Friday 19 January 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: All is not lost for Waterford, but they have to reduce the errors

Waterford's Austin Gleeson. Photo: Sportsfile
Waterford's Austin Gleeson. Photo: Sportsfile

Jamesie O'Connor

Apart from Laois's preliminary-round tie with Carlow for the eighth and final spot in tomorrow morning's draw, football takes centre stage today, but there are so many juicy scenarios in that draw that hurling will still be a topic of water-cooler conversations.

With teams from the same province being kept apart, Tipperary and Waterford won't be playing each other next Saturday night. That's bad news for Kilkenny, because it's better than 50-50 that the Cats' draw one of them and give us our first box-office fixture.

Limerick would be no pushover for Kilkenny either, especially in the Gaelic Grounds. Either way, even if the draw proves kind and the big guns somehow avoid each other, it merely postpones matters for seven more days. Only two of the eight teams can emerge, which means that one of last year's semi-finalists, and potentially two, won't make it past Saturday week, a scenario no-one could have foreseen after the heroics they produced last August.

While Aidan O'Brien had no shortage of winners at Royal Ascot last week, he's still probably at a loss as to why his outstanding three-year old miler Churchill ran so poorly on Tuesday. Was it the ground? Was it the sweltering conditions?

Derek McGrath will know how he feels, because his side produced a performance that wasn't remotely close to what they're capable of. That's not taking anything away from Cork, who trampled all over my prediction that they were still probably a year away from being genuine All-Ireland contenders. They were full value for the win and are now looking like a side hell-bent on going all the way.

Nonetheless, it has to be perplexing for the Waterford management that their season now risks being over before it has really begun. Looking back at the match, and especially the first 35 minutes, Waterford have only themselves to blame.

In any top-level sport, the side that makes fewer unforced errors usually wins the big matches. Waterford could easily have been 0-8 to 0-3 up inside the first ten minutes and it would have become an entirely different game. Instead, Pauric Mahony dropped his first free short, Kevin Moran, Mahony, Austin Gleeson and Maurice Shanahan had wides from shots that were either taken under pressure, or speculative efforts from distance that shouldn't have been attempted. And that pattern continued.

Irrespective of how good a side you are, that hurts you, especially in a tight match where the margins are always smaller. It's magnified further if they're the low-percentage efforts and the type of wides you've promised yourself as a team you're not going to hit.

And the mistakes continued, with Shane Fives conceding a line-ball he didn't need to, which the outstanding Mark Coleman subsequently cut over the bar, Kevin Moran ruining a terrific run through the heart of the Cork defence with a lay-off to nobody in particular, and Gleeson with a ridiculous effort from way inside his own half that sailed well outside the posts.

Indiscipline didn't help matters either. There were at least two needless frees conceded before half-time which handed Cork easy points: one by Barry Coughlan when Seamus Harnedy was going nowhere, and another on their own puck-out when the otherwise excellent Jamie Barron apparently dragged Harnedy down off the ball. That was a complete gift as once the linesman brought it to Barry Kelly's attention, by rule he had to award a 21-metre free straight in front of the Waterford posts, when the ball should have been down the other end of the field.

Compounding matters was Mahony missing a '65' on the stroke of half-time, when he's normally deadly accurate.

Of course mistakes happen, and Cork missed chances and made plenty of errors too. But by and large, their decision-making and execution were better and sharper than Waterford's. They also looked the side far more likely to get a goal, and were it not for Stephen O'Keeffe's heroics before half-time, would have been comfortably ahead. Level at ten points apiece, Waterford were still in it. But Cork's energy levels just seemed higher, their forwards were working significantly harder than Waterford's, and midway through the second half, there only looked like one winner.

Tactically, McGrath intimated that certain things they'd discussed didn't happen - reducing Anthony Nash's options on the Cork puck-out surely among them.

In hindsight, maybe he'd have started Tadhg de Burca too as an out-and-out sweeper, given how much space Cork created, and played Gleeson in a more central position. Gleeson's impact was minimal, and he has to be better, more involved and given a defined role. Surely too they need Patrick Curran on the field to be real contenders, given the goal threat I think he gives them.

But the worst thing Waterford can do is over-analyse it. The 11-week break didn't help and the conditions were unbelievably punishing last weekend. Having enjoyed the cool of the new stand, it was only walking out of the stadium afterwards that I fully appreciated just how warm and humid the day was. Some players struggle in that type of heat, and one or two of the Waterford players may fall into that category. The bottom line is they didn't do enough, nor play well enough, to win.

Time now for McGrath to throw the responsibility back on the players. One bad day at the office doesn't make them a bad team. There is no margin for error anymore, but provided they avoid Tipperary, I still expect them to recover, go again, and be in the quarter-finals.

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