McGrath must throw off the shackles to upset the odds
Cork are a half-back line away from an All-Ireland title but Thurles clash will be closer than people think
WATERFORD County Board officials have come under fire for slapping a three-week training ban on the senior hurlers to accommodate club fixtures but I say hats off to them.
Two rounds of club hurling and two of football have been run off and these games came at a good time for county players. Waterford's senior hurlers were back from a quality week's training in Portugal and any time you endure a disappointing league campaign, going back to the club is never a bad thing.
A player will return rejuvenated to the county set-up but you could argue that Deise hurling boss Derek McGrath should have been allowed to crack on with what he had. Derek would have had 15 or 16 lads who don't play any football and doubling up with the U-21s would have maintained the momentum he was striving for.
I've often trained with Waterford where lads are away with their clubs playing football and you won't get a whole lot done. Training with 14 or 15 lads can even have a negative impact on team morale. You need everyone together to build that.
Whether or not the county board's decision was financially motivated is a question that I can't answer. Only the county board know that and it wouldn't be fair for me to speculate. The bigger problem for Derek is the injury crisis that has hit the squad.
Philip Mahony is out for the season and he's a massive loss. He was a major plus out of the National League and he was a certain starter at wing-back. There is talk that Stephen Molumphy and Jake Dillon will be fit but Maurice Shanahan may not make it with a back problem.
Maurice probably shouldn't have played with his club – there's been a problem there for a while but the full extent of it is only now becoming clear. Jamie Barron is a huge loss as well after he was injured in county training.
Darragh Fives is struggling with his hamstring and it's highly unlikely he'll start either, so if you take Darragh, Philip, Jamie, Maurice and Stephen, you're talking about five starters that are out or doubtful.
Stephen Bennett, an All-Ireland minor winner last year, has decided to opt out of the senior set-up too to concentrate on the U-21s. Stephen's been struggling with his hips and he's taken the sensible approach here.
Despite the injuries, Waterford will still have a very strong 15 taking to the field. Richie Foley and Liam Lawlor are back and it's no coincidence Waterford concede goals when Lawlor's not in the team.
It's looking like Barry Coughlan, Eddie Barrett, Austin Gleeson, Colin Dunford and Tadhg de Burca will start. Dunford, the young Colligan lad as I like to call him, and De Burca are promising Dungarvan Colleges graduates, and Gleeson was an outstanding minor last year.
Granted, Cork are going to be favourites and from 8-15 they are as good as anything in the country. But this Cork defence lacks pace, outside of Shane O'Neill and possibly Stephen McDonnell.
Brian Murphy is a major loss and Cork are a half-back line away from winning the All-Ireland. Remember back to that colossal trio of John Gardiner, Ronan Curran and Seán Óg Ó'hAilpín when Cork were in their pomp. They were streets ahead of Cork's current half-back line.
Derek McGrath will be anxious to get that first championship win and looking back at previous Waterford managers, what really set up the likes of Michael Ryan, Davy Fitzgerald and Justin McCarthy was getting that victory under their belts early. If Derek can get the team over the line, it would take an awful lot of pressure off him.
He's my brother-in-law but I can't remember the last time I spoke to Derek about Waterford hurling. He keeps himself to himself and tells me absolutely nothing about the set-up. I can understand that. If the roles were reversed, I'd be the same.
But if I was Derek, I'd throw the shackles off and have a go at Cork in what should be a traditional 15-on-15 tussle. Dublin and Clare are the only two teams that Waterford should be making specific tactical arrangements for and it's that off-the-cuff nature of games against Waterford that make them so special.
It's going to be an awful lot closer than people think. So many supporters in Waterford are unsure and uncertain after the league but a good performance would get them believing again.
As things stand, people think it's just a case of Cork turning up and winning the game. I don't see it like that. Any time I was playing against Cork, I always believed we could beat them. That will be the case again next Sunday but whether it's enough to get them over the line, I'm not sure.
Cork were seconds away from All-Ireland glory last year and have been promoted to Division 1A, with Waterford dropping to 1B. All the signs point to a Cork win but it wouldn't surprise me if the lads pull off a win next Sunday in Thurles.