Sunday 26 February 2017

Davy's chronic back trouble

Fitzgerald still struggling to get to grips with fatal flaw in Deise's defensive make-up

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

It is a rare sight to see a goalkeeper being called ashore in a championship match unless injury has dictated otherwise.

But six minutes from the end of Sunday's Munster final, the No 1 was pressed on the digital board and hoisted by the fourth official to signal the end of Brendan Cummins' involvement in his 14th Munster final.

It was a bow to Cummins on the day that he matched the great Christy Ring's record of 65 championship appearances and with such daylight between the teams at that stage -- they led by 6-17 to 0-16 -- it was something that Tipperary could afford to do.

For Waterford, however, it was the ultimate insult once again -- even if such moves are never designed to be that way.

The last time a goalkeeper was hauled out of a game of such profile was on their watch too, when Brian Cody sent James McGarry on for his last game of a long career in place of PJ Ryan in the 2008 All-Ireland final.

sentimental

Like the withdrawal of Cummins on Sunday, the introduction of McGarry back then was a sentimental touch to involve the crowd in a show of appreciation for the long-serving Kilkenny goalkeeper in his last game.

As one of the modern-day great goalkeepers himself, Davy Fitzgerald would have understood the significance of the move more than anyone else in Pairc Ui Chaoimh last Sunday.

It will surely have been a point Fitzgerald will have sought to reinforce when he gathered his troops in Dungarvan's Fraher Field for a 9.0 debriefing yesterday morning.

One of many points he will have felt compelled to reinforce.

Fitzgerald has often been accused in his short management career of trying to complicate a game that needs no complication. The desire to strategise has been reflected in the way he often set up his Waterford teams with a heavy defensive hue.

Fitzgerald isn't the first coach to deploy sweepers and deeper half-forwards, but it has become the mark of the way his teams have played since assuming control from Justin McCarthy in 2008.

On Sunday, however, there were no such tactical ploys. Waterford went man-for-man with Tipperary and lost almost every battle. The irony was that never before did they need to flood their defence with as many bodies.

On the day, it would have been a perfectly acceptable tactic given the force of the opponent they faced -- an attack that had rammed in 20 goals in their previous seven championship games since drawing a blank against Cork in May 2010.

Better to lose by seven points than seven goals maybe?

Privately, Fitzgerald may be disappointed he didn't stick to his guns on that one and site Eoin McGrath further back away from the marauding influence of Padraic Maher.

To be fair, the full-back position is a problem he inherited and remains a problem that he hasn't managed to solve.

McCarthy had gone through countless options and for his last game against Clare in the Munster quarter-final in 2008 -- Kevin Moran was his final attempt to fight the fire.

In Fitzgerald's first game, the desire to be radical in his approach saw him place Ken McGrath at full-back against Antrim and the practice continued in a subsequent qualifier against Offaly and an All-Ireland quarter-final against Wexford.

But McGrath himself felt uncomfortable with the challenge and for the All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary, Declan Prendergast, who had brought some stability there for much of 2007, was back in harness.

Prendergast played the next six games at full-back until the 2009 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kilkenny when injury ruled him out and Aidan Kearney stood in.

By last year, Fitzgerald had turned to Liam Lawlor to guard the pathway to goal and Lawlor played in all four championship games, including the two Munster finals against Cork when he was replaced by Jamie Nagle on both occasions.

But Lawlor's credentials have waned since last year's All-Ireland semi-final and over the spring it looked like Wayne Hutchinson was being groomed to fill the No 3 spot. Hutchinson's championship shelf life there was short, however, and with 20 minutes remaining Fitzgerald had switched back Michael Walsh to repel the very clear threat from Kevin Downes.

Having to switch 'Brick' Walsh to full-back and deploy him there again from the start last Sunday was a quiet acknowledgment that Waterford had finally run out of options for their persistent trouble spot.

With clever rotation, 'Brick' was never allowed to settle and he was consistently dragged out of position by John O'Brien. For Seamus Callanan's goal, engineered by Patrick Maher's pick-up and offload, there wasn't a Waterford defender within 40 metres of Clinton Hennessy. Chaos.

Yet, by following O'Brien, Walsh was doing exactly what he didn't do at centre-back against Noel McGrath in last year's All-Ireland semi-final; a tactic for which Fitzgerald was subsequently panned. Right now, he'll feel he's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't in Waterford.

The lesson from last Sunday, for Waterford, is that hurling remains an inherently simple game not bound up in the ropes and knots that some see.

In the first half alone last Sunday, Tipperary delivered 14 long balls directly into their full-forward line and reaped the dividends.

For three of the first-half goals, Tipperary midfielder Gearoid Ryan chose not even to look before he despatched deliveries into the danger zone trusting that those inside would do the rest. They did, spectacularly so.

Restoring confidence in Waterford will be a challenge after the trauma of such a heavy defeat, but, pride being what it is, Galway are sure to feel the full force of an imminent backlash. That's the nature of sport.

The fissures in the full-back line face just as much exposure the next day, however, against a rejuvenated Joe Canning and Damien Hayes. But the problems of an uncompetitive midfield and half-forward line are just as relevant to last Sunday.

For now, Waterford have to just hope that, like Kilkenny three years ago, they met Tipperary at the very peak of their powers. But crisis management hasn't been a strength and will ultimately hasten Fitzgerald's return to Clare.

Irish Independent

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