Thursday 30 March 2017

Jamesie O'Connor: McGrath must be brave for Déise to have fighting chance

Jamesie O'Connor

If Waterford play a sweeper Kilkenny will have the luxury of an extra defender, a role they are likely to hand to Paul Murphy, who excels in it. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
If Waterford play a sweeper Kilkenny will have the luxury of an extra defender, a role they are likely to hand to Paul Murphy, who excels in it. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Of golf's four Major championships, the US Open is arguably the hardest to win, and at this year's event at Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania, Shane Lowry took a four-shot lead into the final round.

To be seven under par after three rounds in US Open conditions, on what Jack Nicklaus once described as "a gorilla of a golf course", is indicative of how well the Offaly man had played to that point. Unfortunately, Sunday was a struggle, and with zero margin for error, and his game just a fraction off, Shane ended the day tied for second place.

I spent that evening glued to the coverage, and if there was a turning point in the round, I think it came as early as the second hole. The tee had been moved up, and it now played at just 320 yards, inviting the players to go for it, and attempt to drive the green.

In the group ahead, the eventual winner Dustin Johnson took it on, hitting his tee shot to just off the putting surface. In the last round of the US Open, where par is your friend, birdies are usually as scarce as hens' teeth. When Johnson chipped to three feet and holed the putt, his gamble was rewarded and he walked off with a crucial birdie and, more importantly, a huge surge of momentum.

With his short game as good as it is - his chipping and pitching had been sublime all week - I was hoping Shane would stay aggressive and take out the driver. Admittedly the hole was heavily bunkered and deep rough offered further protection. Nonetheless, he could have been close to the green and I'd have backed him to get up and down and walk off with no worse than a four.

After consulting with his caddy, in the position he was in, it was perfectly understandable that he chose the safe option, laying up with an iron off the tee. However, he under-hit his wedge approach and watched it spin back off the green. Minutes later, after walking off with a deeply disappointing bogey five, the four-shot lead had been halved to two, and further oxygen had been given to his pursuers and Johnson in particular.

Robert Lee in the Sky commentary box hit the nail on the head when he remarked that you feel an awful lot worse walking off with bogey having tried to play it safe, than if you'd hit the driver, and made five that way. Hindsight is everything, but if there's one decision Shane could have back, it might well be the one he and Dermot Byrne made standing on the second tee.

So, the whole of Waterford, and the hurling public in general, are surely hoping that when Derek McGrath metaphorically reaches into his bag today, it's the driver, and not the five iron that he's taking out. If Waterford play it safe, adopt the same conservative approach as a year ago with a sweeper, and go on to lose by five or six points, then the Waterford hurling public will wonder, with some justification, as to just what progress the team has made.

On the other hand, if they go for it, swing for the fences, and the result is the same, then supporters are likely to be a lot more forgiving, knowing that their side at least had a go, and were brave and courageous in the process. Certainly in Clare, there's bitter disappointment at how tamely we exited to Galway. We didn't deserve to win given how poorly the team performed. But the approach and tactics were so stale and predictable, asking no questions whatsoever of the Galway defence, that the sense of regret as to what might have been, runs much deeper.

Whatever else, Waterford can't afford to be stale, predictable or negative in their approach. That won't get it done against Kilkenny. That's not to suggest they go completely gung-ho and leave themselves wide open at the back either. There has to be a degree of pragmatism about the tactics they employ. There's no point in being naïve, allowing their full-back line to get dragged out the field, and playing into Kilkenny's hands.

They will want to keep it tight initially, so I've no issue with Tadhg de Búrca sitting deep early on to give them a foothold in the game. It will ebb and flow anyway, as matches tend to do, and if Waterford were ahead entering the last quarter, again why wouldn't they use the security blanket De Búrca provides to protect that advantage. But Waterford, as currently constituted, are not built to come from behind or chase down a lead, and that's why they have to come up with something different from what we have seen to date. Kilkenny are accustomed to hurling under claustrophobic conditions, where space is at a premium, especially in the middle third. They do it better than everyone else. Furthermore, if Waterford play a sweeper, it means Kilkenny will have the luxury of an extra defender at the other end, a role which, in all likelihood, they'd hand to Paul Murphy.

There's no one better or more adept at attacking the ball, in the air or on the ground, and then delivering it, than Kilkenny's All Star corner-back. The sight of him coming out at pace with the ball, blowing past a couple of Waterford forwards, to set up another attack, would lift the whole team. If it becomes that type of defensive game, where scores and especially goals are at a premium, Kilkenny will back themselves to come out on top, as was the case a year ago, especially if Richie Hogan and TJ Reid pick up where they left off in the Leinster final.

So what do Waterford need to do, or not do, to give themselves a fighting chance? Firstly, there has to be a goal threat. That means not allowing Kilkenny to operate with a sweeper which requires them to push up and play 15 on 15, or at least something closer to an orthodox formation. It also means playing at least two of their inside forwards closer to the opposition goal, and ideally finding a way to get Murphy out of there. If Kilkenny have a weak spot, the evidence points to it being in their full-back line.

To date Waterford have raised just a solitary green flag in their three championship matches and that arrived courtesy of a defensive slip-up that Maurice Shanahan capitalised on against Clare. Worryingly, they blew two potentially better opportunities later in that game, only had a solitary half-chance against Tipp, and created little or nothing in the way of goal chances against Wexford. If they don't score at least one goal today, something in the region of 24 or 25 points will be required, which given how hard Kilkenny work at closing the opposition down, becomes a very tall order.

They're also going to have to be significantly more efficient and disciplined in their use of possession than has been the case. Their wide count has averaged well into double digits - 13 in the first half alone in the quarter-final - whereas Kilkenny shot just seven over the 70 minutes against much stiffer opposition in Galway. Part of that problem, has been the long-range shooting that at times Waterford have been forced into, due to the paucity of options up front. Many of those horrendous hit-and-hope efforts from distance have been as a result of having nothing to aim at inside, because the full-forward line in its entirety has drifted out the field.

Stationing Brick Walsh or Maurice Shanahan on the edge of the Kilkenny square, and leaving them there, would not only provide an outlet and target man to hit, cutting down the likely number of long-range wides, but also increase the chances of Patrick Curran or Shane Bennett getting on the end of a break or pass, that just might lead to a goal.

They also can't afford to take too much out of the ball, or carry it into contact to the extent they were guilty of in the Munster final. They didn't seem prepared for the physicality Tipp brought, and time and time again were turned over in possession as a result. Again that's something they're bound to be more conscious of today, and will surely have planned and prepared for.

Can they do it? Will McGrath be brave enough to throw caution to the wind and go for it? I think he will. There is talent in this side. They have pace, athleticism, the strength and conditioning work done and plenty of the exuberance that having so many younger players brings. After the Munster final debacle, not only has the hype and optimism around the county vanished, but the performance, or lack of it, surely hurt the players to the extent that they'll be driven to redeem themselves and get something out of the year.

McGrath, of course, will have been well aware that at some point on their journey, Waterford were going to have to beat Kilkenny in a big game in Croke Park, and a plan is in place that gives them the best chance to win.

I think we'll see the driver.

I think they'll present a hell of a challenge for Kilkenny this afternoon and that it will be a lot closer than many expect. I also think Waterford will have an All-Ireland to celebrate before the year is out. Unfortunately, it's far more likely to be the under 21 title. Kilkenny are so strong and efficient in the middle third that unless Waterford have one of those days where everything they hit goes over, it's hard to see them getting enough scores to win.

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