Friday 20 April 2018

Ifs, buts and maybes point to one result

Waterford need too much to go right for them today, says Jamesie O'Connor

Jamesie O'Connor

Former northern Ireland international Iain Dowie is credited with coining the phrase 'bouncebackability' to describe one of the better qualities of the Crystal Palace team he once managed. For an Irish application of the term, you don't have to look much further than the Waterford hurlers.

Time after time, they have suffered heartbreak at the business end of the season. Yet, regardless of how bad the pain and disappointment has been, back they come for more. Incredibly, with little or no underage success to speak of -- two Munster titles at both under 21 and minor levels in the last 20 years, and a solitary All-Ireland under 21 title in 1992 -- this is their ninth senior All-Ireland semi-final appearance since 1998, and their sixth in a row. In the sands of time, only the current Kilkenny side have attained a comparable level of consistency.

Admittedly, that's where the similarities end. This is Kilkenny's 15th consecutive time to reach the penultimate hurdle and they're looking to make it to a 12th final. But that's a staggering record and this particular side will go down in history as arguably the greatest hurling team of all time. While Waterford have only made it to that sole final in 2008, and we all know the trauma endured on that occasion, it's still a record that most counties would be happy to lay claim to.

That they are here at all today is a tribute to the management and players, because few, myself included, believed they would recover from the wreckage of this year's Munster final. While Davy Fitzgerald has his critics, he must have been pressing some of the right buttons in the aftermath of what happened in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, because the team responded in exactly the right way. Getting the players to face up to and accept what happened in Cork was one aspect of that rehabilitation process. Making sure they felt the genuine hurt and suffered the same pain that he and the rest of the management were feeling was another.

But equally important in the process was making the necessary adjustments to personnel and tactics on the field of play that contributed to that defeat. Again, credit where credit is due. I thought they got it spot on against Galway, and while the poverty of the Tribesmen's display shouldn't be discounted, it was still as good a Waterford performance as we have seen at any stage in the last two years.

Obviously, redeploying Brick Walsh to centre-back, where he was outstanding against Galway, and recalling Liam Lawlor to man the edge of the square were evidence of the lessons learned from the game against Tipperary. After the pillaging the full-back line took in the Munster final, holding the starting Galway full-forward line to a paltry two points from play was a serious turnaround. Whatever limitations Lawlor may have, at least his instincts are those of a full-back and he seems to know the nuances of playing the position.

Having kept Damien Hayes scoreless will also have done Noel Connors' confidence the world of good but their tasks, and that of young Daragh Fives beside them, were made so much easier by the work-rate of those further out the field. Because of the dominance the Tipperary half-backs and midfielders enjoyed in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, raining early ball in to Lar Corbett and Eoin Kelly, problems were inevitable regardless of who Waterford had stationed in the full-back line. Two weeks ago, it was the Déise who exerted that control, and to have any chance this afternoon, they have to win, at a minimum, an equal share of those battles in the middle third of the field.

At least with Shane O'Sullivan, who never looked fully comfortable at centre-forward, restored to midfield alongside Kevin Moran who was simply magnificent against Galway, Waterford have a pairing that has a chance of competing with Kilkenny's Michael Fennelly-TJ Reid axis. With Brick Walsh at centre-back, and Seamus Prendergast giving them a physical presence and natural ball-winner in the half-forward line that they sorely lacked against Tipp, Waterford have enough aerial ability to compete with the Cats in that department.

The recall of Eoin Kelly is another positive because of the potential threat he poses on the scoreboard, but to win, Waterford will surely need both him and John Mullane to have a productive afternoon. In that sense, getting Mullane away from the clutches of Jackie Tyrrell and more involved in proceedings can only help Waterford's cause. If they site him at centre-forward as they did against Galway, Mullane will surely see more of the ball. If he could snipe a couple of early scores then Brian Hogan will have more to think about than the other defensive duties his role requires him to play, which should also help free up space for Shane Walsh on the edge of the square.

Unlike Waterford, we can say with a fair degree of certainty that on the evidence we have seen to date, Kilkenny will play to a level similar to that of previous years and one that only Tipperary have appeared capable of matching. There have been days when Kilkenny have been outstanding -- the final in 2008, the 2007 demolition of Cork. There have been days like the All-Ireland semi-final win over Waterford two years ago when they have merely been adequate, doing enough to win comfortably without ever having to really stretch themselves. But their performance levels rarely drop below a particular altitude and above that everybody else is struggling to survive.

More than anything else it's a tribute to them that they have achieved such a level of consistency. Year in, year out, on every day they take the field, the team is ready for battle and it's rare to see them being either outworked or outfought. Even after last year's final, with the injuries they had and Tipperary's burning hunger, it still required a phenomenal performance to outhurl them, and Kilkenny fought them every inch of the way.

All the questions posed about their hunger and desire in the wake of the league final defeat this season have been emphatically answered in the games against Wexford and Dublin.

The same physicality and intensity that we have become accustomed to seeing was there in abundance. Up front, all their big guns: Henry Shefflin, Richie Power, and Eoin Larkin, looked to be in good form. Michael Rice has been excellent at wing-forward and Fennelly has been outstanding in the middle of the field.

If a concern exists, it probably centres on the full-back line, which Dublin failed to ask any meaningful questions of in the Leinster final. Waterford are better equipped to do so, but the reports out of Nowlan Park are ominous, and Noel Hickey in particular is supposedly back to his best. With the defensive system Kilkenny employ, that line gets maximum protection anyway, but if chinks exist, Waterford must expose them.

While the league final, and the manner in which Dublin outmuscled them, ensured Kilkenny had a cause heading into the Leinster final, it's hard to see how they could have any real beef with Waterford this afternoon. They have had their number on pretty much every occasion they have met and after the mother of all hammerings they dished out in the 2008 final, they'll feel that Waterford now know their place in the bigger scheme of things. Deep down, I don't think the Kilkenny players view them as the serious threat they would have presented four or five years ago. That, however, is a dangerous mindset to carry.

It's hard to think of a single team, in any sport, which doesn't suffer a performance blip at some point; a day when the team is flat and fails to play with its usual energy and drive. Surely it has to happen at some stage that Kilkenny underperform and don't have the same zip or appetite for the battle in a big game.

If that were to happen this afternoon, and Waterford were to reproduce the form they displayed against Galway, then it's not beyond the bounds of possibility to envisage a Waterford win. Having capitulated once already this year, there's no way the Waterford players will allow it to happen again. With the pain they've endured at the hands of Kilkenny, and mindful also of what could happen if they're anything less than 100 per cent ready, I think we'll see them having a right cut today. Hopefully that's the scenario that arises and if so we're in for a decent afternoon's entertainment.

Yet, when all is said and done, there are too many ifs buts and maybes to predict anything other than a Kilkenny victory. Two years ago in this fixture, Shefflin delivered a tour de force, hitting 1-14 of Kilkenny's total to see his team home by five. Surprisingly, only eight of the Kilkenny starting 15 that played in that semi-final two years ago, are starting today. As ever, the pressure comes from within, and I'm sure it's something the Kilkenny players will be well aware of.

At any rate, the first six Kilkenny subs named this afternoon possess a total of 28 All-Ireland medals between them, and Taggy Fogarty could still come back into the reckoning for the final if they get there. Waterford don't have anything like that experience to call on. I don't see a similar performance from Shefflin being required today. Without having it all their own way, Kilkenny should win, and probably by about the same margin as two years ago.

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