Thursday 22 March 2018

Reality hurts for fallen idols

Jamesie O'Connor

Having been on the receiving end of successive Munster final drubbings in 1993 and 1994, I can readily empathise with the Waterford players and what they went through in Cork last Sunday.

When you are blitzed by the opposition, beaten in almost every sector, it's difficult to know what to do as the carnage is unfolding around you. Believe me, it's not a nice position to be in. The only positive is that unlike in the early 1990s, the Waterford players don't have to wait a full year to atone for the display and put things right. That opportunity will be afforded them against a resurgent Galway next Sunday.

While I think everyone expected Tipperary to win the game, the manner of it, and the performance, was the perfect riposte to what Kilkenny had done in the Leinster final a week earlier. If Kilkenny have been the standard, Tipperary have now matched and possibly even surpassed it. This team is operating at an extraordinarily high level at the moment, especially in attack. The movement and running off the ball has been a hallmark of their play over the last three seasons, but the cohesion, teamwork, precision and accuracy of both their passing and finishing has moved to another level.

Tipperary had 5-10 on the scoreboard by half-time, shooting only three wides in the process. It is indicative of how efficiently they are using the ball and with Brendan Maher, arguably their best player last season, edging ever closer to full fitness, and a much improved performance from the defence, the reigning champions have eclipsed Kilkenny as the benchmark the rest now have to aim at.

While there may have been an element of luck about some of the Tipperary goals, the players -- and especially Lar Corbett, who ended up with four of them -- will have plenty of other days when they will make the same runs and the ball won't bounce or fall as kindly for them.

What last Sunday's scoreline, and specifically the seven goals reflects, is the current Tipperary mindset. If there's the remotest chance or possibility that the goal is on they are going for it. What's worrying for the five other sides remaining in the championship is that they are now converting a higher percentage of those goalscoring opportunities than at any stage in the last three years. Watching Brian Cody and Martin Fogarty huddled together in the stand last Sunday, it's something that won't have been lost on the backroom team in Kilkenny.

From a Waterford perspective, last Sunday provided a serious dose of realism in terms of the ground they have to make up to compete with the top two. In my opinion, they overachieved last year in winning the Munster championship. Tipperary proved their superiority in the All-Ireland semi-final, particularly in the ease with which they pulled apart the defensive set-up Waterford employed on the day.

If anything, the Waterford management may well have been influenced by the criticism they received from their own supporters in the wake of that performance. That may have governed their attitude in how they set out their stall to play last weekend. Playing defensively is complete anathema to the Waterford supporter fed on a diet of thrill-a-minute shoot-outs and free-flowing, entertaining spectacles over most of the last decade. The reality, however, is that the county no longer possesses the same type of flamboyant and skilful player the team was loaded with for much of that era.

Facing a Tipperary side which is now the one with the abundance of flair and verve in attack, Waterford hadn't a hope trying to take them on playing an orthodox style or formation. In addition, they failed to get the match-ups right at the back. The decision to deploy the inexperienced Jerome Maher to police Lar Corbett, arguably the first Tipperary player you have to stop, seemed crazy, and once Lar crashed home the first goal in the fourth minute to put Tipp five points up, the game was effectively over.

In fairness, with the calibre of forwards Tipperary have, I simply don't think Davy Fitzgerald had the personnel to contain them man for man. Consequently, the solution had to involve getting more white jerseys into their own half of the field and especially in front of their own goal where most of the havoc was wreaked. And the Waterford defence wasn't helped by the fact that the midfield and half-forward line were virtually overrun in that opening period, the tone being set from the off by Shane McGrath who caught the first three Waterford puck-outs.

When you combine defensive naivety and an inexperienced full-back line with a beaten middle third, it's a recipe for disaster. Sometimes too you just have to accept that the opposition are better, and there's no disgrace in that.

The real disappointment for the Waterford players is that they failed to come to the fight ready to fight, and as a result, never laid a glove on the champions.

Watching John Mullane's post-match interview on The Sunday Game as he apologised to the Waterford supporters for the performance, he looked a broken man. Given the psychological damage inflicted on his team, Davy Fitz faces a huge challenge in getting the players up for the Tribesmen next Sunday. In that respect, the leaders and experienced players on the team have to step up now and show their mettle.

All however is not lost for Waterford. The likes of Kevin Moran and young Paudie Mahony never stopped fighting. They finished up with five under 21s on the field and with so many younger players on the panel, the residue of last Sunday isn't likely to linger for as long as it might in an older squad. Motivating the players isn't likely to be a problem next weekend either. Waterford's record against Galway is excellent so they won't be without hope heading to Thurles. Nonetheless, Galway appear to be back on track and now possess two qualities -- confidence and momentum -- that Waterford saw shattered last Sunday afternoon.

Bad and all as things must have seemed if you were a Waterford supporter coming out of Páirc Uí Chaoimh, it would have been worse if you were a Cork follower making your way home from Limerick 24 hours earlier.

After the perfect start, 1-3 to 0-0 ahead inside the first ten minutes, Cork were outscored by 2-23 to 0-11 over the next hour in what was a dreadful and rudderless performance. Considering that Galway shot 13 wides, had a penalty saved and a goal called back that should have been allowed to stand, it could have been even worse.

Three years ago in the qualifiers, against the same opposition, Cork were down a man following Donal óg Cusack's sending off, and facing into a strong breeze in the second half. Yet, showing courage, resilience and craft, they dug out a victory that had the Cork supporters flooding on to the field afterwards in response to the bravery and fight the team had shown. It's hard to believe that ten of the same players were involved last weekend, because this was a defeat without honour, and a performance devoid of any spirit or passion. Whatever faith, belief and connection the supporters had with this team appears to be long gone.

Clearly, the team is caught between playing the short passing style that served them so well under Donal O'Grady and John Allen and the longer, more direct style favoured by their successors. Either way, it was dreadful to watch, and light years away from the cutting edge Kilkenny and Tipperary have shown in the provincial finals.

More dispiriting for the genuine fans is the realisation that there is something fundamentally wrong with the chemistry within this team. With no shortage of proven leaders on the field who have done it for Cork in the past, the fact there was a clear lack of leadership from many of the older players last Saturday is something that's hard to reconcile.

Obviously there are complex issues involved. The lingering effects of the various strikes over the years, the presence of players who played during the fall-out in 2009 as well as the fractured relationship between many of the senior players and the county board are all still relevant. The dropping of Seán óg ó hAilpín, given his standing with the older players, is another factor. But attitude is often said to reflect leadership, and if that's the case then you have to question whether the players really believe in the manager and where the team is going. Either way, Cork have now arrived at a fork in the road, and hard decisions are going to have to be made, particularly in relation to some of the older players.

At least the performance of the under 21s on Friday night has given them a much needed fillip. Were they to go on and win the Munster or All-Ireland titles, it would provide the nucleus of something to build on. In addition, given its tradition, the size of the county and the resources available, Cork have the potential to bounce back faster than just about anybody else. In that context, the county board have a critical decision to make in terms of who the best man to take Cork forward is -- not just into next year but beyond.

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