Henry Shefflin: Waterford’s Catch-22
They can't ditch system now but it plays into hands of Kilkenny
Published 06/08/2016 | 12:30
It strikes me that the latest proposals to revamp the All-Ireland football championships involving a group stage for the 'last eight' is the kind of tonic that hurling might require even more.
Sometimes it's hard to credit how quickly the hurling championship fizzles out. Once the Munster final is done and dusted on the second weekend of July, there are just five games left.
Richie Hogan articulated it well last year in highlighting flaws in a structure that offers so few games.
The thinking that Páraic Duffy has brought to football here is just what hurling needs too, I feel.
Would it be feasible for the 'last six' in hurling to split into two groups of three and play off against each over three weekends in July, something similar to what is being laid out for football?
Obviously one team would be idle for one of those weekends and the narrow base of teams would, more than likely, lead to repeat fixtures. And I know it had its setbacks when it was tried in qualifiers before.
But when you think of it, Davy Fitzgerald's Clare have never played Kilkenny or Tipperary in championship in his five years.
Maybe the last two remaining qualifier teams could make up a group of four with the beaten provincial finalists, retaining direct access for provincial champions to an All-Ireland semi-final.
Hurling needs more big games than football, to my mind, and straight away there are four more here taking up only two extra weekends. Surely a tighter compression of the earlier part of the season could accommodate that without too much impact on club fixtures.
The five-week gap for the provincial champions, under the current system, can be a conundrum that can make or break a team. For me and the Kilkenny teams that I played on, we always saw it as a time to thrive.
On the night that our squad would reconvene in Nowlan Park after the Leinster Championship was completed, routinely the Monday eight days on from the final, there was always a sense of collectively hitting a refresh button, a resetting of what you wanted to do.
Small things happened that were never spoken of. If you sought to arrive early you were sure to find a few down there before you. The queue for physio was that little bit longer as even greater caution and care took hold, the attention to detail that little bit sharper from each player. There was always just a different vibe about the place, like a new beginning.
The schedule for the next four weeks would be distributed and Brian would gather us in to address us with a few words to set the scene.
He never needed to say too much. We knew ourselves - this was our time. I always felt that these four weeks were the most productive for the Kilkenny teams I played with.
Not for one minute am I suggesting that our preparations were more relaxed earlier in the year or even during the Leinster Championship. They weren't.
But this four-week stretch was our biggest block together and we seemed to get our best work done in that time frame.
We'd always return to our clubs for a round of championship games once the province was complete but that still left us with more time to prepare than for any other game. And invariably there was improvement in everything we did.
We thrived in these weeks. Our own internal matches were harder and faster. We might go away for three training weekends in the year and this was one of the windows we used to get down to Carton House usually or Fota Island in Cork as we did on one occasion.
Personally, I always felt I played better in All-Ireland semi-finals than I did in finals. I'd put that down to the preparation we were able to put in. A final has your head up, subconsciously, for different reasons.
Maybe one of my best semi-final performances was against Waterford in 2009. I just felt everything went right for me in the build-up and I was able to bring that with me on to the pitch.
I went in full-forward that day on Aidan Kearney who had done so well on Joe Canning in the quarter-final. But something told Brian that we could gain an aerial edge there so we went for it and reaped the benefits.
You could see something like that happening again, seven years on, with TJ Reid possibly having another spell inside. With Kilkenny there is never an overall plan to win a war but plans to win little battles that create a cumulative effect and TJ's positioning will be central to that given how he was able take down the ball between two opponents and engineer the only goal in the corresponding game last year.
Ultimately, the biggest battle will be won in the middle third. These are the terms Waterford will set and the terms that Kilkenny will happily accept.
When you have Conor Fogarty, Cillian Buckley and Michael Fennelly mixed up in that area, the prospect of Kilkenny being outworked or outfought reduces greatly. Michael is so often a colossal figure in the type of trench warfare that we can expect tomorrow.
I recall Austin Gleeson's comment after last year's championship when he reflected on a hit he took from Michael. It took him two or three minutes to recover from the impact.
Some of that is physical but maybe there was a mental shortfall there too. I never got a sense that they really believed they would win that game. If they did the impact of those physical collisions wouldn't linger. Now? They'll be more hardened, for sure.
Since then Waterford have taken Kilkenny in the opening round of the league when conditions were so much different than they will be tomorrow.
I've said all along that I don't think Waterford's style of play lends itself to taking out the likes of Kilkenny and Tipperary in the games that really matter and I don't deviate from that position.
That said, and there may be some irony in this I accept, now is not the time to be abandoning their principles of play. When they didn't road-test something more expansive for the Wexford game, a semi-final against the All-Ireland champions isn't the place to start.
So they'll keep it tight which, I feel, plays into Kilkenny's hands by drawing the likes of Buckley and Pádraig Walsh more into the battle zone. Pádraig plays a lot of club hurling in attack and scored something like 1-5 in a recent club match so the closer he's brought into the scoring zone the better. Cillian is equally comfortable further up the field.
Waterford's 18 wides against Wexford - six from Gleeson - has been something of a recurring theme in so many games this year. They hit the same number against Kilkenny in that opening league match when Gleeson also dispatched a third of that total.
But the number of chances he's creating for himself in all games is quite remarkable.
With their goal threat reduced by how they set up, they need a greater return from these lower percentage shots. And they need more from Patrick Curran and Shane Bennett. They're young but the form they showed in the three games against Clare has tapered off somewhat. Winning the Munster U-21 title will inflate their belief in themselves that bit more and my hunch is this is the occasion for them.
Kilkenny will be looking to Eoin Larkin and Colin Fennelly for big games. So far Jonjo Farrell has led the line impressively with Richie Hogan's big contribution off the bench the last day but Colin's ability to chase down opponents and win ball back is tailormade for the game I expect this will be.
What it boils down to is ball-winners and Kilkenny have too many. Waterford will create the conditions the champions want.