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Rocky road awaits Dubs in Waterford

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 Dublin manager Anthony Daly. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Dublin manager Anthony Daly. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Dublin manager Anthony Daly. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

ON such tiny margins are potential league winners separated from relegation play-off patsies. League points? Level. Scoring difference? Level. Scores for? Advantage Tipp. Toss of a coin? Advantage Waterford.

And disadvantage, on both counts, Dublin.

Anthony Daly must feel the fates have suddenly conspired against his reigning Leinster hurling champions.

Their form graph this spring, in keeping with many of their Division 1A rivals, has resembled a rollercoaster ride through epic highs and stomach-churning lows. Yet they have shown enough quality on home turf – defeating the last two All-Ireland champions – to suggest that survival should have been achievable without recourse to a relegation play-off.

Instead, that is the hurdle they must now cross against Waterford. And the fence has been raised considerably by yesterday's coin toss for home advantage, which sees the game fixed for Walsh Park this Sunday (throw-in 3.30).

Dublin had already been disadvantaged this spring (compared to three of their top-flight rivals) by having just two home games from five.

On that basis, they would have been guaranteed the partisan benefits of Parnell or even Croke Park if their next opponents had already played three rounds at home. Waterford, though, had travelled for three of their five outings; hence the coin toss, a fickle flick of fate that has transformed the landscape of this tie.

"It's an even bigger game than any quarter-final, to be honest with you," Daly admitted in Thurles, having watched his team suffer a three-point defeat to Tipperary when a two-point loss would have parachuted them into a league quarter-final instead.

Dalo's declaration was made in a venue vacuum. Ditto with Derek McGrath's debatable claim, after Sunday's capitulation to Kilkenny, that home advantage was not a "huge factor at all" this Sunday, despite all the trends of this year's league.

LOCATION

On Sunday, the Waterford manager initiated the play-off mind games by suggesting his team would be "3/1 or 4/1" with Paddy Power to win the game. By yesterday afternoon, however, when the venue was confirmed, they were only 5/4 – and evens, according to Boylesports.

But is it really all about location, location, location in this year's hurling league? Well, the stats don't lie: The 15 regulation matches played in 1A yielded 13 home wins, one draw (between Clare and Galway) and a solitary away win (for Clare against Tipp).

So, statistically, the odds are against Dublin. Historically, they're facing a mountain too ... by a strange fixture-making quirk, their last four league meetings with the Déise have all been on Waterford soil and the running total reads one draw and three home wins.

In 2010, Kevin Moran ran amok as Waterford crushed Daly's men by 4-13 to 0-12 in Walsh Park. A year later, at the same venue, Conal Keaney's small ball comeback yielded defiant deadlock (3-16 to 2-19) and arguably set the wheels in motion for Dublin's historic ascent to the 2011 league summit.

In 2012, the match was played in Dungarvan and Dublin were already destined for a relegation play-off – hence an experimental line-up that lost by 0-17 to 0-13. Earlier this month, with Walsh Park playing like a sticky toffee pudding, a low-scoring war of attrition finished 1-13 to 1-10 in favour of the hosts. So, for Dublin to retain their 1A status, they must buck that recent head-to-head trend.

They must also defy a more general league trend: Since Daly took the Sky Blue helm for the 2009 season, Dublin have won 50pc of their home league games (nine out of 18), but just one-third of their road trips (six out of 18). All things considered, then, is Walsh Park really such bad news for the moody Blues? Well, historically yes; statistically yes; but in terms of momentum, no.

That is the one factor clearly in Dublin's favour: This game comes at a time of defensive chaos, and maybe a crisis of confidence too, for a Waterford team that has gone from Scrooge-like to sieve-like in a matter of weeks. For the first three league rounds, they were conceding 1-13 on average ... whereas against Clare and Kilkenny (who amassed 9-40 between them) that figure had risen to over 4-21. All of which would be bad enough if the Waterford forwards had countered with a scoring upsurge of their own – they haven't.

For all Waterford's recent traumas, however, they will hope that home comforts can reignite their stuttering campaign.

Their two earlier home clashes this spring, against Galway and Dublin, resulted in back-to-back wins. Whereas Dublin have lost all three of their road trips, albeit in contrasting fashion.

DEBACLE

Day one in Galway was an unmitigated debacle. Day two in Waterford was a sizeable improvement on Salthill in terms of attitude and intensity; but for all the perspiration there was a dearth of inspiration, especially when you consider how 15 Dubs struggled to score against 14 Déise men for most of the second half. Day three in Tipp constituted another improvement on Walsh Park but yielded the same end product. Nada.

The infuriating part is that these defeats sandwiched two very impressive home victories against Clare and Kilkenny, prompting Danny Sutcliffe to admit, in frustrated tones, after the latter: "The big thing with us is we're hot and cold, and that inconsistency isn't going to do us any favours."

Now Dublin crave a different type of inconsistency: Beating bad habits by winning on the road.


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