Monday 22 January 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: Déise need to turn this contest into a low-scoring tactical battle

The gap in attacking options between the old rivals points to a Cork victory, writes Jamesie O'Connor

Barry Coughlan faces a tough test in the Waterford defence today. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Barry Coughlan faces a tough test in the Waterford defence today. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Jamesie O'Connor

Cork and Waterford's rivalry was the first great hurling rivalry of the 21st century. Whenever talk turns to the greatest hurling matches ever played, the 2004 Munster final is in the conversation. The goal-fest that was their 2007 meeting was one of the most enjoyable matches I ever attended. Blink and you missed something that afternoon.

Even when Davy Fitzgerald took over Waterford in 2008, and they played a far more tactical brand of hurling, as opposed to the swashbuckling stuff Justin McCarthy favoured, the games were still laced with drama, and faithful in both the tone and spirit to which we'd become accustomed. Tony Browne saved Waterford in the 2010 drawn Munster final with a late goal. Dan Shanahan sealed the win with a classic strike in extra-time of the replay.

The fact they have only met once since then, in the 2012 quarter-final which also went to the wire, is one factor which has relegated this rivalry in the hurling consciousness. The other, is that with so many of those iconic names gone, the dynamic of the relationship between the sides has changed. Waterford no longer represent the threat they were to Cork for most of that decade.

I cannot see the shootouts we became accustomed to happening this afternoon. Waterford don't have the same artillery up front anymore. Conversely, the Cork attack looks sufficiently potent, and with Alan Cadogan looking the part during the league, and Paudie O'Sullivan in reserve, they appear to have the greater firepower.

In such circumstances, and deprived of Stephen Molumphy and Maurice Shanahan, Waterford surely have no business engaging Cork in a gunfight. They will want, and I think need, to make it a tight, low-scoring, tactical match, more suited to the players at their disposal.

Without the injuries that have decimated them, and valid questions still lingering about the Cork defence, Waterford would have a genuine chance with a full team. However, without Shanahan and Molumphy, as well as Darragh Fives, Jamie Barron and Philip Mahony, and the suspended Shane O'Sullivan, there is unlikely to be enough depth in the panel. Waterford have five newcomers in the side so it's a very tall ask.

Don't get me wrong; these are good players. While their under 21s have been disappointing in recent years, no side gave Clare a stiffer test at that grade last year than Waterford, and they are All-Ireland champions at minor level. But, the step up to senior is massive. Tadhg de Búrca is highly rated in UCC, but he may play in the half-back line in a switch with Barry Coughlan. Either way, having two rookies in your defence is taking a chance against this Cork attack.

The pace and class Cork have up front also reinforces the loss of Stephen Daniels. He's a serious defender, one of the most under-rated in the game and someone capable of shutting down the threat posed by the likes of Patrick Horgan, Seamus Harnedy or Conor Lehane.

In attack, Austin Gleeson was one of the outstanding minor hurlers in the country last year at centre-back, and he's named at wing-forward. It may not be his natural position, but this is a guy with genuine class and I'm looking forward to seeing if he can make things happen.

The Cork selection is an interesting one. Jimmy Barry-Murphy and his management have recognised the need to address the problems in the central spine of their defence. Damien Cahalane was reportedly going well in training, but he played full-back against Wexford in the qualifiers a couple of years ago, and having spent time with the footballers, is a more experienced player now. I haven't seen enough of Mark Ellis to be certain he's the solution at centre-back, but they've decided to go with him, and if it doesn't work out, Christopher Joyce has enough experience there to slip into the position.

Conor O'Sullivan's omission is a surprise given his form last year, and dropping William Egan is another big call. Leaving off O'Sullivan could be interesting, because if Waterford play a sweeper, he's arguably the best player suited to play that role at the other end for Cork.

After years of speculation, Aidan Walsh finally makes his championship debut for the hurlers. His display for the under 21s in the 2011 Munster final when he scored eight points from eight shots reminded everyone of what he could offer the hurlers. Yet, I think even Walsh himself had tired of hearing about that performance, and now he gets the chance to prove he can cut it at this level.

Trying to combine the dual role can't be easy. He only played a couple of games during the league, and only time will tell if he can do it, especially when the footballers get into full gear. Today, though, is the perfect platform to make a statement, and if Cork need his ball-winning abilities in the half-forward line, it's an easy switch to make with Pa Cronin.

The experience Cork gained last year is bound to have accelerated the team's development. Considering this is an inexperienced Waterford side, one that conceded a whopping 17 goals in six league games, Cork deserve to be the clear favourites they are. The harsh lessons learned during the league will surely mean Waterford will be more defensively sound and better structured today. Neither Liam Lawlor nor Brick Walsh were in the starting side in Ennis either when Clare put 4-15 on them in the opening half. But even if things are shored up at the back, the more worrying statistic was that their attack scored just two goals in those same six matches. At the top end of the table, Kilkenny by contrast raised 17 green flags by the time their campaign had ended.

For their new manager Derek McGrath, finishing the league away to Clare and Kilkenny meant the momentum turned against his side at just the wrong time. After the disappointment of relegation, it didn't help either that the county board fixed club matches and banned the team from collective training some weeks back at a time when they really needed to be driving on. Factor in the injury situation and it's understandable why expectations are so low among the Déise supporters.

Cork will win. But if Waterford can summon a performance, losing won't be a disaster. As the injured players return they will only get stronger and with a bit of luck in the qualifier draw they can still make an impact in the weeks ahead.

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