Jamesie O'Connor: Waterford have fighting chance if they hold Richie Hogan and TJ Reid
The Déise are hard to break down but nobody does tactics better than Kilkenny, writes Jamesie O'Connor
Can a side that exited the championship last year to the same opponents Kilkenny inflicted a 24-point beating on just seven weeks ago realistically have any hope against the All-Ireland champions today?
Well, even allowing for Wexford's regression in 2015, logic says no. But it's indicative of how far Waterford have come in the last 12 months that they are in the last four, very much on merit, and in with a fighting chance. Admittedly, a Waterford win would be a shock of seismic proportions. But I'll be surprised and disappointed if this All-Ireland hurling semi-final isn't a contest at the very least.
If we cast our minds back a year ago today, Limerick put Kilkenny to the pin of their collar in the corresponding fixture. It took Richie Power's introduction midway through the second half to swing a match that was very much up for grabs - possibly even slipping away - back in Kilkenny's favour. On paper, this Waterford side is every bit as good as that Limerick one, and given the myriad problems playing Kilkenny poses, may be better equipped for that challenge.
Defensively, they have been transformed and are unrecognisable from the team ripped apart last spring in Ennis by Clare and Shane O'Donnell in the league. This is a younger, faster, more mobile and athletic unit. These are the type of attributes required to contain the Kilkenny attack. Derek McGrath, however, has not only gone after players with the tools needed to survive in the modern era, but in the process developed a system that also makes his team very, very hard to break down. The stats don't lie. They've conceded just two goals in their last four games, including the league final. Even Tipperary's vaunted attack, whose hallmark under Eamon O'Shea has been an ability to open sides up and get goals, never really looked like doing so in the Munster final.
That has to have done wonders for the team's belief and self-confidence, because that defensive solidity always gives you a chance. With the results backing it up, the Waterford players know that if they can be as disciplined and organised at the back as they have been, with everyone knowing and doing their job, Kilkenny, as good as they are, won't have it all their own way.
McGrath also has options now at the back that he didn't have earlier. Darragh Fives' return is a bonus, because it allows the mercurial Austin Gleeson's talents to be utilised further up the field. And Stephen Daniels, who played Railway Cup for Munster in 2013 but has been dogged by injury since, showed when replacing the injured Noel Connors in the quarter-final that he's finally back to the player he was two years ago and capable of doing a job if required.
Tactically, it's a given that Waterford will aim to keep it tight, and make every effort to deny the Kilkenny forwards the space they routinely create, especially early on. It's the game plan that's worked well to date, so why change it?
There may be certain refinements to accommodate the different challenges Kilkenny bring, but Tadhg de Búrca will again drop back from the centre-back position in front of his full-back, a role that he's played so well all year. The fly in the ointment, however, is who Kilkenny have picked at number 11. It won't have been lost on Brian Cody that Pa Cronin found enough space in that centre-forward role to hit five points from play for Cork in the Munster semi-final. Waterford haven't encountered a comparable type of player in that position since, or a shooter with the ability to do similar damage. But that's what Kilkenny have been brilliant at over the years, finding the chinks in the opposition armour.
Richie Hogan was devastating at centre-forward against Wexford, even if he struggled to exert the same influence in the Leinster final when Galway elected to man-mark him. But he's named to start there today and, assuming both he and Michael Fennelly are fit, that's where I think he'll play.
If that's the case, Waterford will have to adapt, because leaving Hogan in the charge of a midfielder dropping back, or trusting that the system will have enough bodies in place to cover him, is asking for trouble. He has to be marked tightly. He's simply too good. The equally accurate and prolific TJ Reid falls into the same category.
So regardless of the game plan, and irrespective of where that duo operate for Kilkenny, top priority for Waterford is to find a way to stymie their influence, and limit their opportunities on the ball.
Of course, how Kilkenny react to what Waterford do will be equally interesting. It's hard to think of a side in any sport that has been more successful at imposing their will on the opposition than the Cats. There have been no shortage of tactical variations and strategies thrown at them over the years.
But nobody does tactics or adapts better than Kilkenny, and that's why it's invariably on their terms that the game usually ends up being played. Kilkenny themselves have been deploying Eoin Larkin out the field, to leave space inside for what's been a two-man, and even on occasion, a one-man full-forward line.
Wexford had no answer to it, as the five goals conceded testify. Galway coped better, but there were still occasions when they rode their luck, such was the movement and running of the Kilkenny forwards off the ball. But Waterford will be a different test, one they didn't encounter during the league, and Kilkenny may be surprised at how little space there is to engineer the same opportunities. Tipperary had the benefit of that league semi-final match to draw on, knew what they were facing, and still had to show a lot of patience in the Munster final.
In the prime of their careers, it's no surprise that Reid and Hogan have picked up where they left off last year, but the form of Larkin has been a revelation. Playing as well as ever, his ability to drift into scoring positions as well as doing the bread and butter stuff out the field, make him indispensable. Ger Aylward's form has also been a bonus, and while Colin Fennelly and Walter Walsh haven't been as consistent, they still require watching. Nonetheless, Reid and Hogan remain the key threats, and if one or both are tied up, and Waterford lock the shop with De Búrca in front of their goal, the target Waterford have to reach could be a manageable one.
If the speculation about Hogan not starting is true, that's especially the case - because Kilkenny don't have the same strength in depth on the bench that Cody has had in the past. Richie Power remains a massive loss. They wouldn't have won the All-Ireland last year without him, and while his brother John, Mark Kelly and Matthew Ruth will all work hard for the team if introduced, they don't have the same threat Power at his best provides.
So the big issue is whether or not Waterford can put enough scores on the board at the other end. The 16 points they scored against in the Munster final wasn't enough, and it certainly won't suffice today. I always felt Tipp's strategy would be to play a sweeper of their own, and back that their forwards would be better and more efficient than Waterford's. That's pretty much the way the game panned out, and I really don't think Kilkenny's view will be too dissimilar.
With Jackie Tyrrell out, and two relative newcomers in the full-back line, Kilkenny won't want Paul Murphy straying too far from goal. He's likely to be the free man at the back if Waterford set up as we expect. The brief to him and the backline will be that if they don't concede goals Kilkenny won't be beaten. That may very well be the script, and that could be the way the game plays out. But Derek McGrath is no fool.
The Munster final was a valuable learning experience for him and his players. Those lessons will have been absorbed, and Waterford will have planned accordingly. They know they will have to be disciplined in possession, more careful in shot selection and efficient with the opportunities they get.
But there also comes a time when you have to roll the dice and go for it. If Waterford are in the match, into the second half, and given the character that's in this team, there's every likelihood they will be, I think they'll be more adventurous and have a real cut. Patrick Curran off the bench will give them a genuine goal threat, and they have the legs and energy to see out the 70 minutes.
Nonetheless, the sense prevails that few manage to beat Kilkenny at their own game. The demolition of Wexford and win over Galway can't be ignored. If Michael Fennelly and Hogan play, I can't see Kilkenny beaten.
Qualifiers, Phase 2: Wexford 3-15 Waterford 2-15 (Nowlan Park)
June 21, 2015, Leinster SHC semi-final: Kilkenny 5-25 Wexford 0-16 (Nowlan Park)
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