Friday 9 December 2016

John Mullane: Waterford must meet touchline battle head on

McGrath and his Déise troops must bare claws to thwart tactics of Fitzgerald and Cusack dream team

John Mullane

Published 30/05/2016 | 02:30

Tony Kelly, centre, and Shane O’Donnell of Clare, tussles with Waterford’s, from left, Jamie Barron, Barry Coughlan, Darragh Fives and Kevin Moran during the National Hurling League Final replay earlier this month. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Kelly, centre, and Shane O’Donnell of Clare, tussles with Waterford’s, from left, Jamie Barron, Barry Coughlan, Darragh Fives and Kevin Moran during the National Hurling League Final replay earlier this month. Photo: Sportsfile

Waterford must go toe to toe with Clare on and off the pitch next Sunday. Great credit is due to Derek McGrath for how he handled the aftermath of the League final replay. The easy option would have been to criticise the referee but if I’m being critical of Derek and his backroom staff, who have done a superb job to date, it’s that Clare ruled the roost on the touchline in the second game.

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Waterford met that sideline battle head on in the drawn match and while some people might argue that you shouldn’t get involved in sideshows, the best managers of the last 20 years have shown that a nasty side has to come out now and again.

When Liam Sheedy was in charge of Tipperary, he was involved in a touchline spat with Brian Cody in a League game in 2010 and that set up Tipp for an unbelievable year that saw them finish as All-Ireland champions.

Cody has had his battles with former Galway manager Anthony Cunningham and when Ger Loughnane managed Clare, he was the master of touchline mind games.

Cast your mind back to the 1998 Munster final replay when Clare weren’t going to be bullied on the field against Waterford and they certainly weren’t going to back down on the sideline either.

If your manager is setting the tone off the pitch, players can feed off that on it.

In fact, it can be the difference between winning and losing and I firmly believe that how Clare behaved on the sideline in the League final replay helped them get over the line by a point.

I wrote in 2013 that Donal Óg Cusack would have a major say in management and he’s playing an absolute blinder so far as Clare’s coach.

He didn’t go the Gary Neville route with Valencia, instead deciding to serve his time as a coach before he will surely become a manager in his own right in years to come.

And Cusack is so good on match-days that I’m almost convinced Waterford will have to man-mark him on the line.

Drifts

He drifts between both dugouts, making his presence felt, and frequently enters the field of play.

Waterford can’t be worried about picking up €500 fines for pitch encroachments because Clare don’t appear to care about them.

Besides, there are plenty of businessmen in Waterford who would have no problem picking up the tab.

In the drawn League final, Waterford met the challenge of Davy Fitzgerald and Cusack head on but when the sides met in the replay, Waterford had obviously decided that they were not going to engage in any of that. Next Sunday, backing down is not an option.

In the game itself, the match-ups around the pitch will be crucial. Waterford must man-mark Tony Kelly because he and Podge Collins are drifting into their half-back line and not being followed. Derek wants to keep his defensive unit water-tight and is conscious that if players go with Kelly and Collins gaps will appear further back but Kelly is capable of picking you off from 60 or 70 yards. In 2013, Cork deployed Brian Murphy in a man-marking role on Kelly and it worked reasonably well. I’d suggest that Kevin Moran can fulfil a similar role on Sunday.

Similarly, Clare will be looking to man-mark Austin Gleeson or Shane Bennett – and possibly both. I’m sure that Oisín O’Brien will be the man to pick up one of them.

Waterford’s switches worked well in the League final replay, with Patrick Curran closer to goal and Austin playing in a deeper number 11 role. Clare might have won the game but from a positional point of view, I thought Waterford were better.

A fully-fit and firing Maurice Shanahan will be a huge boost to Waterford and the other big question to consider is who plays the sweeper role? Does Derek persist with Tadhg de Búrca or go with Darragh Fives? I’d be inclined to play Darragh as sweeper and have Tadhg at centre-back. I think Waterford are more solid like that and it worked better in the drawn League final with Darragh sweeping and Tadhg at number six.

For all the talk of Davy Fitz and Donal Óg, I firmly believe that the return of Paul Kinnerk has been vital for Clare. He’s the real mastermind here and without him for the last two seasons, Clare failed to function effectively.

It’s no surprise that Clare are unbeaten in 2016 since he returned to the set-up but Waterford have been on their own good run and haven’t lost back-to-back competitive fixtures since the 2014 League campaign.

That’s another reason why there’s so much at stake next Sunday. Win and you’re through to a Munster final and with the added bonus of a passage to the All-Ireland quarter-finals. Lose, and you’re headed for the qualifiers, a route that hasn’t been kind to Clare in 2014 and 2015. They won’t want to go down that road again and if they lose, the doubts could creep in again.

The talk doing the rounds in Waterford centres on a potential revenge mission following the League final but Derek knows better than anybody that it doesn’t work like that. Waterford beat Cork in the League final last year and again in the first round of the championship, despite the fear that the Rebels had an ambush planned.

In my view, Clare are coming into this game in a stronger position.

They’re League champions and can play with a bit more freedom now that they have that title in the bag.

If Clare were to lose, they’re still League champions as they head through the back door but there’s that little bit more pressure on Waterford having lost earlier in the month.

The role of the respective benches will be huge, too. Pauric Mahony and Stephen Bennett are back to bolster Waterford and Derek might hold Tom Devine this time and unleash him on tiring legs with 20 minutes remaining.

It’s going to be very close again, Clare will start as favourites and Waterford have it all to do. But they can set the tone on the touchline right from the start.

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