Friday 23 March 2018

Henry Shefflin: Kilkenny were bullied last can be sure it won't happen again

Brian Cody will demand that all his players win their individual battles in replay - so this will be a huge step-up for Waterford

Kilkenny and Waterford players tussle after the half-time whistle during last Sunday's All-Ireland SHC semi-final clash at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Kilkenny and Waterford players tussle after the half-time whistle during last Sunday's All-Ireland SHC semi-final clash at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Waterford manager Derek McGrath. Photo: Sportsfile

Henry Shefflin

Watching back on last Sunday's enthralling All-Ireland semi-final draw, the cameras switched to the tunnel taking the players back to their dressing-rooms.

Amidst the wry smiles and expressions of relief that were evident from both camps I couldn't help noticing the look on Brian Cody as he turned the corner. Stern, deep in thought.

I smiled to myself because I had seen that look before and sensed Brian's thoughts had turned to Thurles.

There are many, many great qualities that have contributed to his record of success, and undoubtedly one of his greatest is addressing those corrective requirements for the situation Kilkenny found themselves in last Sunday evening.

This is his territory.

It was his Kilkenny who had equalised, it was Kilkenny who had salvaged the game's only goal to retrieve an increasingly perilous situation, it was Kilkenny who were the hunted.

Shouldn't that have been grounds for some relief from their manager?

That it wasn't said everything about his mentality. It also told me he already had the hard evidence required to begin that process of correction.

Straight away the players would have been told to gather in the warm-up area for a quick chat. They'd still be in their playing gear.

And the message would be simple and general. "Well done lads, great spirit, great character but. . ."

And that 'but' will play a big part in Kilkenny's thinking this week.


Because it was patently obvious that too many players didn't come up to scratch and were bullied in certain areas. Everything Kilkenny stand for was brought to the game by Waterford more.

Being physical is a badge of honour for successive Kilkenny hurling teams. Winning ruck ball, one-to-one battles on the ground and in the air is not just a priority but the firmest principle. Everything follows after that.

But too often last Sunday Kilkenny players came off second best in these exchanges.

That they were able to pull it back from that brink is a testament to that character and never-say-die-attitude.

Having to chase for so long and so hard might shape other teams' thinking, might even knock their confidence, but for Brian it will reinforce that first principle. Psychologically he will have had his players where he wanted them as he sought to get more out of them.

He'll be able to ask that question: how did Waterford work harder than us? The theme will be general, it won't be focused on one individual or incident, but it's a point he will have sought to repeatedly hammer home. And the players will know themselves.

More hard evidence will have been gathered by the video review, not for any tactical flaw but for overall work-rate deficit.

By my reckoning 10 or 11 players didn't win their individual battles, and that gives a lot of scope for improvement.

It's a credit to Waterford that they were able to create these conditions. Last year it was men against boys, this year it was most definitely men against men.

The build-up was perfect for them, with so many people saying that if they stuck with a system that left the handbrake half on all the time they couldn't entertain beating the likes of Kilkenny or Tipperary.

But they pushed that handbrake all the way down, went for it, delivered their best performance and thrilled everyone with by far the best game of the championship.

There can be no going back now; their retreat for the last 10 minutes will have reminded them of how caution inhibits

I've spoken all year about developing the connection between a team and its people and in Waterford this week everyone will have been buzzing. But how long will that last?

It's a critical week for them, not just in terms of this season but to the future too.

Read More: Tipp have made a smoother approach but Galway have avoided major turbulence and can make final landing

Dublin, Galway and Limerick have come close to beating Kilkenny before (Dublin did win a 2013 replay) but haven't kicked on from those perform-ances. Clare won an All-Ireland in 2013 but didn't cross Kilkenny's path. Until they do, they can, in my opinion, be considered part of this group too.

For Waterford, this is a step up again. But it will be a very hard fall if they don't after the altitude they scaled last week. There's much more at stake now.

The difference in the approach of both managers in a week will be fascinating.

Derek McGrath's job will be to calm his players down, bring them back and refocus. Brian Cody will seek to get his players going again, get them hungry, get them angry even. It has flipped right around.

If any softness in mentality had seeped in to Kilkenny it will harden now and, if they win, it will be there for the rest of the year too.

They never really got any fluency going in attack. Anything gained was almost on an individual basis and there were some brilliant individual scores.

Richie Hogan popped over four points, largely off his own bat. There was no score that you could say came from a great move. Hard work yes, but not the flowing movement they'd have hoped for.


Again that's down to how difficult Waterford made it.

They swarmed and hassled and harried. Stephen O'Keeffe put most of his puck-outs right down the middle, inviting Kilkenny to come and win them in one of their strongest channels. Some they did win but there was pressure on immediately and turnovers forced.

So Kilkenny never got to settle and use of the ball was heavily compromised. Greater unity is required in attack.

I know the feeling is that the six-day turnaround will challenge Kilkenny legs but I wonder how much did such an effort take out of Waterford too. Kilkenny got stronger as the game progressed while I felt Waterford tired.

Read More: For all of Waterford's potential McGrath wants their future to be now

That said, the strength in depth just isn't in Kilkenny as much as it has been in the past, reflected by the use of just two substitutes. There is no point in dressing it up any other way.

There was that raft of retirements after 2014 but the loss of Ger Aylward and James Maher to long-term injuries, not to mention Richie Power to premature retirement, is hitting hard now.

Still you have to think that Kilkenny will find enough in themselves to make the adjustments and win.

They won't have looked at match-ups too much last week but now they'll come into sharper focus, particular how to deal with Austin Gleeson.

It promises to be the weekend of the hurling year, with Tipperary and Galway sure to throw everything at each other tomorrow.

Tipp have improved since the corresponding game last year. They've gone about their business quietly for a team that swept through three Munster games with such ease as hurling got itself in a spin over sweepers and systems.

In Cathal Barrett they have a defender who is developing in the Paul Murphy mould and his progression has enhanced a stronger defence.

The big call is the omission of John 'Bubbles' Dwyer. I'd always be keen on firming up a team with the best players available so this is a brave call from Mick Ryan, a powerful statement to everyone else on the panel. 'This is my team now,' it's saying and gently letting them know there are no certainties.

Galway got everything right against Clare but by playing with five forwards up front Clare never attacked their weakness which is their defence.

Daithí Burke's superb fielding against Clare looks tailor-made for the job of marking Seamus Callanan, who Tipperary couldn't deal with 12 months ago.

I'm sure Joe Canning will be asked to fill the same role he executed so impressively against Clare. He has had many better individual displays for Galway but as a team player, maybe there was none better than this.

Galway need him on the ball. Those around him get an obvious lift from it, so it make sense to rotate him in and out and even have him dropping back. When he's retained at full-forward games can pass him by.

No doubt Tipperary will be hurting from the manner of their defeat last year. Improvement in every line since will make the difference.

Irish Independent

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