TO beat Kilkenny, especially in a Leinster final, Wexford had to achieve something that they hadn’t done before under Davy Fitzgerald.
And they managed as much; the 1-23 Wexford hit was their highest total against a top-eight team in championship under Fitzgerald.
In the past, teams needed to reach that kind of a scoring standard just to match Kilkenny but this is not the Kilkenny of 10 – even four – years ago.
That was evident when the sides met in Wexford Park in the final Round Robin game in mid-June. If Kilkenny got a goal in the past to go ahead with 25 minutes to play, and with the breeze at their backs, they would have gone on to throttle a team. But this side doesn’t have that capacity.
Brian Cody and his management team didn’t have their best day on the line in the Leinster final but the most untypical aspect of Kilkenny’s performance was how much they panicked late on. They were looking for goals when they were still only three points down with the guts of seven minutes to play.
Conor Fogarty had a chance to reduce the deficit to one point in the 68th minute but he tried to play Colin Fennelly in for a goal. Eoin Murphy turned down point opportunities from a long-range free and a ’65 in favour of dropping balls into the square looking for a lucky break.
There was a time when Kilkenny had that ability to throttle eams with goals but, their capacity to spook teams, was just as central to that menace, especially late on in games. Yet Kilkenny don’t carry that psychological threat anymore. And when Wexford stared them down, Kilkenny blinked first.
The aura which Kilkenny always had is no longer visible. Kilkenny never lost championship matches but in the 15 championship matches Kilkenny have played since the 2016 All-Ireland final, Kilkenny have won just six.
Despite drawing with Wexford in their final round robin game in June, Kilkenny were still expected to win the Leinster final. There was obviously nothing between the teams but Kilkenny’s panel was deemed to be stronger, while they appeared capable of getting more goals than Wexford. And, most of all, a Brian Cody team wasn’t expected to lose a Leinster final to Wexford. But they did.
Kilkenny look vulnerable now, especially against a Cork team loaded with pace and firepower. But the terms and conditions to tomorrow’s match are far different to what they were for the Leinster final.
Cody’s teams have often struggled with Wexford’s style. Privately, Cody’s finds the process of trying to deal with a sweeper, and the game it creates, torturous. Cork may have much more firepower up front than Wexford but Cody would still take Cork’s style any day ahead of
The big questions for Cork is do they have enough defenders who can stand up and win their individual battles with TJ Reid, Colin Fennelly, Adrian Mullen and Walter Walsh?
Walsh was cleaned out by Paudie Foley 13 days ago. That was a smart match-up from Wexford but Cody will surely have a different plan for Walsh this time around – place him on Mark Coleman and bomb a significant share of puck-outs down on top of them.
Eoin Cadogan will physically match up to Colin Fennelly but, unlike what Limerick did with Aaron Gillane, Kilkenny may decide to take Fennelly away from the square, and possibly Cadogan with him.
Reid will be Cork’s biggest concern. Matthew O’Hanlon did an excellent man-marking job on him in Wexford Park but Reid hit four points from play and was fouled for a converted free in the Leinster final.
Reid has hit 3-12 from play in five championship games but, outside of Cadogan, Cork don’t have big physical man-markers like O’Hanlon and Foley. What will Cork do if Kilkenny position two or three of their best ball-winners close to goal?
Wherever he plays, Reid will fancy doing some damage. So will Mullen, who was also impressive two weeks ago; from 15 plays, Mullen scored three points, was fouled for a converted free and had an assist.
Kilkenny will always bring warrior intensity, savagery and aggression to every battle but this side are bound to be hurting badly after losing to Wexford.
Psychologically, Kilkenny will have parked that defeat since the Tuesday after the Leinster final, something a team like Wexford would have struggled to do considering their history, and how much they would have put in to trying to win that match.
Last year, Kilkenny’s All-Ireland quarter-final was their third game in 14 days but they still battled to the wire and were unlucky not to beat Limerick.
One of the primary reasons Kilkenny stayed in that game for so long was through the excellence of goalkeeper Eoin Murphy.
The Murphy factor could be highly significant again tomorrow because of the influence goals could have in this match. Cork proved against Westmeath that they are a point-scoring factory but that had the tone and temper of a challenge game and Cork still only managed one goal. Cork will get goal chances but will they be able to put them past Murphy?
Cork will want this to be an open and expansive game. They will target a high score but so will Kilkenny against this Cork defence.
Looking at it clinically, Kilkenny created 13 more scoring chances than Wexford (44-31) in the Leinster final but Wexford had a 77% conversion rate to Kilkenny’s 52%. Kilkenny didn’t raise a green flag but they could have had four goals.
A more open game will suit Cork, but it will also suit Kilkenny. Some Kilkenny defenders will be well matched up with these Cork forwards, but despite Kilkenny’s need to close down space, that often isn’t possible if the game goes a certain way.
Cork will hope that they can run away from Kilkenny. But they will need to get away fast, and often, to ensure that a wounded animal doesn’t swallow them up.