Sunday 21 January 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: Cork players should be hurting - Revenge could swing it for the Rebels

Waterford forwards Pauric Mahony and Stephen Bennett put pressure on Cork defender Shane O’Neill during last month's NHL final in Thurles
Waterford forwards Pauric Mahony and Stephen Bennett put pressure on Cork defender Shane O’Neill during last month's NHL final in Thurles

Hands up who didn’t consider Waterford genuine Munster Championship contenders six months ago? What about six weeks ago? Me neither.

How could you? The evidence, if not damning, was hardly favourable. An ignominious 2014 league campaign, that went south after a hammering in Ennis and ultimately culminated in relegation. A 14-point defeat to Cork in the Munster Championship, albeit after a replay, and a subsequent disappointing qualifier exit to Wexford. Some iconic players, flair players, the sort who you don’t replace overnight, either retired or were in the twilight of their careers. A fallow period looked inevitable. 

That’s not to say the situation was hopeless. Far from it. Waterford have punched above their weight at schools, colleges and underage levels for much of the last decade. A locally backboned WIT remain a perennial force in the Fitzgibbon Cup. De La Salle and the combined Waterford Colleges have been to the forefront in the Dr Harty Cup. And the minors were All-Ireland champions in 2013.

But it takes time to bring these players through. For all the virtues their emerging talent exhibit, the type of flair we’d come to associate with the Waterford attack — John Mullane, Eoin Kelly, Dan Shanahan, Paul Flynn et al — isn’t necessarily among them.

That type of player may emerge in time, but with Austin Gleeson, who has it in spades, deployed in the half-back line, this Waterford side doesn’t yet have the players up front to adopt the ‘swing for the fences’ all-out attack approach of the team that lit up the championship so often in the last ten years. Kudos to Derek McGrath for recognising that, and having the courage to realise that a more pragmatic approach was needed, at least for now, given the players at his disposal.

That’s the path they’ve taken. The Waterford public mightn’t be enamoured by it, but they have devised a system that plays to their strengths, and makes them very difficult to beat. More importantly, the players have bought into it, believe in what they are doing, and the dividends have been reaped accordingly.

With a 12-point contribution in the league final, Pauric Mahony is a loss, but not an insurmountable one. It’s not as if he was the conductor of the orchestra, and that everything went through him. Waterford don’t play that way. But he had assumed a greater level of responsibility this season, and most importantly had been lethally accurate from placed balls.

That’s where his loss may be felt, irrespective of who they delegate the free-taking duties to. David Treacy only missed one free for Dublin last Sunday. But it was one he would have expected to get, and came at a crucial stage in the match, with four minutes left and his side a point to the good. Nailing it to put them two clear may well have been enough to see the Dubs home.

Patrick Horgan won’t miss too many for Cork at the other end, and it’s on those tight margins that these big matches often hinge.

While losing the league final mightn’t have bothered Jimmy Barry-Murphy unduly, the difficulties his side had in counteracting the Waterford style and game plan certainly should. It was over as a contest with 20 minutes left, and the longer it went on, the more clueless Cork looked as to how to go about breaking Waterford down. It’s a safe bet to assume that with five weeks’ preparation, tactically at least Cork will have their homework done. We won’t see the same level of aimlessness.

Nor will Cork be as inefficient in possession as on that occasion. The sureness of touch and speed of striking we’ve come to associate with Jimmy Barry-Murphy-coached sides will also be at a level it never reached last time out. Cork will be better, sharper, and psychologically in a different place, given the stakes are now so much higher.

I’ll be shocked too if the Rebels start Patrick Horgan, their key strike forward at No 15 on Noel Connors. That’s a match-up Cork simply can’t allow to happen. Connors will obviously be tasked with the job, but Cork have to make sure that if that’s the case, then it’s on their terms, rather than Waterford’s.

Horgan turned the drawn match last year almost singlehandedly when liberated to the wing and Cork have to find a way to get him involved, and away from Connors. Personally, I’d start him at centre-forward and force Waterford to adjust, but they can’t allow him to be marginalised to the extent he was in the league final.

Alan Cadogan’s early departure that day removed another potent weapon, and with Séamus Harnedy, Daniel Kearney, Bill Cooper and Aidan Walsh all performing so poorly in early May, to me they are the side with the greater scope for improvement.

Over the last two seasons, Cork have proven their ability to be ready to go when it counts in the big Munster matches. The key losses they’ve suffered — the relegation play-off to Clare in 2013, the All-Ireland final replay that September, and the Munster final loss to Limerick — have all been avenged. This is a side that have emphatically knocked Clare out of Munster in each of the last two years, and went toe to toe with and dethroned Limerick as provincial champions last July. True, the jury remains out when it’s really put up to them, as Tipperary proved in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final. They’re also starting without two of their first-choice defenders, full-back remains a problem, and they don’t score enough goals. 

However, if Waterford’s stock soared after the league final, I suspect it may be slightly overvalued. I could be wrong. They could conceivably shut Cork down; they have the ball-winners in the middle third to do so, and it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that we’ll get a repeat of the league final. But if I was a Cork player, I’d be hurting. I trust them to match the aggression, intensity and work rate Waterford will bring. On that basis, the Rebels tentatively get the vote.

With all the focus on Laois and Cheddar Plunkett’s resignation and subsequent return, there’s hardly been a word out of the Offaly camp in the build-up to today’s Leinster quarter-final. I’m not sure, as some would have us believe, that it was all part of a Laois masterplan to galvanise the county and unite the clans ahead of what was always going to be the game they would have targeted. But Brian Whelahan and Offaly people will know that that’s exactly the effect it may have.

Laois rocked Galway to their foundations in the corresponding fixture last year, and if they get ahead, and get the crowd behind them, it could potentially get very awkward. That said, their form doesn’t suggest they have kicked on from last year. Offaly look like they have and, forewarned as they are, should squeeze through.

Finally, Wexford put Antrim to the sword, and did so early on in their quarter-final 12 months ago. Westmeath have done really well to eliminate the northerners and advance to this stage this time around, but it’s hard to see anything other than a similar result. With Kilkenny up next, Wexford can’t afford anything less.

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