Saturday 16 November 2019

Comment: Would Duignan or Shefflin 'go for it' and risk a mauling?

It may not be pretty but Fitzgerald and McGrath set up the way they do to avoid maulings of days past

Davy Fitzgerald shakes hands with Michael Duignan and (inset) Henry Shefflin and Michael Duignan
Davy Fitzgerald shakes hands with Michael Duignan and (inset) Henry Shefflin and Michael Duignan
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

It was an hour and 10 minutes after the final whistle had put them out of their misery before the latch of the Waterford dressing room in Nowlan Park was pushed down and players began to file out, heads bowed.

They had taken a filleting from the reigning league champions Kilkenny earlier, a 4-22 to 0-14 loss in their final regulation league game in 2014 that pushed them into a relegation play-off with Dublin that they would subsequently lose.

Having shipped 5-18 to All-Ireland champions Clare in their previous league game, it brought to 9-40 their concession over 140 minutes-plus.

The conversation in that dressing-room, McGrath would later recall, had been frank and they were hurting.

"When you come out here you're representing your county, you're representing your families and your clubs and you don't want to be beaten in the fashion we were beaten," said McGrath in the immediate aftermath.

But of greater significance to that extended spell of Kilkenny hospitality was the fundamental discussion of what direction they would be taking. What kind of team did they want to be? Hard to beat or eager to please?

McGrath and Dan Shanahan knew where they wanted to go but that afternoon in Nowlan Park gave them the conviction to follow their instincts.

The scars of their seven-goal concession to Tipperary in the Munster final three years earlier - when ironically Davy Fitzgerald was manager - were re-opened over those weekends as Waterford hurling got a reminder that sometimes they are still cannon fodder to the big boys. That evening they settled on their future route.

An aerial view from above Pairc Ui Chaoimh as Waterford win a
free in the first-half while Wexford have 13 men in their own half
An aerial view from above Pairc Ui Chaoimh as Waterford win a free in the first-half while Wexford have 13 men in their own half

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Twelve of the 18 players used that day featured in Páirc Uí Chaoimh last Sunday as a third successive All-Ireland semi-final place was booked.

At the heart of their progress in each of the three seasons has been that hard-to-beat philosophy featuring Tadhg de Búrca in a sweeping role and congestion in the middle third, where fast-breaking players like Jamie Barron can thrive.

It didn't happen overnight and it took a season in Division 1B to fine-tune it.

They won the league and reached the 2015 Munster final with a 10-match unbeaten run predicated on mean defence manned virtually by the same eight players.

When they were hit for five goals in last year's Munster final it re-inforced McGrath's belief that their style of play best suits their personnel and while they deviated somewhat in the All-Ireland semi-finals against Kilkenny it remains what they are clearly most comfortable with.

By the time McGrath was in place in Waterford, Fitzgerald was already an All-Ireland winning manager. Their use of a sweeper was more discreet in his earlier years but at the back end of his time in charge it was embedded in their play.

What was largely successful for him in Clare was naturally going to be deployed by him in Wexford and in Shaun Murphy it was evident, even when they played their first competitive game in the Walsh Cup against UCD in January, that they had the perfect fit for it.

Wexford had suffered under the weight of a Kilkenny goal rush, five in their 2015 Nowlan Park Leinster semi-final.

On Sunday Murphy played the role perfectly, as an outlet for Mark Fanning's puck-outs and as a screen behind his defence to head off any prospect of breaking Waterford runners pouncing on loose ball.

When any of his colleagues were wrapped up in a web of Waterford tacklers he was there, poised like a scrum-half, ready to receive and clear behind them.

For the Waterford goal he got too close to Shane Bennett after Eoin Moore's stray pass was intercepted and Kevin Moran had enough space to squeeze a shot home. The positioning was only slightly out but the difference it made was hugely significant.

Fitzgerald likes the comfort of a player like Murphy providing those three facets of play.

De Búrca tends to contest for possession more, hence some of those breathtaking catches in the second-half, as Wexford deliveries carried too much weight.

When two systems like it collide the product inevitably suffers with less aerial contests and far fewer goal opportunities that have that edge-of-the-seat feel. Páirc Uí Chaoimh certainly didn't have that feel on Sunday like Thurles, when Waterford ended 58 years of Kilkenny dominance over them, 15 days earlier.

Fitzgerald's dismissal of Michael Duignan and Henry Shefflin's criticisms of last Sunday's match, on the basis that they haven't managed at the level of he is at, brought to mind Gary Neville's response to Jurgen Klopp when the German questioned Neville's suitability to provide analysis when he had failed with his judgment of players during a brief spell managing Valencia.

"I'm not a good chef but I know a good steak," retorted Neville.

On the basis of their playing careers, their palates know the difference between rib-eye and fillet and while the Masterchef kitchen may not be their place, their credentials as testers are surely beyond reproach. If comment that Fitzgerald respects is restricted to ex-managers, the hurling world will become a quiet place.

But in management having different dynamics at play and the collision of the need for pragmatism against entertainment will always be prevalent for those with less of a historical pedigree, just as it has been in Gaelic football.

Jim McGuinness railed against similar criticisms of his Donegal team in 2011 but their style was a building block to how they would dominate a year later.

Faced with the same playing pool as Fitzgerald especially, would Duignan, Shefflin or anyone else in their first year choose to 'go for it' and risk being opened up or stay in games for as long as they can, just as they did on Sunday.

Waterford are at a different stage of development but having De Búrca loose represents their most tried and tested method and what they are most comfortable with.

It's not the most palatable sight and neither Fitzgerald nor McGrath are compelled to act as guardians of the game. Sometimes the rawness of a previous experience dictates an approach.



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