Friday 15 December 2017

John Mullane: This will be Brian Cody's most pressurised game of the last ten years

Waterford will need to produce the performance of their lives in Thurles

Brian Cody has never lost a qualifier game and knocking them out will be a tall order for Waterford tonight.
Brian Cody has never lost a qualifier game and knocking them out will be a tall order for Waterford tonight.

John Mullane

At this time of the season, the Championship is no place for the faint-hearted but even for a man who has seen and done so much, this evening's clash against Waterford is the most pressurised game Brian Cody has faced in terms of scrutiny for the last ten years.

Losing to Waterford for the first time in 58 years would not sit well with Kilkenny supporters, considering they lost on home soil to their neighbours in the league for the first time in 13 seasons.

Throw in a league loss to their other south-east neighbours Wexford, at Nowlan Park for the first time in 60 years, followed by a championship defeat, and it's a picture that doesn't make for pretty viewing if you're a Kilkenny fan.

They can accept losing to traditional counties like Tipp and Cork but falling to Waterford and Wexford is a big no-no for Kilkenny.

A Kilkenny gentleman said to me recently that losing to Wexford is one thing but losing to Wexford and Waterford in the one year is the type of scenario that would have him looking for a one-way ferry ticket out of Rosslare harbour.

The Cats and Cody are used to this pressurised environment on big days like this but the qualifier route is not one they're used to. Bar 2013, however, they haven't had games of this magnitude in early July.

We saw then how it can unsettle them when they eventually lost to Cork in the quarter-final but, before that, they drew a plum tie with Tipperary visiting Nowlan Park.

This focused the minds of Cody and his players and they brought a performance of the highest order. I expect they'll bring something similar this evening.

Cody might have been tempted to call upon Richie Leahy, who we saw during the league and who was excellent against Wexford in the U-21 decider.

He also has another potential option in Kevin Kelly, and that would have afforded Cody the opportunity to push TJ Reid into midfield.

TJ Reid evades Jake Dillon during last year’s semi-final replay. Cody can use his 2016 template, with Reid in midfield, to prevent Waterford ending their winless run against the Cats. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
TJ Reid evades Jake Dillon during last year’s semi-final replay. Cody can use his 2016 template, with Reid in midfield, to prevent Waterford ending their winless run against the Cats. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Cody's masterplan in last year's All-Ireland semi-final replay worked a treat, with Reid and Richie Hogan at midfield, and Michael Fennelly at centre-forward.

Don't be surprised if this happens again, as Cody realises that this game will be won and lost in the middle third.

The prize at stake is huge. It's a pathway back into contention for All-Ireland honours and the winners will have huge momentum heading into a quarter-final.

For Derek McGrath and this group of Waterford players, it's massive.

Another loss to the Cats would set Waterford back considerably and Kilkenny will be buoyed by that Leinster U-21 final victory during the week.

The talk around Waterford is that it's the best chance to date to overcome Kilkenny for the first time since 1959 but can they go and do it?

Cody has never lost a qualifier game and knocking them out is a tall order.

This Kilkenny team will be stronger and in a better place than the outfit that lost to Wexford.

If Waterford are to win, they're going to have to produce the performance of their lives.

It will go down to the wire, as it did in 2013 and over the course of both games last year, and you couldn't rule out extra-time to separate them.

Hopefully, when the dust settles, we'll be celebrating history in the making for Waterford but while there's a school of thought suggesting that it's Kilkenny's weakest team in years, the majority of them are All-Ireland medallists, and many are multiple winners.

You can't buy that kind of experience and Waterford have been down this road against them before.

In 1998, they were expected to overcome what was perceived to be a weak Kilkenny team but we all know what the end result was.

The sight of that Kilkenny jersey at senior level is a psychological hurdle for Waterford teams over the years, a hurdle we haven't yet vaulted, but this is one monkey that needs shaking off the back.

From a Waterford viewpoint, what Derek will want is lads emptying the tank for 40-45 minutes, and then looking for fresh legs off the bench.

Kilkenny are going to die on their feet and Waterford will have to match that - and go beyond.

If we don't do it tonight, we might never do it but Kilkenny are never beaten until you're heading down the motorway and checking the score on the car radio, just to make sure.

Last August, in the drawn game, we had the job done - all we had to do was see it out.

If we were playing any other team that day, a team not wearing black and amber stripes, we would have kicked on.

That shirt has a hold over Waterford.

But some of these lads know what it's like to beat Kilkenny at underage level - now it's just a matter of doing it at senior level.

I went on the record as stating that drawing them in round 1 would have been better than round 2. Some people thought I was mad and losing my mind but we saw last Saturday night just why I was banging that particular drum.

Before the Limerick match, I felt that Kilkenny were vulnerable, uncertain about themselves and that real doubts had started to creep in.

That was evident at times but they came up against a Limerick team displaying the same characteristics.

A week on, and with that tough game under their belts, Kilkenny are now more assured in themselves.

Why? Paul Murphy looks back to his brilliant best and comfortable alongside full-back Pádraig Walsh, and Joey Holden has a new lease of life at number four.

Kilkenny have brought Cillian Buckley to number six, flanked by Conor Fogarty and Joe Lyng, and you now have a decent looking backline, compared to an out-of-sorts sextet that we saw in Wexford Park.

They got 70-plus minutes into Michael Fennelly and you'll have Colin Fennelly eager to atone for last weekend, when he was frustrated by the poor quality of ball coming into him.

You'll also have a scarred Richie Hogan and Ger Aylward out to redeem themselves following the disappointment of their personal displays in the last two matches.

Throw Reid and Walter Walsh into the mix, who can up their games as well, and perhaps now you'll understand why last weekend was the time to play them.

There's uncertainty in the Waterford camp, too, around who will start, the positioning of Austin Gleeson and the sweeper question.

Austin has to play at number 11, even though he'll match up to Buckley there. That has the makings of a colossal battle.

Derek will have mulled over staying with the sweeper, or half abandoning it, as he did against Kilkenny last year. Going by team selection, I think he'll stick with it.

Maurice Shanahan's not named to start but then again, he didn't start either game against Kilkenny in 2016.

He made a big impact when he came on though, and he'd be a good man to spring with 20 or 25 minutes left.

He came in pumped up last year and was made for it. With 14 of the 15 who started last year's replay named again, Derek is basing his team selection on how well they played then, and how close they got.

Before all of that, Tipp and Dublin meet in the opening game in Thurles.

I'm backing Tipp to make a statement and win by seven or eight points but I'd have sympathy for Dublin, having been asked to travel to Thurles.

They did it three years ago for an All-Ireland quarter-final and were well beaten by Tipp, in what turned out to be Anthony Day's last game in charge.

If anything, Tipp should have returned the favour and travelled to play in Parnell Park.

Thurles is also the venue for tomorrow's Munster final between Clare and Cork.

I'm now more convinced about Cork than I had been but one of their own, Dónal Óg Cusack, is a key man in the Clare camp.

He has a massive role to play as Clare look to counteract Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash's puck-outs.

If Clare do that, and come with a real plan, they have the firepower to trouble Cork.

The Banner men came into this Munster Championship under the radar and even though they've reached the final, they're still like that.

Not many people are talking about them and they haven't really factored in the talk about who will emerge as All-Ireland contenders.

But I've a feeling that Clare might win a first Munster senior title since 1998 - and Cusack holds the key to potential glory.

Nash is the Stephen Cluxton of hurling but Cusack knows him, from their time together as Cork goalkeepers.

And you can be sure that he'll have something up his sleeve to nullify his Cork successor.

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