Saturday 23 September 2017

John Mullane: De Búrca loss can work in Waterford's favour

23 July 2017; Tadhg de Búrca of Waterford is shown a red card by referee Fergal Horgan late in the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Wexford and Waterford at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
23 July 2017; Tadhg de Búrca of Waterford is shown a red card by referee Fergal Horgan late in the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Wexford and Waterford at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

John Mullane

Tadhg de Búrca's absence from tomorrow's All-Ireland semi-final shifts the pressure to Cork. You might recall the 'Semplegate' affair in 2007, and the fallout from that.

Cork were without three suspended men - Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, Donal Óg Cusack and Diarmuid O'Sullivan - for the Munster semi-final, and that affected us as Waterford players.

I can say without hesitation that we felt the pressure to perform that day more than any other.

Cork have dealt with whatever has come their way this summer but this is a new dimension.

Waterford are carrying the hurt of losing one of their key players, as well as semi-final defeats in 2015 and 2016.

I'm expecting that those factors will see the team find another 15-20pc - and that will be good enough to win the game.

On a wider note, something has to change when an amateur player is left in limbo until 1.0 on the Friday morning before such a big game before finally learning his fate.

In 2004, I didn't go through the appeals process, having chosen not to pursue that route after being sent off in the Munster final.

But I'm sure the last couple of weeks have been extremely draining for Tadhg.

I still trained away at the time, in the belief that I would play in a possible All-Ireland semi-final replay, or in the final itself.

Kevin Ryan was a selector at the time and he told me to keep doing what I was doing.

Based on my own experience, it's going to a be tough weekend for Tadhg, and tomorrow will be particularly difficult.

He has to sit through the 70 minutes and I wouldn't wish that on anyone. He'll go through the full range of emotions.

I was sitting alongside the subs against Kilkenny 13 years ago, playing every ball in my head but realising that there was absolutely nothing I could do to influence the game.

But I'd still expect Tadhg to play a key role this weekend. Derek McGrath will have used him at last night's gathering, and he'll be a central figure in the dressing-room before throw-in.

In McGrath, Waterford have the right man in charge to handle the situation - and turn a negative into a positive.

Obviously, Tadhg's absence will result in a reshuffle. I'd expect that Darragh Fives will fill the sweeper role - he performed there during the League - and that leaves a spot up for grabs elsewhere.

Derek could bring in another defender but it's more likely he'll draft in an attacker and ask Kevin Moran to sit deeper.

Waterford's Championship season to date bears similarities to 2008.

Back then, we had a very disappointing defeat in the Munster Championship, against Clare, but regrouped to reach the All-Ireland final.

We met Tipperary in the semi-final; they were reigning Munster champions at the time, like Cork are now.

Tipp were many people's fancy to push on and win the All-Ireland, and while many felt we were coming to the end of our cycle, and had missed the boat in terms of reaching a final, we knew there was one last kick in us.

Having missed out in semi-finals in 2002, '04, '06 and '07, we were back in another one - our third in a row.

And ahead of that game, I recall that we were very relaxed. We felt we had Tipp's number.

We didn't fear them and knew that they, like us, had suffered bad defeats at Croke Park.

Wexford dumped them out in an All-Ireland quarter-final in '07, and in '06, one of our rare Croke Park wins came against Tipp in a quarter-final.

So, it wasn't a draw to be feared, it was a draw to relish and look forward to.

It's the same now with Cork - a team tipped for All-Ireland glory, who have beaten three top sides to get this far.

But something tells me that when Derek and his players heard the pairing, they'll have been quietly satisfied.

Like Tipp in '08, Cork have a sprinkling of new talent, but also players who experienced bad days at Croke Park, like the 2013 All-Ireland final loss, the 2014 semi-final defeat to Tipp and a League mauling against Dublin last year.

Of course, Cork's exciting young guns could take to Croke Park like a duck to water, like the crop of 1999 did.

But Cork's only big-game victory at Croke Park in this decade is their All-Ireland semi-final win against Dublin in 2013 - and that was achieved against 14 men.

There's recent history between Cork and Waterford, dating back to the Munster semi-final in June. Waterford were coming off the back of an 11-week wait for a competitive game and that showed in their performance.

They were cold and gave up far too much green grass in the first half, which allowed Cork to gain a foothold.

Too many players gave below-par performances, the heat was a factor, Austin Gleeson's positioning at corner-forward from the start didn't help, and Darragh Fives didn't feature until the 58th minute.

For most of the second half, Waterford went with one man inside and reverted to the sweeper. But don't be fooled by that because Cork in that second half were still well able to cope, and they have the ammunition to nullify the sweeper.

Waterford need to curb the influence of three Cork players - Anthony Nash, Seamus Harnedy and Mark Coleman.

The primary possession stats from Nash's puck-outs in the Munster final were staggering, and Harnedy is Cork's aerial 'go to' guy in attack.

At left half-back, Coleman set up a lot of play; he a forward's dream when he's in full flow as he delivers the kind of ball that favours an attacker 70-30, or 60-40 at worst.

Previous meetings between these counties have tended to go either way.

But in 2007, we played Cork five times between League and championship, beating them on four occasions and drawing once.

Two years ago, the feeling was that Cork would rebound from the League final and beat Waterford in the Championship - but it didn't happen.

Waterford didn't read that script but Cork will feel they have Waterford's number this year, having won in League and Championship.

It's a huge game for both teams but from a Waterford viewpoint, win and you're in a final and 70 minutes away from the Holy Grail. Lose, however, and a third semi-final defeat on the spin would be a hard pill to swallow.

For Waterford to win, they need to get at Cork from the word go, as the Rebels are extremely difficult to break down when they get ahead.

The big question will arise if they're chasing the game. Is there a plan B to fall back on? The Waterford bench has played a major role in the last two games, and can again, but Cork have weapons to call upon too if required.

It's set up for a humdinger - but Waterford's hurt locker is bursting at the seams and the door needs to be slammed shut.

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