly for Wexford, giving them a foundation on which to build their game, and a confidence to take on their opponents.

It's all about planning and player movement while for Cody, he will cut a statesman-like figure on the sideline, only deciding to erupt when matters are not moving to his liking.

There's no turning back for either manager. Perhaps Davy is slightly ahead of his opposite number in rebuilding, as Wexford hurling has not been talked about like this for a very long time.

He has seen the potential of each and every player in his squad, having utilised the three Walsh Cup outings thus far to give his entire panel some game time. Some people will measure success by trophies and others by the team's progress.

The season is only starting, it's only January, but some silverware on the sideboard would be a real boost for Model county hurling, particularly if it's at the expense of their arch-rivals.

There is an overwhelming positivity about Wexford hurling, and that's because Davy has improved players who have worked under him, taking players in and making them a key component of his side. And that improvement was clear last year. You are seeing the same now, with players improving and being transformed under him. He has embraced the clubs and the players, with the introduction of so many young faces the sure sign of a great coach.

Davy is constantly working at ways to dismantle teams. On this occasion he is coming up against one of the great hurling managers of all time.

What odds on Wexford completing a hat-trick of victories over Kilkenny? Such talk would have been unheard of even last season.

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