Thursday 8 December 2016

John Mullane: Waterford will always be second-class citizens until we deliver summer victory over the Cats

As a Waterford City boy, I understand the rivalry with Kilkenny better than most but not beating them left a void in my playing career

John Mullane

Published 06/08/2016 | 02:30

Colin Dunford needs to start. Photo: Sportsfile
Colin Dunford needs to start. Photo: Sportsfile

When I was playing with Waterford, the lads from the west of the county couldn't get over the rivalry that the fellas from the city and the east of the county had with Kilkenny.

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It was particularly intense in Ferrybank, which splits the border between Waterford and South Kilkenny.

My grandmother hailed from Glenmore in Kilkenny and I'm related to Michael 'Titch' Phelan, who won All-Ireland medals with the Cats in 1992 and 1993.

It was often thrown at me that I had Kilkenny blood but make no mistake, I'm a true blaa!

I have to say though, not beating Kilkenny in a senior championship game left a huge void in my career, as it did for so many who went before me.

We did get one over on them in the 2007 National League final and that was nice but it would have meant so much more to beat them at the height of summer.

I believe our best chance was back in 2004 but I was suspended for the All-Ireland semi-final.

I was sent off in the Munster final and chose not appeal but I wonder sometimes if I should have because that was a time before Kilkenny became the unstoppable force that dominated the remainder of the decade.

Kilkenny supporters always tell us that while we might beat them in the league now and then, it will a different story at the business end of the season.

Invariably they're right and while I achieved so much in the game, I always yearned for that one moment coming off the field after beating Kilkenny, and the joy it would have brought to so many people in the city.

And it's a bit like soccer - you always want to beat the champions.

I missed out on winning an All-Ireland but my career would still have been more complete had I sampled that winning feeling against Kilkenny.

We're longing for it to happen and when it does, I do think we'll push on and beat them a couple of times. The problem, of course, is that it hasn't happened since 1959 and it's only since 1998 that our paths have crossed on a more frequent basis.

Scratch

It was the same thing again when the lads beat them at Walsh Park in the league earlier this year.

'Ah sure, the grass was too long and playing conditions weren't up to scratch. Wait until the summer.'

And they're right. It's all well and good beating Kilkenny in February but the time to beat them in is in August or September. Until we do that, we'll continue to be viewed as second-class citizens.

The vast majority of pre-match talk has centred on the Waterford system.

The general consensus seems to be that the only way to beat Kilkenny is to go 15 on 15 against them but is that really a true statement?

First of all, we don't know what it's like to beat Kilkenny so how can we say that's the only way?

I've also been looking at some of their more recent defeats. Outside of Cork in 2013, consider that Dublin beat them with a sweeper system that same year and Galway, in the Leinster final in 2012, used Damien Hayes as a third midfielder and swamped the middle third.

In the league semi-final, Clare used a sweeper, played with two inside forwards and used their runners to great effect. And even the Westmeath U-21s who beat Kilkenny played with a sweeper.

When you factor in all of that, I think it's fair to say that Kilkenny don't like playing against a sweeper system and that's why Derek McGrath and his management team will stick with it, and still believe that it's good enough to go toe to toe with Kilkenny. I watched a re-run of last year's All-Ireland semi-final during the week and it really provided me with food for thought.

In the 55th minute, Colin Dunford put over a point to leave Waterford just three behind at the time - 0-17 to 1-17.

At that stage, the only thing separating the two teams was the defensive mix-up in the first half, when Barry Coughlan ran into Tadhg de Búrca and TJ Reid got in for a goal.

In that final quarter, Austin Gleeson had an opportunity to bring it back to two points, and Colin Dunford missed another.

The crowd was behind Waterford, momentum was with them and it could have been a different game had we tagged on an extra point or two.

After watching that game again, I'm convinced that Colin has to start.

I don't care what form he's in or how low his confidence levels are. He scored four points, won two frees that led to scores and could have had another point in the second half.

This is a horses-for-courses game and Croke Park suits Colin. If he isn't playing, and the longer he's on the bench, the happier Brian Cody will be.

Colin's a pace player and the only way that Waterford will beat Kilkenny, if they continue with the sweeper system, is with this commodity, by using the likes of Colin, Shane Bennett, maybe even Stephen Bennett. You need pace and Clare proved that in the league semi-final.

Sure, they played the sweeper system but they also had pace up front.

Waterford must also ensure that Richie Hogan is man-marked. He caused untold damage last year, drifting out and at times being left free.

Fingers crossed that Darragh Fives is fit too because I can see him matching up to Walter Walsh, who has been one of Kilkenny's best players this summer.

After the victory for the U-21s in the Munster Championship, and the senior quarter-final win against Wexford, I have some renewed hope again.

Those few weeks after the Munster final collapse to Tipperary couldn't have worked out any better, really. That defeat is all but flushed from their systems now.

My big concern is our energy levels. Kilkenny have had a five-week break and that could be crucial. There's enough talent in this Waterford team, and I'm writing off the Munster final as a blip, but freshness is the key.

I'm not worried about the system we'll play - the bigger issue is what's left in the tank.

If the energy reserves are high, the work-rate will be there and this system will flow but when those energy levels drop, that's when this system seems to fail, as we saw with that flat performance against Tipperary.

What's going to be very important for Waterford, too, is the concession of goals. If they concede more than two, they're facing an uphill task.

Targeting

Anything less than that, and they're in with a reasonably good chance. Waterford will be targeting 23 or 24 points, maybe a tally of 1-21, as a marker to win this game.

And Derek will home in on those ten or 15 minutes after half-time, that period when Kilkenny come with a surge.

In ways, the build-up reminds me of the 2008 final, low-key and low expectation levels.

It's the exact opposite to the Munster final and supporters now are travelling to Dublin more in hope than harbouring genuine expectations of winning the game. But that will suit Waterford and there's a sell-out due at Croke Park today for the football, with the spotlight falling on that double-bill.

We're 3/1 outsiders, as we were in 2008, but who knows?

Derek will wake up tomorrow morning knowing that if he can end this 57-year hoodoo, he'll leave an ever-lasting legacy.

He's come in for some unfair criticism within the county lately but he's done a remarkable job since taking charge.

Still, he knows he's under pressure. It's a big game and last year I felt it was there for us.

I just hope a similar chance presents itself and that we're brave enough to go for it.

Becoming the first Waterford team to beat Kilkenny in the championship since 1959 would be an incredible feat for Derek and this set of players.

Irish Independent

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