Sunday 15 September 2019

The ultimate test

Cats in Kilkenny as tough as it gets

Eoin Moore in quarter final action against Niall Dowdall of Westmeath.
Eoin Moore in quarter final action against Niall Dowdall of Westmeath.

Brendan Furlong, sports reporter

It may no longer be deemed the traditional clash in Leinster, but once Wexford and Kilkenny are paired together it sets the adrenalin racing. Sunday is no different as the two sides look ahead to their provincial semi-final showdown in Nowlan Park.

Leinster SHC semi-final preview

With Galway now in Leinster and Dublin having returned as a real force, albeit already out of this year's provincial title contention, it's no longer the two-horse race that it was renowned for in the past. Indeed, whoever emerges from this semi-final showdown will still have to contend with the winners of Galway and Laois in the provincial decider.

Four years in the making, the waiting game is over for Wexford as the time has now arrived for this young side to deliver. For the second year in a row they have been pitted against the reigning All-Ireland champions.

Last year they brought down then champions Clare after extra-time in a replay, with the opening clash down in Ennis also going to extra-time before the sides were eventually separated in Wexford Park.

Now they have been given a further opportunity to lay their imprint on this year's championship. Opposed by reigning All-Ireland champions, Kilkenny, on the Noresiders' home turf, they could not face a more daunting task. Around this time last year it was Clare, now it's Kilkenny, so it will be interesting to see what plan manager Liam Dunne comes up with.

In the wake of their All-Ireland victory, Kilkenny have been hit with retirements, but they will have lost only one player of that starting 15 in full-back J.J. Delaney, while the great Henry Shefflin will not be part of the current championship set-up having being alongside Brian Cody since he first became manager. With the great attacker having also retired it will be Kilkenny's first championship outing without Shefflin being a part of it for some 15 seasons.

So for Kilkenny, it was not real re-development as they will start with at least twelve of that All-Ireland winning side, since it looks likely that attackers Eoin Larkin (virus) and Richie Power (knee) will miss out, leaving them without two of their regulars, but they have quality back-up.

One by one managers have tried and failed to outwit Brian Cody, one of the greatest hurling bosses in the history of the game. Now it's the turn of Liam Dunne. Dunne has worked manfully to bring Wexford hurling back to another level.

A perfectionist driving standards, he is working in tandem with his backroom team which includes fellow All-Ireland medallists, Ger Cushe and Damien Fitzhenry, along with Rapparees clubman Murty Dempsey.

The result is this Wexford side is now standing on the brink. They can bring their game to another level, or remain at a standstill, but Dunne, who has hailed the progress of his young charges, he will be asking his players for more, not to just put up a resistance, but sufficient to drive them on to what would be a major scalp.

The Wexford/Kilkenny rivalry is one of hurling's great stories. Neither side will need any great motivation. Dunne and his young team have reaped much over the past four years, coming from the lows on the hurling ladder to once again becoming a major force. Now is the time for the partnership to begin reaping rewards.

When Dunne took over he set in train a process of building a leadership corps in the Wexford ranks that would be durable and proficient when the heat comes on. He began to groom younger members and then integrated them into the team and squad.

At the outset it was a tedious process as he began to introduce young players one by one. While Dunne doesn't assume every leadership responsibility, he delegates to his backroom set-up in coaching and physical fitness, but when it comes to motivation and a gameplan, Dunne's imprint is very much on the Wexford style of play.

While the Oulart-The Ballagh man is Wexford's talisman and spiritual leader, the man charged with guiding their on-field activities is team captain Matthew O'Hanlon, who has been chosen to lead from the front for a second successive league and championship campaign.

O'Hanlon will come into this game knowing what it's going to take, but the team could not have a more inspirational leader in the dressing-room. Articulate and motivated, O'Hanlon will instil into his colleagues that the time for winning has now arrived.

Last year they saw off both Clare and Waterford before losing out to Limerick in the All-Ireland quarter-final. The side's last visit to Nowlan Park saw them rock to victory over Waterford, who this year have progressed to being league champions and Munster finalists. Now Wexford will be hoping to copy that Waterford achievement.

The big question being asked is, is Kilkenny's winning provincial streak under threat? No doubt Wexford are determined to end Kilkenny's dominance of Leinster hurling but still only a handful of people will give them a realistic chance of achieving this.

It's only natural that Kilkenny will go into this game as the warmest of favourites, and they will be given the shortest of odds by the bookies. But against this backdrop Wexford will thrive at being underdogs. It's in this situation that Wexford are most dangerous, most likely to deliver a huge performance and a shock result in the process.

Wexford have much to prove. The taste of the big time is whetting the appetite of supporters once again which should ensure a huge following in Nowlan Park where the atmosphere will be electric.

Kilkenny have so many big-name hurlers, players with so many provincial and All-Ireland medals.

From Paul Murphy and Jackie Tyrrell in the full-back line to Pádraig Walsh, Kieran Joyce and Canice Buckley in the half-back line, the only defender still to reach the holy grail on the field of play is Ballyhale Shamrocks' Joey Holden, who will be handed J.J. Delaney's No. 3 jersey having starred in his club's All-Ireland success this year. This in itself is an indication of the quality defence that the Model county attack will be coming up against.

The home side will most likely have Lester Ryan and Canice Fogarty in midfield, while the attack will contain such powerhouses as Michael and Colin Fennelly, T.J. Reid, Walter Walsh and hurler of the year Richie Hogan.

Wexford have journeyed to this stage with a meaningless victory over Westmeath so the side is likely to show little change from that opening game. With Mark Fanning as custodian he will be fronted by Liam Ryan, Matthew O'Hanlon and Eoin Moore, while Lee Chin will be handed the pivotal centre-back role.

Diarmuid O'Keeffe started out at wing-back with Andrew Shore on the right flank against Westmeath, although O'Keeffe could yet be handed a midfield role now that Ciarán Kenny is back fully fit and striving for a starting spot.

The composition of the attack will be interesting. We haven't seen the best of Jack Guiney for some games, but Dunne is likely to stick with the Rathnure talisman, while he will feel comfortable with the likes of Conor McDonald, Liam Og McGovern, Paul Morris and Ian Byrne.

Big Daithí Waters will once again be handed the centre-forward role in an effort to overpower the Kilkenny defence, but midfield will be crucial, and it's here Wexford will be happy with the form shown by David Redmond in that opening game.

Wexford will bring energy and urgency to this game, so if they bring their undoubted hurling skills to the table, this will be the makings of a huge clash.

It's as underdogs that we have toppled Kilkenny in the past. Now is the time for this young bunch of players to go on and offer a repeat. They are capable of once again upsetting the bookies.

Wexford People

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