Sunday 18 March 2018

Vincent Hogan: Rampant Déise explode myth that use of sweeper is ultra-defensive

Waterford manager Derek McGrath running up the sideline after the incident in which Luke Meade (Cork No 15) clashed with Austin Gleeson (not in picture) and had his helmet removed. Photo: Sportsfile
Waterford manager Derek McGrath running up the sideline after the incident in which Luke Meade (Cork No 15) clashed with Austin Gleeson (not in picture) and had his helmet removed. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Piety curled up and died in the big house yesterday and not a second before time.

The theory that, short of witchcraft or sorcery, teams deploying sweepers were guilty of self-sabotage met a cold, revisioning wind, Waterford running up the kind of figures that pitched them down the dressing-room tunnel afterwards, grinning like diners with stomachs distended from a free buffet.

How on earth does a team, supposedly, pre-occupied with containment accumulate 4-19?

The arithmetic makes a mockery of what Derek McGrath has been having preached in his direction. He sits before us, sighing heavily now, every gesture communicating a kind of inexpressible weariness. The human instinct must be to settle a few scores here, but that's not the energy that flows through him.

Nobody else in hurling talks more beautifully about this wild, ungovernable game that can become such a living, breathing organism before our eyes. Yet nobody else in hurling feels the need to explain himself so relentlessly either.

The charge against him seems to run something along the lines of rinsing personality from a showtime troupe, from a team that's been reared from the cradle to pull laughs from the sky. Think about that.

It's been a curious thing this summer to observe the virtual denigration of any strict adherents to system and structure even though everything Waterford have done these last four years has been predicated on use of a sweeper. It's transported them back to relevance.


But that's not been enough for the Bolero-seeking cognoscenti.

They want hurling that makes time stop. Dinner-jacketed elegance that lifts the game above any prescriptive attention to match-ups and space congestion. Put another way, they want Waterford to be Cork.

If it isn't always a shoot-out, if the aesthetics of the game don't set something tip-toeing up and down your spine, apparently it's just wasted, vulgar energy. Even among his own, McGrath has found himself listening to ugly grumbles.

Yet here he sits now, peacable as a man who's heard nothing this summer but birdsong.

His left hand has a circled figure five inked onto the knuckles and, in mid-sentence, he reaches for a bottle of water to rinse the sand from his throat. Waterford have just out-run Cork in front of 72,022 breathless customers and the reasons have little enough to do with art or whimsy.

They won because they would not countenance defeat. Because, physically, they barrelled into an elegant young team with such homicidal will that the game, pretty quickly, found a rhythm of their unromantic choice.

It had been the early hours of Friday morning when McGrath embraced Tadhg de Búrca outside the Louis Fitzgerald Hotel in Dublin and made a promise that, deep down, he knew had shaky provenance. "We'll be in the All-Ireland final," he told De Búrca, all avenues of appeal against his one-game suspension now, finally, exhausted. Later that day, he would visit De Búrca's parents in Clashmore, seeking to reassure them that their son remained central to everything they now sought from within. The number inked onto his hand yesterday, had been inked onto the hands of team-mates too.

"I know things like that seem a bit gimmicky and that, but that's what we're about," he says flatly now. "One hundred per cent, Tadhg was central to our motivation. We spoke about it as a group Friday night, we spoke about it as a group today. And we weren't sure whether we should because you're dealing with a young lad who, I won't say he's reserved, but he's just everything that we feel we're trying to be as a team."

Had it been a distraction?

"I don't think there's ever a distraction in trying to do the right thing," he says emphatically.

Two months ago against Cork in Thurles, they'd - essentially - been outgunned by the fearlessness of youth. This time, whatever the small print, that wouldn't be repeated. There was an aggression to Waterford that starkly re-drew the co-ordinates of the battle. And they made smart moves, putting 'Brick' Walsh on young Mark Coleman and welding Conor Gleeson to Conor Lehane. Two Cork men who woke yesterday in the running for Hurler of the Year, yet may struggle now for All-Stars.

It was epic and elemental and, on occasion, fractious and Waterford's soaring dander may now cost Gleeson and his namesake, Austin, All-Ireland places for separate intemperate moments. Both were avoidable, yet Waterford may feel they had to walk that tightrope to subdue the murderous elegance in Cork.

"The one thing we tried to do was the flatness that was evident in June ... the lads made a promise to themselves," explains McGrath. "That there'd be a good level of aggression, you know that we weren't going to go gently into the night."

And, even in De Búrca's absence, the sweeper was never going to be forsaken. Darragh Fives filled in for De Búrca during the early stages of the National League and, as was witnessed yesterday, had an understanding of the role that shut out worry.

It's true, until Damien Cahalane's second yellow, the game was on a knife-edge and it's also true that, had Waterford lost, McGrath's way would have met the same, old malevolent commentary.


"I suppose the sextet of Cork forwards, Tipp forwards and Galway forwards, they take minding," he explains unnecessarily now. "So there's certain things you have to try and be able to do, to be pragmatic enough to make it suit you. But I thought we brought a level of passion that we didn't bring the last day."

That passion was writ large on the line too, where big Dan and 'The Rock' were jumpy as barefooted men who kept stepping on hot coals. Once, the referee warned that they were closing in on two seats in the stand.

No matter, it ended with handshakes and smiles, the manly camaraderie encapsulated by a warm exchange on the line between Jamie Barron and Cork manager Kieran Kingston. We try, of course, to stoke the fires of philosophical difference on the basis of a throwaway remark about sweepers credited to Galway captain David Burke, but McGrath meets it with cold water.

He talks instead about marking Micheál Donoghue in the 1992 All-Ireland minor final. "I wasn't taken off but I don't know how I wasn't". Just not his way to name-call now as Waterford look to cross the summit for the first time in 58 years. "Look, you'll probably get a different song on 'Up for the Match' which is a bonus!" he grins.

A good hurling man with a conscience now crystal clear.

Irish Independent

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