Wednesday 21 February 2018

Cyril Farrell: Now more than ever Waterford must stay loyal to the approach they know best

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody during the Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final match against Galway. Photo: Sportsfile
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody during the Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final match against Galway. Photo: Sportsfile

Cyril Farrell

When Derek McGrath rolled out his vision for how he wanted Waterford to play last year, he left a sizeable chunk of the county behind him - initially at least.

They didn't like what they saw. A beefed-up defence, an under-manned attack and a crowded midfield wasn't regarded as the Waterford way.

McGrath was on his own, apart from the squad who obviously bought into his plan. For McGrath's sake, it had to work. A few early setbacks would have brought the wrath of the disgruntled down on him. Plus, of course, it would have raised doubts among the players, leaving him with the worst of both worlds - a bewildered squad and an unhappy following.

McGrath's plan worked. By May last year, they were league champions and while they later lost to Tipperary and Kilkenny in the championship, the year was seen as a success, the start of a solid work-in-progress.

Naturally, expectations grew. The squad continued to grow with them, even if they were edged out by Clare in the league final replay last May, a defeat they avenged in the championship a month later.

So up until they played Tipperary in the Munster final last month, Waterford hadn't taken a really heavy hit since undergoing the restructure.

Then came the crash as Tipperary ripped them apart. Suddenly, McGrath's tactics were back in a critical spotlight.

It wasn't dimmed by the win over Wexford - indeed the calls have continued for McGrath to overhaul his entire approach for tomorrow's game.

I doubt very much if he will do that. Nor should he because changing on a whim at this stage could prove disastrous.

The most important follow-up to any defeat is to hold your nerve. Otherwise, you take a shot in the dark and, more often than not, you will be the one taken out.

Whether you are a supporter or a critic of McGrath's approach, this is no time for dwelling on it. Waterford are in a semi-final off a structure they have applied for 18 months so it would be reckless to change it too much against any opposition, let alone Kilkenny.

Teams have enough problems against Kilkenny without playing a game that's alien to them. No, this is a time for Waterford to remain loyal to what they have been doing. Obviously, some tweaks can be applied, such as playing with one sweeper and five forwards rather than leaving three or four forwards up front on their own.

Far more important than making tactical adjustments is the need for a lift in individual performances.

Waterford's touch and timing were way off in the Munster final, making it easy for Tipperary to launch an ambush. Predictably, Waterford's approach came under attack afterwards, which was an easy cop-out by those who didn't like it in the first place.

It's like blaming the car rather than the driver when it goes off the road.

If Waterford were to deviate too much from what they have been doing for the past 18 months, I suspect they would be swamped by Kilkenny.

If you are to have any chance of beating Kilkenny, you must be working off what you know inside-out, so that it comes naturally, even the pressure is at its highest.

Try something you're not familiar with and watch your ambitions disappear in a black-and-amber stampede.

Despite Waterford's wipe-out in the Munster final, they are not without a chance tomorrow.

Obviously, Wexford aren't as good as Kilkenny but Waterford created around 40 chances against them, 21 of which they converted into points, which showed their basics were functioning normally again.

Given how Kilkenny performed in the second half of the Leinster final, it's easy to classify it as 'business as usual' performance but the truth is that they were very ordinary for much of the first half.

Their supporters tend to dismiss that sort of thing nowadays, pointing out that it's always followed by a big second half.

But what happens when the opposition not only retain their first-half momentum but build on it? It can, and will, happen someday.

If Waterford are to put themselves in a position to win tomorrow, they have to do it from the front.

They saw how Galway rattled Kilkenny in the first half, something Waterford need to replicate because if you fall behind against Brian Cody's boys, you'll only see their tail lights for the rest of the game. The interesting thing is that if Waterford were to open up a five- or six-point lead, they are well-suited to protecting it.

Kilkenny's status as the most powerful force in hurling for so long is probably worth three points to them in terms of their own confidence and opposition doubts.

That's quite an advantage, especially when they have so much power to go with it.

One aspect which Waterford must get right in their undermanned attack is who they allow to become the Kilkenny sweeper. It's vital for them to prevent Paul Murphy filling that role because he reads the play very well and is also excellent at pinging accurate deliveries.

The winners? I expect to see the Waterford of pre-Munster final day, complete with high energy and a determination to rattle into Kilkenny. That should make it very competitive but, as I've said, Kilkenny's stature gives them a three-point start. It could be close to the winning margin too.

Irish Independent

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