Henry Shefflin: Cats’ ability to fend for themselves likely to be the difference
Kilkenny’s ball-winning forwards can make up for missing stars as new-look Deise face acid test
Published 08/08/2015 | 14:00
There are still some Waterford hurling people who pine for the extravagance of old, an off-the-cuff county team just looking to go toe-to-toe for glory.
The team that won Munster titles under Justin McCarthy in '02, '04 and '07 was spectacular to watch, but they never reached that Holy Grail of taking the Liam MacCarthy Cup home.
Derek McGrath is now trying to get Waterford there a different way and, with just a single defeat this year, nobody can reasonably argue against what he's doing.
To begin with, though, I don't doubt he faced a battle to win people over.
In my experience, the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final was the first time we in Kilkenny saw a more defensive Waterford, but it was a perfectly natural direction for them to take having leaked seven goals in that year's Munster final to Tipperary.
Davy Fitzgerald clearly decided that could not happen again, particularly in light of what had occurred when we met in the '08 All-Ireland final. So, having beaten Galway in the quarter-final, Waterford set up very defensively against us that day in 2011.
It went completely against the grain of the kind of free-style hurling men like John Mullane and Eoin Kelly liked to play and, while Mullane scored 1-6 from centre-forward, I never felt that Waterford were going to win that game.
What McGrath is doing today is very different. His players are clearly very comfortable with the structure of the team and, accordingly, there's a much better adherence to the system and game-plan.
That said, tomorrow presents the acid test for this Waterford team.
There was praise for Dublin after the quarter-final for the job Ryan O'Dwyer did in pushing up on Tadhg de Burca and he did, undoubtedly, manage to keep de Burca quiet. But there was a flip-side to what they were doing too.
The tactic meant that Dublin essentially had seven players playing in forward positions against seven backs. In other words, you had 14 bodies in that half of the field, then four midfielders, then five on five or sometimes just four on four at the other end.
So you had congestion at one end of the field and gaping spaces at the other. I think that suited Waterford.
They revel in those open spaces left to their forwards by this kind of scenario; it was the same thing against Cork. They will always feel they can find a way to the opposition net when their forwards are given that kind of room.
So this notion that all your problems against Waterford are solved by pushing an extra body up on de Burca is a little bogus.
Tipperary didn't do it and I imagine Kilkenny will not do it either.
The key for Kilkenny tomorrow will be the work-rate of their forwards. That means putting pressure on the Waterford man delivering ball to his attack. This doesn't necessarily mean even getting in the hook or the block. It might be just getting in his eye-line and forcing a hurried clearance.
Most modern inter-county backs can deliver very precise ball if given the time and space. Look at Galway's defenders against a Cork forward-line that simply didn't front up. That's where your trouble starts - if the opposition backs are able to pick their targets.
To me, one of the best forwards in the country for harrying players into mistakes is Colin Fennelly. The number of blocks, hooks and flicks he gets in over 70 minutes is remarkable, a skill highlighted by that incredible chase of Graeme Mulcahy in last year's semi-final.
I see Colin up close with the club and he has that ability to just materialise from nowhere, getting in a block or a flick and taking the ball away.
The two key players for Kilkenny so far this year have been Richie Hogan and TJ Reid. What the two of them have is that lovely, natural, wristy ability married to incredible work-rate. The skill they possess has come from countless hours at home, hitting against gable walls or just hurling day-in, day-out with their brothers.
It's that skill level that maybe separates them from the rest, but there's more to it than that.
Richie's and TJ's stories are quite similar in that it took both a few years to establish themselves and really blossom on the Kilkenny team.
I look at other hurlers around the country who would have similar skill levels, but simply don't perform with the same consistency.
To me, that consistency comes from being made to work so hard just to get that Kilkenny jersey.
Under Brian Cody, the most basic requirement for a forward is that he must have the ability to win his own ball. After that, he demands an unrelenting work ethic.
If you look at Richie and TJ over the last couple of years, those are qualities they consistently bring to their game.
You can have all the skill in the world, but if you're not able to win 50/50 ball, I don't think you'll be getting into a Brian Cody team.
So the brilliance we now expect from Hogan and Reid is, in some ways, down to the standards set by Kilkenny's management. It's down to a mentality.
To me, the qualities that set the better players apart are vision and awareness and these two have both of those qualities in spades. They just see a pass or an opportunity that others won't see.
They also have that ability at key moments in a game to get or create a critical score, like Richie did in last year's drawn All-Ireland final or TJ did in this year's Leinster final.
It looks as if Michael Fennelly won't be starting tomorrow and, given the loss of Jackie Tyrrell and the continued absence of Richie Power, that means three massive players missing from the Kilkenny line-up. Not many county teams could easily absorb that.
I think for this game particularly, Jackie would have been the perfect man to play the role that Padraic Maher played for Tipp in the Munster final. He's brilliant at reading a game, delivers a good ball and has a big, physical presence if Waterford happened to break the half-back line.
So just in terms of leadership qualities and physicality, Kilkenny have taken a hit here.
All three of these men became central to our All-Ireland win last year, but it isn't Brian Cody's way to dwell too long on players who aren't available.
His attitude is that you simply play with the hand you've been dealt, so we can take it that Kilkenny will be perfectly primed.
Maybe a little too much is being made of Waterford's system because the thing that strikes me most about them is the high skill levels of their hurlers.
You can tell with modern development squads that so much focus is being put on touch and movement now.
Look at Shane Bennett on his first Championship start the last day, he seemed to be play without any fear.
Waterford have a serious energy about them this year, but maybe people have been under-estimating the sheer quality of their hurling.
Take de Burca and that sweeper role. If he's not reading the play well, not getting himself into the right positions, he'll basically become a wasted jersey. McGrath obviously identified that game-intelligence and composure in him some time ago.
The short, 20 to 25-yard pass is a big part of Waterford's game and that's a risky play if you don't have the skill to make it stick. Waterford do.
Maurice Shanahan was excellent again against Dublin, not just in his free-taking, but in his use of the ball (for example, the cracking pass to Bennett for their opening goal) and in the palpable confidence with which he took his own three-pointer. Once the ball was in Maurice's hand, you never felt he was going to miss.
But this is the business end of the Championship, the time of year you really find your heroes.
Waterford are young and, with just that Tipp defeat this year, hugely dangerous opposition for Kilkenny. I believe they'll give our lads plenty to think about tomorrow, but this is new ground for a lot of their players.
True, they've looked pretty fearless on every big day that we've seen them so far.
But my belief is that Kilkenny have more ball-winning forwards than Waterford and, at this stage of the Championship, that self-sufficiency in attack becomes absolutely vital.
Look at TJ, Eoin Larkin, Walter Walsh and Colin, they all tick that box.
Kilkenny have been motoring fairly ominously and, despite the big-name absentees, I think they're going to be hurling in Croke Park on September 6.