Monday 16 January 2017

John Mullane: This Waterford team is maturing fast and they’ll learn from Croker classic

Colossal display should have seen McGrath's men through to final but Semple Stadium will suit for replay

John Mullane

Published 08/08/2016 | 02:30

Gleeson and Pauric Mahony (pictured) were immense for Waterford. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Gleeson and Pauric Mahony (pictured) were immense for Waterford. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Colossal. That's the word I'd use to describe that Waterford performance. The natural feeling this morning is one of disappointment that we couldn't close it out and that we're not looking forward to a final but I'm massively proud of those players and management.

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It was a stunning game, exhilarating, and you've got to give Derek McGrath credit because he got everything spot on.

I was surprised they elected to ditch the sweeper system but then again, nothing surprises me when it comes to Derek and his backroom staff. We won't realise their true worth until they're gone.

You could see how disappointed he was after the game that they hadn't got over the line but there's no better man to lift them again.

There's been so much talk about systems failure post-Tipperary, and it would have been easy for Derek to say 'I'm going to stick to my guns' but he changed it up and the element of surprise caught Kilkenny.

The positioning of Austin Gleeson at No 11 was massive and they left three players inside for the majority of the game.

Rotation

What impressed me was the rotation of the forwards, and the backs stood tall. Richie Hogan did hit us for a few scores in the first half but generally it was placed balls from TJ Reid that kept Kilkenny ticking over.

We out-muscled Kilkenny for 60-65 minutes of that game but they're true champions. Any other team would have thrown in the towel but they kept going until the end, kept fighting and got their rewards with a draw.

Eoin Larkin made a big difference when he came on, played very deep and impacted on a day when it wasn't really happening for the Kilkenny forwards, bar Richie in the first half and TJ on the frees.

Back in that league fixture in February, Waterford laid down a marker with victory at Walsh Park. It was a statement of intent - 'we're going toe to toe with you in the physical stakes'.

We saw it then and we saw it yesterday. Gleeson and Pauric Mahony were immense for Waterford.

While the wides count was down significantly, we missed a couple of bad ones near the end.

I heard talk after the game of Waterford retreating into their shell late on but I don't think that was orchestrated or pre-planned in any way. If you have a lead and you see the finishing line, your natural instinct is to retreat and defend.

The majority of pundits will feel that it's Kilkenny's replay now, when you consider that they've lost just one in the championship with Cody in charge.

But this Waterford team is growing and maturing. They'll have learned an awful lot from this.

They were gutted at the end, you could see it as bodies slumped on the turf, but it was the same after the league final, another game they should have won but didn't.

But they'll dust themselves down, focus on recovery today and Derek will drill it into them that they can now go toe to toe with Kilkenny.

Still, the fear is that there's more room for improvement in Kilkenny. They'll be really disappointed with how they played but I remain optimistic ahead of next Saturday.

Kilkenny are coming to Thurles, to Munster, and they're being taken out of their comfort zone. I think Croke Park is always worth a couple of points to Kilkenny but Semple Stadium could be worth a couple of points to Waterford.

Let's not forget that when Kilkenny last played a championship match in Thurles, they lost to Cork in 2013, and needed extra-time against Waterford at the same venue in their previous outing.

I always found it to be a big, wide and open field, and the Waterford players will be more accustomed to it than Kilkenny.

And I firmly believe it's a big plus for us. The key is to get into a winning position again because when we go ahead of teams, we're hard to peg back. When Waterford are chasing a game, that's when the gaps open up.

I found it quite strange that Richie Hogan was in full-forward for large periods of the second half. I'm not one to question Cody but why would you switch him when he's scored four points at centre-forward? A strange one but maybe it was because TJ Reid had picked up a yellow card on Barry Coughlan and he wanted to avoid a situation where TJ might be sent off.

There's thinking ahead for both managers. I don't know if Darragh Fives will be fit but as referenced previously, Conor Gleeson is a player I have a lot of time for and I thought he was excellent on his full championship debut.

Deliver

I had called for Colin Dunford's inclusion on Saturday but it was one of those days for Colin. That can happen but I wouldn't rule out a big impact from this guy on Saturday. If he still believes in himself and management stick with him, he could deliver the goods.

I wasn't too far off the mark when I suggested that a score of 1-21 would win the game for Waterford, or 23/24 scores. Funnily enough, it was Kilkenny who scored 1-21 and we scored 0-24.

Finally, a word on that equalising point from Conor Fogarty. What leadership that was. I thought Jamie Barron had the better of their battle but Fogarty showed incredible bravery to go for it - and then Paul Murphy had a chance to win the game.

I thought it was going to be the League final replay all over again but no disrespect to Paul, if the ball is going to fall to an opposition player that late in the game, you'd hope it's a corner-back - unless his name is Domhnall O'Donovan.

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