Five things to look for in Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final between Kilkenny and Waterford
Published 08/08/2015 | 14:20
A mouthwatering clash in Croke Park awaits as the defending Liam McCarthy cup winners collide with the current League champions for a place in the All-Ireland hurling final.
Neighbours Kilkenny and Waterford have a long history and bragging rights are up for grabs as Derek McGrath's youthful side pit their wits against Brian Cody's standard-bearers.
In a fixture which is sure to excite all GAA enthusiasts, we analyse five aspects which will help determine one of contestants for hurling's showpiece event on September 6.
1) Can Waterford spread the scoring load?
The unfortunate loss of top marksman Pauric Mahony only days after their League success should have left a massive void in the Déise attack but Maurice Shanahan has really stepped up to the plate.
His flawless free-taking and boundless energy from open play saw him rack up 1-12 (0-10 frees) in their quarter-final win against Dublin but it's hard to imagine the Cats showing similar indiscipline.
The Lismore man was in a rich vein of form coming into the 2013 Qualifier against Cody's charges before being held scoreless and withdrawn before the hour mark.
Waterford's over-reliance on Shanahan could prove their downfall and men like Austin Gleeson, Jake Dillon and Colin Dunford will have to contribute handsomely for their side to prevail.
The same cannot be said for Kilkenny as their attack looks to have several aces, most notably TJ Reid and Richie Hogan who Nicky English rightly said are the two leading players in the country at present.
It will be intriguing to see if the Munster side man mark either Reid or Hogan and what would happen if they are shut down?
One suspects other attackers like Colin Fennelly, Eoin Larkin and Ger Aylward would produce the goods and Kilkenny's attacking options look to trump their rivals.
2) Tús maith leath na hoibre
It may be old, it may be clichéd, but when it comes to Kilkenny it couldn't be more accurate. In all of Kilkenny's big championship losses (Tipperary 2010, Galway, 2012, Dublin 2013, Cork 2013) they have looked in trouble from an early stage.
Typically, Kilkenny aim to blitz the opposition early on, erode their belief and then further dismantle them as the game progresses.
If Waterford have any chance they must hit the ground running right from the off. They need to stifle the rhythm of the 2014 champions, impose themselves on the game and most importantly not concede a goal.
This is where the beauty of the sweeper system comes into play. If the Déise can keep scores to a minimum and keep themselves in the game then their confidence will spread rapidly.
In the Munster final they got themselves into a winning position but were able to kick on, the neutral would hope that they learned form that occasion and can kick on this time around.
Against Tipperary they persisted with their sweeper right until the death whereas you'd have reason to believe that the switch of Gleeson to attack would suggest that McGrath knows that the system will only work to a point.
If they can get themselves in contention, tweak their style and go 15 vs 15, a shock and a first championship win over their closest rivals since 1959 could be on the cards.
3) Sweeper systems nothing new to the Cats
There has been much talk about the 'revolutionary' sweeper system that Waterford adopted from the start of 2015 but playing against this style is nothing new to Kilkenny.
Cody's men have prevailed over every type of tactic imaginable in a glorious period since the turn of the Millennium.
Be it Cork's short passing game, Dublin's seventh defender, Clare's sweeper and even Tommy Walsh being man marked by Lar Corbett, the Cats have always found an answer.
Waterford's system might be a little more exaggerated than anything they have experienced with Tadgh de Búrca sitting very deep as a shield in front of Stephen O'Keefe's goal but Cody will have planned meticulously to counteract this.
Long-range points, short passing in the middle third and clever distribution to their forwards will help to reduce his influence and it will be interesting to see how Cody uses his spare man to best effect.
Despite a common consensus, Kilkenny are as tactically astute as any team. Case in point, Richie Hogan foraging deep in defence to shut out Galway late in the Leinster final.
They also play their half forwards very deep, almost as extra midfielders, and the tactical warfare will be engrossing.
4) Kilkenny looking light on experience
Despite their obvious pedigree, this Kilkenny squad is at a distinct disadvantage compared to other seasons when a wealth of experience could be called upon both on the pitch and in the stand.
The loss of legends like Henry Shefflin, JJ Delaney and Aidan Fogarty has left holes in their panel which weren't previously visible. Also, the absence of defensive linchpin Jackie Tyrrell and star forward Richie Power have really forced Cody's hand.
Shane Prendergast comes in for Tyrrell to make his first championship start in what is a rookie full-back line with Joey Holden making only his third appearance in the pivotal no. 3 shirt.
Cody's son Diarmuid, who was one of few shining lights with their U-21 side, gets his first call up to the 26-man squad and in truth, Waterford look to have the stronger bench.
Patrick Curran, Stephen Bennett, Tom Devine and Stephen Daniels have all had degrees of success in this year's championship and can offer a lot if needed.
One would presume Waterford will need to empty the bench and inject energy and enthusiasm to the game at just the right times if they are to prevail.
5) How will Waterford react to Croke Park?
2013 aside, Croke Park has been like a second home to Kilkenny with many sweet victories on the famous sod, none more so than last year's All-Ireland final replay win against Tipperary.
This Waterford side on the other hand, are new to the scene and while their skill and talent are undeniable, you just never know how players will react to the big day.
Many have won All-Ireland minor medals but positive experiences at HQ are thin on the ground for the large majority, including the elder statesmen of the team like Michael "Brick" Walsh and their inspirational captain Kevin Moran.
Performing well in Thurles is all well and good but there is a mystique about Croke Park that cannot be replicated and the larger crowds and the significance of the occasion could leave them overawed.
It will be interesting to see if the Munster side play a little more offensively and use the open spaces at their disposal to take on the Leinster champions.
Players like de Shane Bennett, Gleeson, Dunford and Shanahan are blessed with tremendous pace and if they can put Kilkenny on the back foot the south east could be singing come Sunday evening.