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Weight of history, sweeper struggles, Davy Fitz ban - Wexford-Kilkenny talking points

The counties will battle it out for a Leinster hurling final spot at Innovate Wexford Park this evening.

ONE OF THE most highly-anticipated fixtures of the 2017 GAA championship season is almost upon us.

Davy Fitzgerald’s Wexford host Kilkenny at Innovate Wexford Park this evening, with a place in the Leinster senior hurling final on offer for the winners.

Clare legend Fitzgerald will serve the final hours of an eight-week suspension, and will once again take his place in the stands, as Brian Cody patrols the touchline for Kilkenny.

Wexford have had a ‘dry run’ with Fitzgerald absent from the sideline, in their quarter-final victory over Laois, and coped well.

On the pitch, are the Slaneysiders good enough to claim a first senior championship victory over Kilkenny since 2004?

Here, we take a look at the main talking points ahead of the game…

Weight of history weighs heavy on Wexford shoulders

Wexford haven’t scored a senior championship victory over Kilkenny, since Mick Jacob’s famous goal in the provincial semi-final 13 years ago.

For Wexford fans, there’s not many things that can top beating the Cats with a last-minute strike.

Source: CR's Video Vaults/YouTube

But since then, it’s been a tale of woe for Wexford against the Noresiders.

Kilkenny took the chance to gain swift revenge against Wexford following that 2004 loss, battering them by 30 points in a 2005 League fixture.

Just three points separated the sides in the Leinster final of the same year, Kilkenny winning by three, but the margins between the sides have been high in championship hurling since then.

In the last six championship encounters, Kilkenny have had an aggregate 87 points to spare against Wexford, or an average of 14.5 points per game.

Wexford were within eight points of Kilkenny in 2006, but since then, they’ve suffered 15, 10, 19, 11 and 24-point beatings.

Two years ago, Wexford had high hopes of being competitive against Kilkenny at Nowlan Park in the Leinster semi-final, but lost by 0-16 to 5-25 on the day when Ger Aylward marked his senior championship debut for the Cats with a 3-5 haul. 

24 points in championship hurling is a fair gap to make up in the space of two years but Wexford have improved immeasurably since then.

League form to repeat itself?

Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

When Kilkenny hosted Wexford at Nowlan Park in early April, the Allianz League quarter-final provided concrete proof that Davy Fitz and his players were on the rise.

Wexford won by five points and victory marked the county’s first away League success over Kilkenny in 60 years.

It felt like a watershed moment as Fitzgerald got his match-ups spot on defensively, with Matthew O’Hanlon picking up Walter Walsh while James Breen did a good job on TJ Reid.

Up front, Conor McDonald was the star man for Wexford with a haul of 0-8 but historically, Kilkenny manager Brian Cody thrives on revenge missions.

Kilkenny won’t need motivating as they make the trip to Wexford and Cody is bound to have learned some hard lessons from the previous competitive meeting between the counties.

While that League game was a stern examination of Wexford’s credentials, a championship clash with Kilkenny is the acid test.

Can Kilkenny break down the Wexford sweeper system?

Shaun Murphy Shaun Murphy is playing the sweeper role for Wexford. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

While Kilkenny have routinely swatted away so many opponents through the years, they’ve struggled to break down a massed defence in more recent times.

Clare had Davy Fitzgerald in charge last year when they did a number on the Cats in the Allianz League semi-final.

Kilkenny also needed two bites of the cherry before seeing off Waterford in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, and Wexford had Shaun Murphy playing the sweeper role well in this year’s Allianz League quarter-final.

Playing the extra man at the back will allow Wexford to close down corridors of opportunity for Kilkenny’s potentially lethal forwards.

And if they can shut down Noreside talismen Richie Hogan and TJ Reid, they’re in with a shout.

Are Wexford really ready to crack Kilkenny code?

Conor McDonald celebrates scoring his sides second goal Conor McDonald and Wexford saw off Kilkenny in the Allianz League quarter-final. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

That’s the question that will be answered in front of a raucous Innovate Wexford Park attendance.

A full house will bring a huge degree of expectation, but that also brings pressure for Wexford.

In some ways, the cat may be out of the bag in terms of how they set up and having had a good look at them earlier in the year, Kilkenny will have planned accordingly.

But the tidal wave of hope and optimism sweeping through Wexford since Davy Fitzgerald’s arrival can carry the players to new heights.

Beating Kilkenny would represent a serious statement of intent and the scene is set for a monumental battle.

Strength in depth to be tested

Jack Guiney Wexford have Jack Guiney champing at the bit. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Wexford cruelly lost Liam Óg McGovern this week to a second cruciate knee ligament injury in ten months.

The St Anne’s player had battled back from last year’s setback to feature off the bench in the recent victory over Laois.

But McGovern was injured in training last weekend and scans have revealed another cruciate tear.

If fully fit and firing, McGovern would have been a starter in Davy Fitzgerald’s team but he’s out for the rest of the season.

Another useful forward option, David Dunne, has a hamstring injury and Wexford reported this week that tigerish defender Damien Reck could miss another two months.

Willie Devereux is also out and there’s a doubt surrounding the fitness of goalkeeper Mark Fanning, while Podge Doran may only be fit enough for a bench role.

 

On the plus side, Jack Guiney came on at half-time to put in a barnstorming second half display and will hope for another big impact.

The returns of Michael Fennelly and Ger Aylward to fitness will boost Kilkenny’s options considerably, while youngster Jason Cleere and Richie Leahy have made impacts this year.

Summer to open up for winners

Maurice Shanahan and Lee Chin Waterford's Maurice Shanahan (left) consoles Wexford's Lee Chin after last year's All-Ireland quarter-final. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Victory this evening will guarantee not only a Leinster final appearance, but a safe passage to the last six of the All-Ireland series.

Wexford reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals last year but lost by ten points to Waterford.

The genuine feeling now, however, is that they’re a much-improved outfit and will take some stopping, no matter what opponents come their way.

Wexford are playing to a very definite system but it remains to be seen how the absence of Davy Fitz from the touchline will affect them.

They were able to put communication channels in place for the Laois game, with Seoirse Bulfin directing touchline operations.

Expect the direct line between Bulfin and the Wexford backroom team perched in the stand to buzz throughout the 70 minutes this evening, with quick thinking and sharp decision-making required if the Slaneysiders are to finally slay the Cats again in summer fare.

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