Wednesday 26 July 2017

Vincent Hogan: Nowhere to hide as Waterford and Galway strive to keep All-Ireland hopes alive

Axe swings menacingly over Fitzgerald and McIntyre as Waterford and Galway strive to keep All-Ireland hopes alive in Thurles showdown

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It has been 13 days since Waterford found themselves reduced to a play-thing in that junky old bowl by the marina and no one can truly say if Tipperary left them in a cupboard or a bin.

Davy Fitzgerald took a leap of faith calling his Monday morning meeting for Dungarvan, knowing it had to represent a contravention of their natural condition. On the bus out of Cork, he told the players that anyone seeking solace in drink that night would, essentially, be removing themselves from the panel.

This was a gamble. The caricature of Waterford hurling across the years is one of unsaintly beauty. Conformity, supposedly, brought them out in hives. Losing a Munster final by seven goals would, historically, have been taken as a licence for decadence and epic self-pity.

And, most probably, mutiny too.

So, the full and sober turnout at 8.0 in Fraher Field was a statement of something. And those who watched the team train the following Wednesday night in Walsh Park, reported an intensity that reduced almost a dozen hurleys to kindling in half an hour.

Local media, too, has been strikingly measured in their response to the Pairc Ui Chaoimh meltdown. True, there has been the odd Mississippi-lynching tone to radio phone-ins, but, generally, Waterford people have kept the scale of the hurt to themselves.

On Thursday night last, WLR broadcast a fun quiz aimed at raising funds for county training (all teams). It is only the second year of the event and, after 44 pubs signed up for involvement in 2010, there had been apprehension that the Tipperary massacre might decimate numbers this time.

But 42 pubs participated and, if the figure raised was marginally down on 12 months ago, the hit endured proved less than devastating.

It is as if the kind of implacability shown by John Mullane in Cork, where he stood beneath the presentation podium in a maelstrom of Tipp supporters and listened respectfully to Eoin Kelly's speech, has been mirrored throughout the county. In times of crisis, over-reaction is a dangerous enemy.

And Waterford, it seems, haven't been drawn to it.

Two days after the slaughter, Fitzgerald is known to have phoned every member of his squad, inviting individual perspectives on what happened. He thinks long and hard about hurling, sometimes maybe too much so.

But that very attention to detail, the immediacy of his desire to right things, the willingness to canvas dressing-room opinion are just some of the qualities that drew Waterford in his direction after the laissez faire era of Justin McCarthy.

Remember that when Clare trounced Waterford in the '08 Munster Championship, Justin's proposal was a five-day break before the squad reconvened. From that moment, the players essentially took control of their own destiny, believing it was harder work they needed, not less.

Their stance exposed them to much ignorant ridicule, some of it -- bizarrely summoned by commentators who would see only nobility in the stance taken by Cork hurlers some years before and after.

Where one was a story of selfless revolution, the other -- it seemed -- amounted to a tale about sorry ingrates.

Davy Fitz polarizes opinion. His critics see only caricature, a fizzing package of febrile energy radiating more heat than light. Maybe his personality conceals too little. He doesn't carry himself like some kind of brooding laureate struggling to contain his notes in the wind.

Davy's heart-on-the-sleeve bluntness offends those who need to intellectualise every last scintilla of combat. He routinely gets a good kicking from message board heroes. If he had a precious side, he'd have left the game a long time ago.

Yet, the statistics of his time with Waterford reflect a competitive consistency that flies in the face of the smart-ass judiciary. Tomorrow, he bids to lead the team into a fourth consecutive All-Ireland semi-final and Waterford's only championship defeats in his time have been to Tipp and Kilkenny.

That said, there is no hiding place for a manager whose team is filleted to the extent that Waterford's was on July 10.

Tactically, Davy stands accused now of prioritising systems over people. He has admitted himself that the players looked "nearly afraid to make a mistake" against Tipp and that hesitancy led to them, almost subconsciously, standing off their opponents.

Maybe he fell, too, into the trap of obsessing about the position of full-back and -- hence -- allowing that obsession corrupt the structure of his team. Michael 'Brick' Walsh has been hurling's outstanding centre-back for the last two summers, but, penned into the full-back line, he hurled as freely as a bird trapped in a chimney.

This is old territory. For Justin's last game, he sited a half-fit Kevin Moran on the edge of the 'square' and, between them, the selected Clare full-forward line rattled home 2-14.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul has been Waterford's way ever since Sean Cullinane handed in the jailer's keys and history suggests there has to be a better way.

Two weeks ago, Waterford's biggest systems failure was at midfield and half-forward. The easy precision of delivery from Padraic Maher, Gearoid Ryan and Shane McGrath to Tipp's inside forwards spoke of uncontested possession. Against that weight of traffic, the only option left to a full-back is prayer.

As it happened, Waterford were still in the game after half an hour, trailing by six points when Mullane skinned Paddy Stapleton only to mishit his shot on goal. Then Tipp scored four goals in five murderous minutes and Waterford went to their tea, down 17. Dead.

It was the same half-time deficit they had encountered in the '08 All-Ireland final mauling against Kilkenny and, as selector Maurice Geary observed of Davy's motivational challenge back then: "If our Lord himself had come down to make a speech to them, it wouldn't have made any difference."

So, he shuffled the deckchairs on the Titanic and waited for the sea to find him.

John McIntyre, we shouldn't doubt, could relate to that vigil. In a small matter of weeks, Galway have travelled from a soundtrack of morbidity and peevishness to universal acclaim as the one side that could reasonably go toe-to-toe against Tipp or Kilkenny without the company of a priest.

McIntyre's team, the symphony goes, might "do anything" now that they've located their natural virtuosity.

How real is their recovery? On June 25, they were destroyed in the air and on the ground by a Dublin team that won just about every single individual battle. Galway played without pattern or, worse, apparent heart, that evening. And coming, as it did, on the day a holy trinity of old soldiers had come across so careworn and disenchanted in the pages of the 'Indo,' the performance reeked like a corpse left in the sun.

They've since put Clare and Cork to the sword in qualifiers and, frankly, have done so with impressive panache.

Hindsight maybe paints Brendan Lynskey's contrarian view that "three or four" of the team picked to face Dublin were not entitled to a Galway jersey as a needlessly low pull.

But did Lynskey miss the ball? Given that five were subsequently dropped (and remain dropped), was he dispensing timber or fact?

Galway have a better coordinated defence now and their forwards have begun to assimilate some of Tipperary's little tricks into their movement. One is to circulate as if on a fairground carousel.

Against Clare, Joe Canning started at wing-forward, but stayed there about the length of time it takes to reverse a car from a drive.

Thereafter, he travelled wherever his instinct took him.

And Joe has a viper's instinct.

Iarla Tannian and Ger Farragher are hurling with impressive fluidity too and Damien Hayes is back looking like one of the best corner-forwards of his generation.

But, for now, the calibre of Galway's victims places an asterisk under their season. Clare failed to get promoted from Division 2 and, after a blinding opening eight minutes against Tipperary in the Munster championship, lost the remainder by 15 points.

Cork, apart from that flat-track bully job on Laois in the qualifiers, fell over the line against Offaly by a point. True, they gave Tipp a decent enough game in Munster, but, thereafter, looked a team with neither the conditioning nor spirit to call into colour the glories of their past.

Galway, thus, remain something of a guessing game.

Their two qualifier victories have been by an average of almost 15 points, yet no one knows for sure what lies beneath the arithmetic. Have they tackled their weaknesses or merely dipped beneath a rope?

Clare captain Pat Vaughan is unequivocal in his belief that they now represent serious All-Ireland contenders.

"The movement of their forwards is very hard to defend against," he reflected this week. "You could be playing corner-back on Damien Hayes one minute and, the next, he's out centre-forward. They just shuffle around everywhere.

"It seems as if they're kind of learning from the Tipp tactics. I know they had a big problem in the air against Dublin, but Dublin are a big, physical team. Even Kilkenny had trouble dealing with their size in the league final. I certainly couldn't say that Galway's forwards are weak in the air.

"Joe Canning wouldn't be weak in the air. Tannian's a big, strong man. Joe Gantley's excellent in the air. To me, Galway are definitely not far off Tipp's level."

McIntyre is, palpably, an accomplished manager who has seen his team squeezed out of the All-Ireland semi-finals by a single point in successive seasons. The expectation is that, tomorrow, they will finally cross that bridge. But, if they don't?

The price of failure will be unreasonable. It is six years since Galway made the last four of the championship and impatience has worn to nothing.

In the controversial 'Indo' article last month, Noel Lane suggested that a reflex of culling managers after each big-day disappointment has served Galway poorly since their last All-Ireland win in '88.

Yet, despite his decent record, McIntyre's job will almost certainly be gone tomorrow night if Galway slip out of the championship.

There is a slightly different feel to the likely sundering of Davy Fitz's relationship with Waterford.

Though he was, reputedly, sounded out about another one-year extension after the Munster semi-final defeat of Limerick, there is a sense that the natural lifespan of this arrangement may be about to be reached.

Fitzgerald has overseen a difficult transition from the old, fire-in-the belly, spontaneity of the great Waterford team to a more studied, structured approach with their successors. The new approach had a bad day in Cork on July 10, but bad days educate the wise.

In assessing Fitzgerald's time with Waterford, it is sometimes overlooked that marquee figures of their golden age like Paul Flynn, Dan Shanahan and Ken McGrath have all slipped away in the last few years without the team looking palpably lost.

Waterford schooled 31 players in this year's National League and, yet, almost made the final. Unlike the story of those Munster final whippings against Cork of '82 and '83, the Tipp annihilation should not preface a new famine.

But tomorrow will signal the end for a manager in Thurles and, most probably, propagate the illusion that they have been solely culpable for the shortcomings of their team.

The taint of disappointment must always find a victim. Irrespective of the truth.

Irish Independent

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