Kilkenny have endured a testing League campaign where questions were asked about their ability to compete for All-Ireland honours in 2017. Following a harrowing defeat to Tipperary in the All-Ireland final last September, the Cats were hammered by Clare in the League, and a quarter-final loss at home to Wexford has put Brian Cody’s troops under pressure.
Going into the All-Ireland final, they were favourites to land a third All-Ireland title in a row, and it seemed as if they were imperious as ever.
But what has changed since last August? The significance of Michael Fennelly’s absence since the semi-final replay win over Waterford cannot be understated.
The 2011 Hurler of the Year has been the glue which holds this Kilkenny team together, putting in a defensive shift as well as bursting forward, playing off TJ Reid and Richie Hogan as well as bringing the full forward line into play.
The 32-year-old has featured for Ballyhale Shamrocks recently in the County Championship in a win over James Stephens, and is slowly returning to full fitness.
Should he be included in the Kilkenny team on Saturday evening, the men in black and amber will be given a huge lift.
Teammate Liam Blanchfield, speaking on The 16th Man podcast, said that the Cats are fully focused on the Wexford tie, and that the return of Fennelly and Ger Aylward will be a huge boost.
“It was a disappointing League campaign, but we’re just focused on Wexford. We’re working hard on championship, trying to get everything right for the first game.
“As we know over the last couple of years, Michael Fennelly has been a huge part of this Kilkenny team in that Kilkenny team, and as we know Ger [Aylward] was an All-Star in 2015. We know that they’re two key players for Kilkenny.”
You can listen to the full interview, as well as our preview of Wexford vs Kilkenny, where we discuss the significance of Fennelly’s return, on The 16th Man below, starting at the 37:40 mark.