Kilkenny’s cloudburst sees off Wexford on a day of exhilarating tension

Late Cats surge puts gloss on the scoreline as 8,000 witness a bona fide epic at Croke Park

Kilkenny’s Martin Keoghan and Wexford’s Shane Reck contest for possession at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Kilkenny’s Martin Keoghan and Wexford’s Shane Reck contest for possession at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

Kilkenny 2-37 Wexford 2-29

The scoreboard should be sued for libel. In the end, it was a cloudburst on a close, muggy day. Kilkenny and Wexford held each other in a clinch throughout an afternoon of suffocating tension, so completely matched that it seems laughable to sit here and call this an eight-point game. But Brian Cody’s side outscored Davy Fitz’s by 1-6 to 0-0 in the second half of extra-time. That will usually get it done.

This was an astonishing encounter, full of everything we have missed through the plague year. A crowd of 8,000 would usually barely leave a scratch on this stadium but when Walter Walsh steamed in for the sealing goal in the 87th minute, the place erupted. It was great to feel this alive again.

It’s six full years since these two finished a championship match with more than a score between them so we shouldn’t be shocked that this was tit-for-tat. There was a point in it at half-time in normal time, they were all square on 70 minutes. Wexford inched up by half-time in extra-time and then the Kilkenny avalanched buried Wexford and decided matters. But up to that point, it was a classic.

For every Wexford rock, there was a Kilkenny roll. TJ Reid and Lee Chin mirrored each other from frees, Rory O’Connor and Eoin Cody nailed points from angles most players wouldn’t chance.

Kilkenny’s Eoin Murphy competes with Conor McDonald of Wexford during his side’s extra-time win. Photograph: Timmy Dickson/Inpho
Kilkenny’s Eoin Murphy competes with Conor McDonald of Wexford during his side’s extra-time win. Photograph: Timmy Dickson/Inpho

Indeed, the further this one went on, the more freakishly similar to teams became. Both goalkeepers scored a point from a free on their own 45. Both goals came from route-one puck-outs that dropped in behind the thicket of hurls that went up for them. Both brought in vital scores off the bench - David Dunne’s goal for Wexford, a monstrous 1-8 from play for Kilkenny. In the end, that contribution from the Kilkenny bench was the difference.

Wexford’s running game may well have been tinkered with and moulded around the edges over the years but it’s still essentially who they are. And when it works, it’s a sublime way of playing the game. Lee Chin, Dee O’Keeffe and Liam Óg McGovern wove mazy patterns through the midfield in the opening period, setting up scores for Rory O’Connor, Matthew O’Hanlon and Conor McDonald. When the first water break came, they were 0-8 to 0-6 ahead.

Much of Wexford’s comfort had come from the fact that Kilkenny were giving them all the space they pleased from Mark Fanning’s puck-outs. Brian Cody clearly laid down the law at the break and they squeezed way up from that point on, hemming Wexford in and making life altogether more difficult.

It led to Kilkenny’s first really good spell of the game and they outscored Wexford by 0-9 to 0-6 through the rest of the first half. Eoin Cody was golden for a while, stitching back-to-back points from turnovers as Kilkenny suffocated the Wexford running game. TJ Reid wasn’t in the game a lot from open play but he managed to finagle a couple of his own through sheer muscle memory. Martin Keoghan speared a gorgeous score off his back foot.

Wexford kept in touch through a couple of Chin frees and it all washed out as a 0-15 to 0-14 lead for Kilkenny. And though they nipped and tucked away at each other until the second water break, it looked like Wexford had got the game breaking goal on the hour mark. Dunne was only in off the bench when a Fanning puck-out skittered through to him and his finish left Murphy with no chance. Chin followed up with a huge point and Fanning bombed over a free and all of a sudden, Wexford were three up with six to play.

Back came Kilkenny. TJ popped a couple of frees, Wexford missed two bad ones through Conor McDonald and Rory O’Connor. It was breathless now. Simon Donoghue pulled off a huge block, McGovern swished an inspirational score. With two minutes to go, they were all square, 1-24 to 0-27.

Shaun Murphy takes a free for Wexford during his side’s defeat to Kilkenny. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Shaun Murphy takes a free for Wexford during his side’s defeat to Kilkenny. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

But then, what looked a killer strike for Kilkenny. Eoin Cody had a marquee day, befitting the young hurler of the year and now he got on the end of a puck-out and took his goal with a flourish. Game, set and…

Nope. Not yet. Wexford weren’t done. Chin struck two frees and with the fifth minute of injury-time ticking down, Liam Ryan strode forward for a long-range score to bring it to extra time.

And on they went. For every tick and tock. Wexford went a goal up through a Mark Fanning penalty, Kilkenny hauled them in through two Cody points and a TJ free. At half-time in extra time, Wexford led 2-29 to 1-31. Steam rose from the scoreboard.

Bodies were strewn across the pitch, mistakes were everywhere. And in the end, it was Kilkenny who had the sounder bodies and the surer heads. TJ nailed a free. James Bergin came in for a brilliant cameo with two points from two shots. Kilkenny were wriggling free.

And to end it all, Walsh thundered in off the Hogan sideline and batted his goal past Fanning. That was that. They meet Dublin in the Leinster final in a fortnight.

Kilkenny: Eoin Murphy (0-1, free); Tommy Walsh (0-1), Huw Lawlor, Paddy Deegan; Darragh Corcoran, Pádraig Walsh, Conor Browne; Richie Reid (0-2), Richie Leahy; Adrian Mullen (0-1), Martin Keoghan (0-1), Alan Murphy (0-1); Eoin Cody (1-5), TJ Reid (0-16, 0-11 frees, 0-1 65), Billy Ryan (0-1). Subs: Conor Fogarty (0-1) for Leahy, half-time; James Maher (0-2) for Corcoran, half-time; John Donnelly (0-1) for Ryan, 45 mins; Walter Walsh (1-1) for R Reid, 53 mins; James Bergin (0-2) for A Murphy, 64 mins; Cillian Buckley for Browne, 70 mins; Michael Carey (0-1) for Fogarty, 70 mins; Darren Brennan for Bergin, 71-81 mins; Ryan for Keoghan, 80 mins

Wexford: Mark Fanning (1-1, 1-0 pen, 0-1 free); Shane Reck, Liam Ryan (0-1), Simon Donoghue; Gavin Bailey, Matthew O’Hanlon (0-1), Shaun Murphy (0-2); Diarmuid O’Keeffe, Liam Óg McGovern (0-3); Paul Morris (0-1), Lee Chin (0-14, 0-11 frees), Conor McDonald (0-2); Mikie Dwyer, Rory O’Connor (0-3), Kevin Foley. Subs: Jack O’Connor (0-1) for Morris, 48 mins; David Dunne (1-0) for Dwyer, 60 mins; Connal Flood for O’Keeffe, 69 mins; Conor Firman for Murphy, 73 mins; O’Keeffe for McGovern, 76 mins; Murphy for Bailey, 80 mins; Cathal Dunbar for Chin, 85 mins; Conor Hearne for O’Keeffe, 88 mins

Referee: Fergal Horgan (Tipperary)

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