On Saturday, Kilkenny will travel to a packed purple and gold Wexford Park to face a strong Davy Fitzgerald team that is booming in confidence. Their victory against Laois was a testament to their newly mastered position amongst hurling’s top tier. In the past, Wexford would have struggled against Laois, but on Sunday the Yellowbellies laid down a marker with a 14-point victory to reinstate their new rank that must be respected.
In the National League, Wexford overcame Limerick and Galway before doing the unthinkable by beating Kilkenny in Nowlan Park. Although they received no silverware, their achievements in the National League this year have been overwhelming and the general perception in the south east is that Wexford hurling is back. The victory in Nowlan Park reignited a lost spark in Wexford hurling which was missing for many years previously. It was their first win against the Cats in Nowlan Park since 1957 and their first time beating Brian Cody’s Senior Kilkenny team since 2004.
Going into the National League, not many people would have guessed that Wexford would achieve promotion to Division 1A and remain unbeaten throughout the whole campaign until the semi-final stages. There they faced the All-Ireland champions in Tipperary. Although they lost out to Tipperary by a comprehensive margin, the scoreboard at full-time did not do Wexford’s performance justice and arguably was flattering for the Premier County. Up until the 60-minute mark of that game, Wexford competed well and overall were quite impressive until they were blown away with some late goals by Tipperary’s flamboyant attack.
Even though they lost that game against Tipperary, it will undoubtedly stand to them. With one extra competitive game under their belts, Davy and his Model charges certainly won’t fear Kilkenny. Notably, in other years, when games between Wexford and Kilkenny were played the build up for the game was never similar to this. There was always a hype, yet for Wexford fans, it was more so wishful thinking than actually believing they would witness their side attain the win. They wanted to believe, but deep down they knew they needed something special to walk away victorious.
This year is different though and there are definitely reasons to believe. The preparation for this showdown in comparison to previous years is a lot different if you take into consideration the extra number of competitive games they’ve had this year, the huge victories and the momentum they have built under Fitzgerald. This year there is a buzz around the county and the Wexford public genuinely can feel something brewing in the air, and that feeling is symbolised by the astronomical demand for tickets for the upcoming Kilkenny game.
Outside of the county, one fact that a lot of people fail to remember is that Wexford fans have been witnessing big performances and big victories against Kilkenny for the past number of years. In the u-21 Leinster championship, Wexford have won three of the previous four titles and now they are reaping the rewards of those players transitioning into the senior set-up. The u-21 Leinster final of 2015 was a clear sign of emerging talent and it was quite clear that the fear that once existed between the Yellowbellies and the Cats was bound to vanish. In the county, many felt that Wexford would soon become a force to be reckoned with. That day, Wexford destroyed Kilkenny on a scoreline of 4-17 to 1-9.
The players in the senior set-up now have a winning mentality. They want to win and they know how to win. The players that were influential in those successful u-21 campaigns are the same players that have been influential throughout this 2017 Senior campaign. To name a few, the likes of Lee Chin, Conor McDonald, Jack Guiney, Jack O’Connor and Aidan Nolan were all part of successful u-21 teams and are now continuing to assert that same influence and mentality on the senior stage.
Even though there are signs, it is still important to note that Wexford remain massive underdogs for this upcoming game and rightly so. In Kilkenny, they will be loving all the attention that is being placed on Wexford. It’s something that they’re not used to, but it’s something that will benefit them greatly too especially with past injuries coming to the fore again. The Slaneysiders don’t fear Kilkenny, but one thing is for sure Kilkenny will definitely want to avenge their previous loss.
The question of if they can win remains open for argument, but come Sunday, we will have our answer.
Jason Redmond, Pundit Arena.
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