Wednesday 13 December 2017

Jamesie O'Connor: Waterford's players must lay down their All-Ireland marker

Cork’s Alan Cadogan. Photo: Sportsfile
Cork’s Alan Cadogan. Photo: Sportsfile

Jamesie O'Connor

It's 12 years now since Cork's last senior All-Ireland hurling title - an eternity down there. But there is hope and, irrespective of what happens today, a sense they have progressed and are heading in the right direction.

After the footballers got out of jail last Saturday, the first Corkman I ran into - a footballer at heart - professed himself thrilled at having finally done the double over Tipperary!

Cautiously optimistic is how I would describe the Cork hurling supporters I've spoken to since the win over Tipp. One swallow doesn't make a summer, and there's a level of realism that this team may still be a year or more away from being considered as serious All-Ireland contenders. That's often the way these things work. It takes time to build a team capable of winning an All-Ireland, which was certainly the case with their last successful teams in 1999, 2004 and 2005.

Joe Deane and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín were central to those successes, and made their championship debuts for Cork as far back as 1996, in what proved to be a chastening experience against a seasoned Limerick side. Diarmuid O'Sullivan got his start at corner-back against us a year later, as did Seánie McGrath, and 12 months on, Dónal Óg finally got the nod in goals ahead of Ger Cunningham. They were definitely a coming force, but it happened gradually, and even though we gave them a trimming in the 1998 Munster semi-final, we had to be at our very best to do so

That same year, Waterford should have turned us over a month later in the Munster final, and while we took care of them in the replay, they too looked equipped to build on that and become a force. That's what made their Munster semi-final with Cork in 1999 such an intriguing battle. That was a seminal match in the lives of both of those teams. Something had to give, and to his credit, Jimmy Barry-Murphy decided to throw another bunch of rookies into the mix - Ben O'Connor, Timmy McCarthy, Mickey O'Connell - and go all in with a youth policy. The players justified his faith and the rest, as they say, is history.

So much about this afternoon has echoes of 1999 about it. Waterford - looking like they could be on the brink of something special - coming off a season where they lost the Munster final, but recovered to put it up to Kilkenny in Croke Park in the All-Ireland semi-final. Cork, infused with youth, energy, and a sense that this is their time. They can't both win, and someone goes home this evening with the potentially nightmare scenario of Kilkenny, and in Waterford's case, Kilkenny possibly followed by Tipperary, on successive Saturdays in the qualifiers, before their conquerors even take the field for the Munster final with Clare on the second Sunday in July.

If you're a Waterford player, that is an entirely unpalatable prospect, and a bit like Clare a fortnight ago, this is a game that I don't think they can afford to lose.

As the last team into this year's championship, they can't but have been affected by events to date that have consigned both Tipp and Kilkenny to the back door. Human nature being what it is, they have to be thinking that this is a glorious opportunity. There is an All-Ireland there for the taking now. Galway have already laid down their credentials. If I'm a Waterford player, I'm thinking it's time to do the same.

The fact it's 11 weeks since they last took the field in a competitive match shouldn't be a disadvantage. All the players that line out today have big-game experience, and their form on the challenge match circuit has apparently been good. At any rate, from the near second-string team Derek McGrath fielded against Galway back in early April in the quarter-final it was evident they wanted nothing to do with the knockout stages of the league, and that everything was being calibrated to be ready for the June 18.

The only issue is that from the time the championship draw was made to when Cork threw a spanner in the works a month ago, it was Tipperary, not Cork, that Waterford were mentally preparing for. While the Rebels bring a different dynamic, it still changes nothing in terms of the job that has to be done, and the Waterford players should be bursting to get out and make a statement that the time is nigh for this team.

What they do have over Cork is the luxury of being able to sit back and watch their opponents closely in that win over Tipp. How the Rebels went about it - from the excellence of Anthony Nash's distribution and puck-outs, to the pace and movement up front, the influence exerted by Conor Lehane, and how they put the Tipp half-back line on the back foot - will all have been broken down and analysed. There's no way that Waterford will acquiesce to playing the game on Cork's terms to the same extent the reigning All-Ireland champions did. Consequently, there's no way that Waterford are going to engage in the type of 2-27 to 1-26 why-bother-defending-type shoot-out we witnessed three weeks ago.

Does that imply that Waterford play a sweeper? I don't think they will. But Derek McGrath will surely set his stall out to be a lot more compact and harder to break down than Tipp were. That inevitably means far greater congestion in the middle third, with deep-lying midfielders or half-forwards shutting down the space the Cork forwards thrive on. With so much youth in the Cork team, you'd also expect to see significantly more aggression and physicality from Waterford, and particularly their rearguard, than what Tipp managed. They can't allow the Cork forwards to run all over the field with hardly a tackle being put in as Tipperary did, and a lot of thought will also have gone into getting the match-ups right in terms of who picks up who in the Cork attack.

The challenge for Waterford will be marrying that defensive solidity with enough of a cutting edge of their own to get the scores to win. When all is said and done, though, this is a game Waterford have to win. The pressure's on them. Cork's need isn't as great, and if they play with the same flair and abandon, of course they can win. For me, though, it's a repeat of '98, and a Clare-Waterford Munster final.

Meanwhile, in Portlaoise, it's hard to see Offaly getting within 10 points of Galway in the second of the Leinster semi-finals. I don't think new manager Kevin Ryan fully realised the scale of the task facing him until after the 26-point drubbing Galway handed out to them in the opening round of the league.

I saw them finish with 13 men when losing to Laois a fortnight later, but they showed plenty of character and fought that game out to the end, when it threatened to really get away from them.

Having Joe Bergin back as appears likely will be a positive, but Galway are in a different league, and I expect the final margin to reflect it.

Last five championship classes:

2015: Waterford 3-19 Cork 1-21 (Munster semi-final)

2014: Cork 0-28 Waterford 0-14 (Munster quarter-final, Replay)

2014: Cork 1-21 Waterford 1-21 (Munster quarter-final)

2012: Cork 1-19 Waterford 0-19 (All-Ireland quarter-final)

2010: Waterford 1-16 Cork 1-13 (Munster final replay, after extra-time)

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