Henry Shefflin: Tactics have dominated thus far but games will open up now
Waterford have toughened up physically and mentally but Cork can avenge League final loss
Published 06/06/2015 | 16:00
As far back as November, I got an inkling that Waterford were determined to be different this year. I was working a bit in the area and word kept coming to me that they were training four and five nights a week even then.
I don't think that was ever simply about physical fitness - it would have been designed to toughen the team up mentally too.
Derek McGrath clearly wanted absolute commitment and you'd have to say they now look a side with real resilience in them.
In last year's qualifier, Wexford's superior physical strength won out; some of Waterford's forwards particularly just weren't able to win their own ball. Derek used the experience to assess what he had available to him and is only now, I believe, fully putting his own stamp on the team.
You couldn't but be impressed by how they won the League, beating Galway, Tipperary and Cork in their last three games. People fixate on their defensive system, but look at the scores they accumulated in those matches: 0-20, 1-19 and 1-24. That's impressive shooting.
Tactically, what they do is similar to Clare in that Waterford's clear priority has been to get defensively sound as a starting point, like a lot other teams in different sports. They get a lot of bodies back, often leaving just a single player inside.
But instead of hitting the ball long to Maurice Shanahan every time or down the channels as Clare do with Shane O'Donnell, Waterford like to carry the ball from midfield and run directly at defences.
Colin Dunford, Jake Dillon and Jamie Barron are happy to carry the ball into contact, either looking to create the overlap or in the hope of being awarded a scoreable free. And that direct running is a big problem for opposition defenders.
Those Deise players are all small, fast types and when they run directly at a bigger man, it puts serious pressure on the defender to stop them without the concession of a free.
Look at Pauric Mahony's returns from placed balls in big games - 0-9 against Galway, 0-12 against Tipp and 0-9 against Cork. That has been a huge weapon for them and, Mahony's absence this weekend represents a serious blow.
That said, there's a huge appetite for work in this team, with forwards more than happy to go back inside their own '65' looking for possession.
Winning the League will have given those young players massive confidence, and it will also have taken some of the heat off Derek for his decision to cut loose some battle-hardened veterans at the start of the season like Seamus Prendergast, Stephen Molumphy and Liam Lawlor.
He clearly wanted to make a break and introduce more of the All-Ireland-winning minor team of two years ago, albeit experienced heads like 'Brick' Walsh, Noel Connors and Kevin Moran have played key roles.
Some people maintain that this is the game Waterford did not want so quickly after the League final, but I'm not so sure. Not alone did they beat Cork that day, they beat them well.
And I suspect they maybe don't fear Cork now the way they might still fear Clare or Tipperary. But this works two ways.
Because I suspect you're going to see a fairly driven Cork this time, and Brian Murphy's return to the panel is a reflection of what Jimmy Barry-Murphy will be looking for from his team now.
I was never directly marked by Murphy, but I know him as a very tight, tenacious defender, a quiet fella off the field but someone who was totally dependable inside, a very strong character.
Cork are clearly still worried about the spine of their defence, Christopher Joyce's cruciate injury presenting them with a problem they have yet to solve. Murphy's return is, presumably, with that in mind as the League final gamble with Aidan Ryan at full-back didn't really work out.
I don't think Cork will adjust dramatically in style or structure now, but I do think they will be cuter than in the League final.
They certainly won't set-up just to respond to Waterford's system, but Jimmy will have learnt a lot in that 70 minutes. So I see them making adjustments, but with the focus still very much on how Cork themselves perform rather than looking to frustrate Waterford.
Maybe the key for Cork will be the work-rate of their forwards. You've got to stop Waterford's attacks at source, restricting the options of their defenders coming out with the ball, thus curbing that momentum.
Because Waterford have an extra man back in defence, someone like Noel Connors can go to the ball against Patrick Horgan without the pressure of having to actually win it.
His job is to break that ball, not to get it into his hand. The spare man is there for that break.
So, in that instance, the other Cork forwards have got to make sure they don't let that ball come out too easily.
I've been hugely impressed by the Waterford half-back line and their intelligent use of the ball, but I suspect that Cork will have learnt more from the League final.
And you can't really over-state the loss O'Mahony will be. I'm expecting a tight game but Cork will be going to Thurles with some fire in their bellies.
They'll need a fit Seamus Harnedy mind, but if he's okay, I think Cork will win.
It has definitely been a very tactical start to this Championship, maybe the most tactical that we've seen. So it will be interesting to see if the traditional big three, Kilkenny, Tipp and Cork, prove more open in how they set their teams up.
My own feeling is that the tactical dimension will recede a little as the season progresses and, to that end, today's Galway-Dublin replay may be a more open game than last weekend's draw.
The good thing for Galway is that Joe Canning has another week of getting used to holding a hurl again as he recovers from that serious hand injury, not to mention the fact that a number of other players are close to full fitness again.
I remember getting a cut back in 2005 that required six stitches to a finger. It was the hand I grip the hurl with and I found it a real problem trying to get that grip to feel natural again.
In hurling, we like to describe the hurl as being like an extension of your arm, but it just didn't feel that way to me while I had that cut. It just didn't have that natural feeling and it was only a while after the stitches had been removed that it started to feel right again. Joe, I'd imagine, was quite wary of the hand last Sunday.
I think he'll get more comfortable with every game now, and that has to be a major plus for Anthony Cunningham.
I was impressed with John Hanbury and the two Mannions on Sunday and, given Peter Kelly looks likely to be missing from the Dublin full-back line, I just have a feeling that Galway have the greater scope to improve here.
That said, Dublin have a very able replacement in Michael Carton who, from my experience, has always been a very tight marker. So I see it as being extremely tight.
Speaking of Galway, I was down at the opening of a new pitch and ball-alley for Kilbeacanty GAA club on Monday night.
It's the home of the late Niall Donohue, a man I hurled against in the 2012 All-Ireland hurling finals. I didn't know Niall personally, but I spent an evening with some of his family after his tragic passing.
It was great to return to Kilbeacanty for what was a terrific turnout and a great evening.