Analysis: Steady Wexford end 15-year wait for Leinster glory
Fine performances from some of Wexford’s key players helped them over the line in a structured and committed manner over their old Kilkenny rivals.
Wexford beat Kilkenny to claim their first Leinster title since 2004 in an impressive display in Croke Park. It wasn’t a complete repeat of their round robin draw, but there was still plenty of physicality, work rate and impressive score-taking, while a number of big-name players came to the fore on the big day.
The tone was set early on for the Yellowbellies, with an absolutely outrageous score from Conor McDonald near the 65-yard sideline, which was followed up not long afterwards by Rory O’Connor down along the same sideline. At this point, Matthew O’Hanlon versus TJ Reid was already shaping up to be another titanic battle, and Reid had scored a point from play – something he had failed to do in the drawn game.
After a helter skelter 10 minutes, there were already nine scores on the board in total, including a nice score from Paul Morris from the right corner forward position. Wexford’s work rate was already proving to be on point, as a couple of Kilkenny attacks were denied. What was also evident was their effective use of the resulting puck-outs, with Mark Fanning aiming for his wing back line who were delivering accurate ball into the forward line. This set up the aforementioned point from Morris, as well as a nice score from Rory O’Connor to put Wexford two points in front.
Interestingly, Wexford were also happy to target Kilkenny’s central defensive area, with a number of loose balls emerging from the cloud of dust to Wexford’s fortune.
Kilkenny began to find their groove mid-way through the half however, as Colin Fennelly began to get the better of Liam Ryan and Reid bettered O’Hanlon as he returned to his best form. Mistakes began to trickle into Wexford’s game, while Kilkenny found success from frees and a couple of nice strikes from Adrian Mullen.
Wexford kept the scoreboard ticking with frees of their own. As such, the game was a bit stop-start, aside from a few moments of magic from Rory O’Connor, who delivered an All-Star calibre performance with four points from play in the first half, and Diarmuid O’Keeffe. Liam Og McGovern and Kevin Foley were playing effectively running from deeper positions, as Kilkenny’s midfield pairing of James Maher and Conor Fogarty struggled to get a foothold in that area. Importantly for Wexford was Paudie Foley was doing a tremendous job on Walter Walsh and minimising his effectiveness in the Kilkenny attack.
A one-point deficit at half-time left the game nicely in the balance going into the second half, after a relatively cagey opening 35 minutes. Davy Fitzgerald would probably have been the happier of the two managers, despite being down, while Brian Cody would have been disappointed by his midfield and half-forward line.
The two sides traded two points each to start the second half, before Kilkenny had a glorious chance to take a foothold. A ball sent deep into a 2-on-1 situation in the Wexford full back line didn’t probe any serious problems until Kevin Foley slipped and allowed Fennelly to pounce. Mark Fanning stepped out bravely to save, and TJ Reid missed the resulting 65. It was a huge moment for Wexford, who forced Kilkenny into another quick wide before Lee Chin won a puck-out in the half-forward position and popped a pass to McDonald for an easy score. A situation that could have buried Wexford three points adrift, had lifted the crowd enormously and now Wexford were on the front foot.
Kilkenny peeked back in front momentarily, before a couple of frees from Lee Chin. Vital for Wexford was they could rely on consistent free-taking, as Chin went absolutely perfect from dead balls.
A big score for Wexford 15 minutes from time to put them a score up came from Conor McDonald. Once again, Mark Fanning backed his half-forward line to succeed and Liam Óg McGovern delivered, beating James Maher to possession. He slipped but cleverly found McDonald with a hand pass, who had cuddled into a pocket of space on his own. He rounded Paul Murphy and notched the score to put the Yellowbellies back in front.
Wexford had success winning their own ball in Kilkenny’s half-back line.
Conor McDonald was dangerous all game, one of his most effective in a Wexford shirt.
Kilkenny were far from dead yet, as they stormed back into the front thanks TJ Reid. The Ballyhale man was imperious as usual, with some powerful runs in a typically dominating display. He notched his fourth score from play to put the Cats 22 points to 21 in front.
Directly from that score, Wexford won the game changing penalty.
Once again, Mark Fanning targeted the half-back line where Kilkenny were struggling to win clean ball.
Conor McDonald got on the end of a Mark Fanning puck-out. Once again, the ball wasn’t clean and Kilkenny were slow to the drop, and the ball dribbled around before McDonald flicked it into his hand and found Shaun Murphy.
Rory O’Connor, who had been floating around the ruck demanding the ball, reeled off the moment Murphy got the ball. To his credit, Murphy found O’Connor with a lovely ball inside the 45 line to set off O’Connor’s charge towards the square.
O’Connor (top right) signals for the pass from Murphy.
O’Connor storms past Enda Morrissey (black helmet), sells Pádraig Walsh with a dummy, which brings Morrissey back into the equation as they approach the square.
Morrissey hauls down O’Connor as he prepares to strike.
The threat began with Kilkenny’s failure to win ball in their own half-back line, allowing rucks to develop as Conor McDonald and Rory O’Connor wreaked havoc. As with McDonald’s earlier score, Wexford for stronger and hungrier to the ball.
In an image we’d probably most associate with Davy Fitzgerald, Mark Fanning stepped up and buried the penalty with aplomb, before speeding back down the field. It was a huge moment for Fanning, who has emerged as one of the best all-round goalkeepers in the game.
Kilkenny nearly worked a goal opportunity of their own, as Ger Aylward found a pocket of space in the left forward position. He drilled a pass centrally in aim of the oncoming Fennelly, but Liam Ryan read it superbly and intercepted it. Wexford went down and won a 65 from a Cathal Dunbar strike, which Lee Chin converted.
From here, with 68 minutes on the clock, Kilkenny immediately started going for goal. A free was worked in by Eoin Murphy to Ger Aylward, who had only one thing on his mind and that was to shoot for goal, but it was blocked for a 65. Once again, Murphy worked it into the square. The ball squirmed around for a while, wasting valuable time, and rolled out for a wide.
Wexford pucked it out, and Kilkenny won a free in their own half. With 71:30 on the clock, Murphy once again sent it inside. It found it’s way out to Paddy Deegan who was floating outside the 45-yard line, who lobbed it back in, and this led to the crucial Lee Chin catch.
In his own square, Lee Chin rose above everyone.
Now, as the clock ticked past 72 minutes, Wexford were able to see it out and win by a goal.
And there ended Wexford’s Bob O’Keeffe drought. It was an impressive display, extracting big performances in key areas of the field. Conor McDonald had one of his most impactful games, Rory O’Connor showed his immense talent, Liam Og McGovern and Diarmuid O’Keeffe ran for the day, and Paudie Foley and Liam Ryan did just enough to keep their forwards at bay. And, of course, Lee Chin was immense from frees and put in a thorough all-action display.
As for Kilkenny, it was another display that relied heavily upon TJ Reid to make them competitive. The midfield was overran, and the game seemed to bypass Alan Murphy and Richie Leahy. Ger Aylward was dangerous when he came on, but there wasn’t enough beyond Reid and Adrian Mullen, who tailed off after a good start. In the backs, Padraig Walsh didn’t stand out in a sweeper role as Kilkenny struggled in dealing with both intermediate puck-outs and the bombardment on their half-back line.
Looking ahead, Kilkenny will need to considerably improve to overcome Cork, who are likely to beat Westmeath. Cork’s speed will give Kilkenny nightmares, although their watery defence could be an issue.
Wexford await either Tipperary or Dublin in the semi-final and will be quietly confident of reaching the All-Ireland final. With a few weeks now to rest the muscles ahead of another all-action display, Davy Fitzgerald will undoubtedly have his side gauged as the peak of their powers ahead of the biggest game of his reign in the sunny south east.
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