Saturday 23 September 2017

Jamesie O'Connor's All Ireland semi-final preview: Battle-hardened Déise have scope to improve

Maurice Shanahan of Waterford in action against Damien Cahalane of Cork during the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Waterford and Cork at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Co Tipperary in June. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Maurice Shanahan of Waterford in action against Damien Cahalane of Cork during the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Waterford and Cork at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Co Tipperary in June. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Jamesie O'Connor

When these sides met in June, it finished Cork 0-23 Waterford 1-15. Ten points apiece at half-time, the sides were still level at 0-15 to 1-12 after Maurice Shanahan's fortuitous goal in the 46th minute.

From there to the finish though, the Cork defence restricted Waterford to just three points. Considering there were five minutes of additional time played, that's three points in the last 29 minutes of the match.

And that's arguably the single biggest difference in Cork this year from previous years - how much better and disciplined their defending has been. Colm Spillane and Mark Coleman in particular have made a difference, but the defence is playing as a unit, and once the ball goes over their heads, the half-backs are turning and getting back in as quickly as they can to the D to shut down the space. It's not rocket science. Kilkenny did it for years, trusting the midfielders and half-forwards to funnel back in support, and pick up the opposition half-forwards out the field.

It worked well last time around and assuming Waterford play a sweeper, Cork will have the luxury of an extra defender at the back, a role that Mark Ellis is likely to play. In such circumstances, they'll surely feel that if they don't concede goals, there's no way Waterford will outscore them.

The other aspect of Cork's defence evident from the Munster final with Clare was that once they had a lead to defend, they seemed quite content to hold their positions. Clare's wing-forwards dropped deep into their own half on the Cork puck-out, but the wing-backs had no interest in following them and leaving space in behind. At times that meant they were over-run at midfield, but they were prepared to allow Clare to shoot from distance and minimise the threat closer to goal.

The Banner had enough of the ball, and the opportunities, but their shooting failed them. That was a similar problem for Waterford in the game in Thurles - poor shooting and poor shot selection, especially early on. Throw in some uncharacteristic missed frees from Pauric Mahoney and it meant the wide count was well into double digits. That's something they can't afford to repeat this afternoon.

Tadhg de Búrca of Waterford in action against Shane Kingston of Cork during the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Waterford and Cork at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Co Tipperary. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Tadhg de Búrca of Waterford in action against Shane Kingston of Cork during the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Waterford and Cork at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Co Tipperary. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

So many other things went wrong for Waterford that day that the scope for improvement is considerable. In particular, the decision to play Austin Gleeson at corner- and subsequently wing-forward backfired badly. There's no way he'll be as peripheral today, and Waterford can't afford him to be. Overall, the forward line has functioned much better as a unit in the three matches they've played in the intervening period. Shane Bennett has been really good as the spearhead in attack, 'Brick' Walsh has been outstanding, rolling back the years, and they will have forwards - Maurice Shanahan, Stephen Bennett, Patrick Curran - coming off the bench who can make a difference.

The bottom line is that they have to take their chances, and shots from distance have to go over. But we posed the same questions last August against Kilkenny and they were seconds away from answering all of them and making it to the final.

Numbers. Seventy-three-and-a-half minutes gone last Sunday. Thirty seconds of the allotted four minutes of added time left. Sixty-eight thousand people on the edge of their seats. And Joe Canning standing over a free to win the match inside his own 45-metre line, a free that had to be at the very limit of his range.

Once the ball left his hurl, it's clear it hasn't got the elevation required, and is dropping short. There's a scramble before James Barry gets it clear and in our TV studio I'm assuming Barry Kelly will blow the final whistle and we'll all be back for a replay six days later. How could anyone complain, especially given the thrilling second half we had just been treated to?

But Johnny Coen has other ideas, and with just five seconds left in added time, gets onto the clearance, and has the ball in his hand. Bottled up, he has the wherewithal to turn and shovel it back to Canning, who has read the play and anticipated where he needs to be. The clock is about to tick into the 75th minute when he gets the shot off, inches from the Cusack Stand sideline. Niall O'Meara and Dan McCormack are in his face, frantically trying to close him down. But the roar from the Galway crowd tells anyone who doesn't already know, exactly where it's going - straight between the posts.

There's 74.06 on the clock when the umpire starts waving the white flag. Even then, Tipp fans have a glimmer of hope. There's no whistle. Kelly will give them one last chance. Darren Gleeson goes long with the puck-out, and when Bubbles O'Dwyer gets on to the resultant break, anything is possible. Under normal circumstances, on the sideline and with Galway defenders hanging out of him, Bubbles would probably seek a better-placed colleague. Probably. But these are not normal circumstances, and O'Dwyer is no ordinary player. The final whistle is imminent. Bubbles knows it's now or never and his effort tails wide. Game over.

If last Sunday was electrifying, today has the potential to be every bit as gripping. Waterford know they can't afford to engage Cork in a shoot-out. That would be playing Russian Roulette, and the odds don't favour them winning that type of game. But that doesn't make the sort of match we're likely to get any less interesting or compelling.

Waterford will go with their sweeper, and the tried-and-trusted formula that got them into the last four.

Cork will be prepared for it, and convinced they will have the answers.

A couple of weeks ago, I alluded to the difficulty of beating the same team twice in a championship season. That's not to say it can't be done. Of course it can. But it's never as straightforward or routine as it was the first time around.

That's the challenge facing Cork. They shouldn't underestimate it.

Waterford Defence v Cork Attack

Cork scored 2-27 against Tipperary, 0-23 against Waterford and 1-25 in the Munster final. Those totals speak for themselves. Cork have done an excellent job of playing to their strengths and getting quality diagonal ball into a potent full-forward line that's accounted for the lion's share of their scores.

The movement of Patrick Horgan, Seamus Harnedy and Alan Cadogan has been excellent, but so too has been the service and all three have produced moments of magic in this year's championship.

By drifting out the field, Harnedy not only creates space for the corner-forwards inside, but is dangerous coming onto the ball, and Waterford really struggled to hold him back in June.

Horgan and Cadogan have been really sharp and when you combine their ability to get out in front with the service they've received, it's no surprise they've been so difficult to contain.

If there's a criticism, it's the lack of goals. They did create three really good chances before half-time in the first encounter, but didn't take them. That's an area that's bound to have been discussed, but it's hard to see Waterford allowing them the same space they were afforded in Thurles.

Obviously after falling between two stools on that occasion - was Tadhg de Búrca sweeping or was he marking Conor Lehane? - Waterford have gone back to the system that has served them so well.

In De Búrca's absence - and Waterford are entitled to feel aggrieved - Darragh Fives will patrol the D, which is one aspect Derek McGrath will have looked at. Another involves the premium they have to put on wrecking the quality of ball coming in. That requires far greater pressure being applied out the field than they managed in June.

Thirdly, McGrath is also likely to have rethought some of his match-ups. Noel Connors on Horgan and Conor Gleeson on Cadogan are two likely repeat scenarios; but who they detail to pick up Harnedy will be equally important, especially if he plays closer to goal.

Conor Lehane is another headache Waterford will have to find a cure for. He caused real problems last time out, coming deep as a puck-out target, dragging De Búrca away from the heart of the defence and hitting four points from play. That might be a job for Philip Mahoney - who's a tight marker - to put the shackles on Cork's number 11.

In previous years, Cork have struggled to break this Waterford defence down. The new personnel means they're better equipped to do so now, but it certainly won't be as easy as it was two months ago. Over a third of Cork's scores that day came from placed balls and there's no way that Waterford will gift them the same number of cheap frees and easy scores.

Limit the Rebels to 20 points, and Waterford have every chance.

Midfield

It's only when you watch the games back that you fully appreciate the role Bill Cooper and Darragh Fitzgibbon play for Cork, and the ground Jamie Barron and Kevin Moran cover for Waterford.

If Mark Coleman has been the outstanding newcomer this year, Fitzgibbon - equally mobile and athletic - can't be far behind. Watching the Waterford and Clare matches again last week gave me a far greater appreciation of how important he is to the team in providing the link between defence and attack. He's constantly making himself available to his defenders for a simple handpass, or outlet ball, and then uses his pace to get on the attack. On the front foot, his distribution is good and he's capable of taking his scores.

If Waterford underestimated him before, they know how effective he is now. Beside him, Cooper has been equally industrious and effective and gives them a physical presence in the middle of the field. He hasn't been afraid to throw his weight around, and the hit that flattened Kevin Moran and led to a Conor Lehane point midway through the second half of the Munster semi-final, had the Cork supporters near me jumping out of their seats and punching the air. He too has done a really effective job for Cork, particularly in defence. Daniel Kearney is also a nice option for Kieran Kingston to have on the bench, especially if things open up in the final quarter.

I thought Jamie Barron was Waterford's best player in that loss to Cork, but if he was good on that occasion, he was outstanding when the need was greatest in extra-time against Kilkenny. Having squandered a considerable lead, Barron, more than any other player, wrestled it back for his side. The 1-2 he hit in the opening nine minutes of added time is one of the outstanding cameos in a great hurling summer.

He didn't need to be as good against Wexford three weeks ago, and on that occasion it was his partner, Moran, who delivered the man of the match performance. His willingness and ability to get forward and run at opposing defences is hugely important considering the way Waterford set up. He came out on top in his battle with Michael Fennelly in the Kilkenny match, and the fact that these sides played on the hottest day of the year in June, in punishing conditions, I think accounts for him not having the same influence in that game that he's normally able to wield.

He won't have forgotten that hit from Cooper either, and I think he'll be better today. If he and Barron get on top in this sector, which is likely to be more crowded than the last time they met, it's another positive for Derek McGrath.

Conclusion

One area that I haven't touched on is the form of the respective goalkeepers. Stephen O'Keeffe was outstanding in their last meeting, while at the other end Anthony Nash remains arguably the most important player on the Cork team. His distribution, decision-making and execution have been phenomenal so far.

In that tactical game of poker that is the Cork puck-out strategy, Nash hasn't blinked and the Munster final was a great example. Just when Clare thought they'd figured out a solution, by dropping their wing-forwards deep to cut out the space, and in particular minimise Conor Lehane's influence, they wound up with another, arguably bigger problem. Nash was quite happy and disciplined enough to ping the ball short, from where they launched ball after ball over that bulwark and into the Clare full-back line.

With a sweeper, and far superior aerial prowess in the team than Clare possess, that's something that mightn't bother Waterford. But don't think Cork won't have thought this through as well.

There's no doubt in my mind but that Waterford are the team with the greater scope for improvement from when the sides last met. Cork came into that game off the win over Tipp, Waterford were coming off an 11-week lay-off. It showed. Cork were slicker, sharper, and brought all the physicality, and played with the greater aggression. It's no great surprise they had that edge to their play with Pat Hartnett and Diarmuid O'Sullivan in the backroom team.

They have pace all over the field and are playing with such confidence and momentum, that it's very hard to bet against them. If anything, with its athleticism, this team is built for Croke Park.

Yet, even deprived of the services of Tadhg de Búrca, I have a sneaking feeling Waterford might do it. They were so flat, made so many mistakes and had so many key players playing poorly, especially Gleeson - all things I don't expect to be repeated this afternoon - that you can make a credible case for them to win.

Cork are now the ones coming off the extended break - five weeks without a game. Waterford are the ones coming in battle-hardened. The game won't be played in the same sapping heat; Waterford now know what Coleman, Fitzgibbon, Kingston, Meade and Michael Cahalane off the bench are capable of; and sometimes, the intangibles - the possibility it's Derek McGrath's last game, the hurt from last year, the sense of injustice and wanting to do it for De Búrca - generate such raw emotion, that if it's harnessed the right way, will override everything else.

I think we'll see a different Waterford today. With the leadership and service that 'Brick' and Kevin Moran have given, their team-mates owe them one more shot at the promised land in September.

Neck on the block, I think they'll get it. Waterford by a nose.

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