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Thursday 17 April 2014

John Mullane: There are many years of work riding on this result

Qualifier clash crucial for Waterford but quality of opposition will sharpen minds

Waterford hurling boss Michael Ryan will be aiming to get the county’s Championship campaign back on track next weekend
Waterford hurling boss Michael Ryan will be aiming to get the county’s Championship campaign back on track next weekend

IF Waterford lose to Offaly in Saturday's All-Ireland qualifier, it will be a disaster. I was not as confident about our chances before the Clare game but I do think we will get through a difficult assignment in Tullamore – provided players' heads are in the right place and management pick the correct team.

I don't even want to contemplate defeat because it would be so damaging for the players from a mental perspective.

We have fallen further behind Limerick and Clare in the Munster pecking order and we do not need to go any lower. This is Waterford's biggest game since the Justin McCarthy era, when knockout games were regularly described as our last chance to win an All-Ireland.

Up to now, Waterford manager Michael Ryan has not come under any considerable amount of pressure because people accepted there was a certain air of transition hovering over the team since Davy Fitzgerald's departure.

They were written off and viewed as underdogs in many games but the honeymoon period is over and this is a high-pressure situation, a must-win game. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the past 10 or 12 years of work and progress are riding on this result. But I do believe that drawing Offaly will have sharpened Deise minds.

They know the magnitude of the task having seen how well Offaly did against Kilkenny. But this is a new challenge for the Faithful County.

They now have to live with raised expectations from inside and outside of the county. Have Offaly already produced their best form of the season? We will soon find out.

STRESSING

Defensively, Ollie Baker will be stressing the importance of not giving away scoreable frees and I am expecting much-improved performances from Shane Dooley and Ciaran Slevin in attack. The return of Daniel Currams – who scored a goal when he came on against Kilkenny – will help too.

Latest indications from the Waterford camp suggest that Kevin Moran is set for a switch to midfield, with Darragh Fives dropping to wing-back. I also understand that Waterford are considering a return to a more traditional ball-winning half-forward line, made up of Seamus Prendergast, Maurice Shanahan and Shane O'Sullivan.

This could be a mistake because more mobile, crafty runners can be more advantageous against like-for-like opposition. I experienced the qualifier route three times in my career, in 2005, 2006 and 2008, when we reached the All-Ireland final through the back door.

You would much rather be getting ready for a Munster final than touring the country and travelling to difficult venues. But that is the situation in which we find ourselves and if Waterford do lose, they'll exit the championship in June for the first time since 2001, the final year of the old pre-qualifier system.

O'Connor Park is a tough venue to get a result in and Offaly will really fancy their chances. They were very physical against Kilkenny and will bring that to the table again.

Offaly will feel that a similar performance will give them a great chance of beating Waterford but this is a game that we can win – and must not lose. Tipperary find themselves in a similar boat as they look to regroup following the setback against Limerick. For me, this was another classic case of over-analysis in the aftermath of a defeat.

Tipp have some brilliant hurlers and the harsh and unfair criticism directed at Eamon O'Shea could rebound on pundits. It is time for the players to drive it on now. The trust in the manager may be huge but the reality is that the players have to stand up and be counted on the field.

With O'Shea on the line, players subconsciously believe 'ah, we're okay, Eamon will sort it out.' But I am still backing Tipp to reinvent themselves.

They will need Eoin Kelly on the field from the start – for sheer presence alone. Lar Corbett will return in attack too and with some tinkering in defence they are still my tip to contest an All-Ireland final. There is a big call to be made with captain Shane McGrath, whose form is a worry.

There is a huge clamour to drop him but I wouldn't do that. Instead, I would reposition McGrath at wing-back, where he played during his time at Limerick IT. McGrath also played there against Offaly in a challenge match in January. The big positive for Tipperary eight days ago was John O'Dwyer – and he is sure to start.

After a championship defeat, criticism and a certain amount of bloodletting is inevitable. But Tipp can use this to create a siege mentality and if the old saying that teams learn more from defeat than victory rings true, this is where astute management will prove vital.

Banner have the class to seize on Cork problems

I ruffled Cork feathers in April when I claimed that their team was going nowhere after losing the league relegation play-off to Clare.

I stand by that view and I expect Clare to claim a fourth victory of the year against the Rebels in Sunday's Munster semi-final.

I just can't see how Cork are going to win, especially with Paudie O'Sullivan (above) out, Lorcan McLoughlin unlikely to make it and doubts surrounding Pa Cronin's availability.

Clare will push on from their victory over Waterford, when they showed what they can do in the second half.

Cork have to be wary of Clare's short sideline balls but in Michael Cussen, the Leesiders do have a forward capable of causing problems for the Clare full-back line, as Maurice Shanahan did at times under high ball last time out.

Davy Fitzgerald had a brilliant record against Cork as a player and he's unbeaten against them as a manager.

I expect that run to continue and the big question I'd ask Cork fans is how many of the current side would get on the teams that won the 2004 and 2005 All-Irelands?

Maximum of three or four I would argue.

I'm anticipating a big performance from Clare forward Conor McGrath, who was quiet against Waterford, and Tony Kelly should continue his rich vein of form.

With Tipp out of the equation, it's a big chance for these two teams to reach a Munster final and once you get back into winning mode and contesting for trophies, it gives you every opportunity to push on for bigger things.

Victory brings Dublin scant reward

DUBLIN need massive improvement if they're going to compete with Kilkenny in next Sunday's Leinster semi-final. It will be their third game in three weeks and they're coming off the back of two physical matches against Wexford. The good thing is that they won't be as hyped up as they were last year and you might see Anthony Daly coming up with a ploy to keep Kilkenny at bay.

He could do what Tipp did in the league final and drop an extra man back to midfield. He'll want to keep it tight early as Dublin conceded two goals in 10 first-half minutes against Kilkenny last year.

Despite losing, Wexford will grow and I'd expect them to beat Antrim and Carlow in the qualifiers. But the back-door system doesn't make any sense to me. There's no real reward for Dublin because if they lose to Kilkenny, they're going to play Tipperary or the losers of Cork-Clare. That's just to get to where Wexford will be if they beat Antrim and Carlow. Wexford players know they can push for at least three more championship games.

As for Galway, scrambling past Laois hardly represents ideal preparation ahead of a Leinster final. But it's another clear indication of the progress Laois are making under Seamus Plunkett. I suspect waiting around so long for a championship game may have affected Galway and they'll have to improve significantly for the provincial decider.

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