Nicky English: Waterford’s free-fall complete as Clare stake strongest of claims

In Leinster, Wexford’s revival against Kilkenny makes things very interesting

With the All-Ireland line-up now complete, the big losers are Waterford even though their exit came as no surprise going into the last weekend of the round-robin. Their free-fall continued in Ennis and I ended up asking myself can they be as bad as they looked?

They were my pick for the All-Ireland six weeks ago and I have no idea what’s happened to them since they won the league, but there’s obviously something fundamentally wrong. It’s massively disappointing for a team that has promised a lot over the past couple of years and was felt to be closing the gap on Limerick.

The champions are still the front runners at the end of the first phase but it’s harder to categorise the chasing pack. There’s no doubt that Clare are now the primary challengers to Limerick after a round-robin campaign that saw them topping the Munster table and scoring list.

It will be a very interesting final between themselves and Limerick.

Cork looked very good in defeating an overrun Tipperary but it was a loose game ideal for showcasing their talents. I'd single out Conor Lehane because I've doubted him at times as a player when he hasn't been going well. But on Sunday he reminded me of Tony O'Sullivan in his pomp: the acceleration, short hurley, striking left and right – he could have had a couple more points.

He had a phenomenal influence on the match. I thought he was fantastic.

Tipp started well but even before Noel McGrath missed the penalty there was some slack finishing and once Cork scored the goal directly after the penalty hit the post, the match felt like it was going just one way.

Cork’s speed gave them a huge advantage and Tipp just weren’t able to live with it.

Their tactics have improved and they’re mixing their game quite effectively but tougher tests await when the provinces start to cross over and they find themselves up against Kilkenny or Galway – assuming they first navigate the McDonagh Cup winners in three weeks.

Saturday evening came as a surprise to me. I’ve seen both teams in recent weeks and felt that Kilkenny were improving, certainly enough to see off Wexford in Nowlan Park. A week ago was as good as I’d seen Kilkenny this year, whereas Wexford had drawn with Westmeath.

Early on those instincts looked correct, as after about 10 minutes, Kilkenny led by four and Wexford had only two points on the board, apparently confirming their championship trend of low scoring.

Things changed, though. Wexford blossomed in a traditionally difficult venue for them. Dee O'Keeffe dropped deep and got a grip on things defensively. Rory O'Connor gradually got on top in his personal duel with Mikey Butler and their goal duly came, scored by Oisín Foley.

They kept a three-point lead up until the break and it could have been double that but for one of best saves I've seen, from Eoin Murphy, denying Conor McDonald.

With the breeze to come, it still looked good for Kilkenny and the expectation was that they would create more space and opportunity for scores but the basics of the game were unchanged and they were being outmuscled in the middle third and the presumed improvement in their scoring never happened.

Instead we had an over-reliance on route one ball and the familiar inter-changeability of their forwards. Martin Keoghan was replaced – despite being one of their better performers – and so were Walter Walsh and Cian Kenny, who had done so well against Dublin the previous week.

Wexford started to believe, inspired by Lee Chin, who was a colossus for them, moving between the middle and full forward as he identified the need. His power could be seen in how he brushed aside Adrian Mullen at one point and that combined with his hurling made for an outstanding performance.

In response Kilkenny became more and more one-dimensional and they resorted to lamping the ball down on the forwards, generally from Paddy Deegan and Richie Reid, instead of working it through the lines.

The Wexford backs mopped up – apart from one mad scramble when they were forced to throw themselves around the goalmouth and Damien Reck came to the rescue on the line.

There was no method to the Kilkenny attack and Wexford deserved the win. They showed a definite improvement from the first day when snatching an exceptionally lucky draw off Galway.

The result confirmed a change in the expected pecking order. Galway won by six and it could have been worse for Dublin but they rallied even though Wexford’s win meant that they leapfrogged into third.

I think that’s a fair representation of the best three teams in the province, as Dublin, apart from the win over Wexford, have been uninspired and found scores too hard to come by.

The provincial title is quite open. Galway have delivered a good, unbeaten campaign but their recent Leinster finals against Kilkenny have not been straightforward and I don’t think this year will be any different.