Waterford have undoubtedly made progress this year. Granted, they haven’t won anything or progressed any further in the championship, and one could argue that over the season as a whole their performances have not exceeded what they achieved in 2015.
But, championship hurling is only partly about excellence over a season – it is at least as much a matter of how much you can get out of your team in crunch games. In this respect Waterford have made a giant stride. This time twelve months ago they did not have the wherewithal to take the game to Kilkenny in the way they have managed twice in the space of a week.
Much has been made of Waterford’s changing system, with more talk of ‘shackles being thrown off’ than in a review of Django Unchained. But for all their intensity and flair, they came up just short. In asking what they need to do to make the breakthrough, two areas in particular need to be considered.
Waterford were widely hailed in the first match for their more direct approach, but most of the scoring was done by their half-forwards, and on only two occasions did they try to work the ball inside to create goal chances. In the replay, Waterford scored two goals and created at least one other decent chance (when Shane Bennett was tackled just as he was offloading the ball to Jake Dillon).
In each case the chance was made by a player carrying the ball at the Kilkenny half-back line and another making a supporting run from deep. This is a natural way for a team that plays as Waterford do to manufacture goal chances, using athleticism and pace to break into space afforded by a two-man full-forward line. But there are obvious limitations to this approach: if your opponents can match you for pace and fitness, or if they drop their half-back line a little deeper, there will be less space to run into. Likewise, if your half-forwards start venturing further out the pitch, or if you play a single full-forward as Waterford began to do in the second half, it becomes difficult to get possession near enough to goal to create opportunities.
What Waterford need to think hard about is not just creating goal chances, but more generally about how they want to use their full-forward line. For all the talent available to them in this sector, they are struggling to translate this into scores. Between them, the Bennetts, Patrick Curran and Maurice Shanahan, all of whom spent time in the full-forward line on Saturday, scored four points from play. Kilkenny managed 2-3 from Colin Fennelly and Liam Blanchfield. The following day, Tipperary scored 2-1 from John McGrath and John O’Dwyer in a match where their full-forward line was policed very closely.
One obvious difference is the amount of ball Kilkenny and Tipp played into their full-forward line; another is the positioning of the full-forwards. For the first Kilkenny goal Walter Walsh hit a diagonal ball which ran past Blanchfield, leaving Fennelly isolated on Barry Coughlan on the Waterford 21. Tipp created a goal chance against Galway with a high ball in to John McGrath right on the edge of the small rectangle – the other forwards had drifted out, leaving no cover for Daithí Burke.
In neither match against Kilkenny did a Waterford inside forward find himself one-on-one in a situation like that. More generally, if you cannot create goal chances by running from deep and bursting into space, you need forwards who can win ball in the air closer to goal and have the footwork and strength to get past their markers in tight situations. Waterford arguably do not have any player as good at this as Fennelly or Séamus Callanan, but in the Bennetts, Curran and Shanahan they have a number of options for playing this role in coming seasons.
The other area where Waterford need to make hard decisions concerns their full-back line. As a unit, they coped pretty well with Kilkenny in the first game, but Barry Coughlan and Shane Fives were both in trouble during the replay. This is the flip side of playing without a sweeper – it puts more responsibility on defenders to handle their men in one-on-one situations.
A less obvious problem was the lack of options Waterford defenders had when they gathered loose ball. On several occasions Kilkenny forwards forced the man in possession to run back towards his own goal, leading to turnovers or loss of possession. Blanchfield’s third point and the foul on Richie Hogan resulting in a TJ Reid point just before half-time both stemmed from this kind of pressure.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Derek McGrath will return to the sweeper next season, but whatever way the team sets up, they will need to provide better cover for their full-back line. Making sure the half-backs stay goal side of their men when the ball is anywhere near their own 21 is a must – Kilkenny’s second goal came from Conor Gleeson being caught on the wrong side of Walter Walsh.
There is no guarantee that Waterford will continue to improve, or even if they do that it will be enough to take them to an All-Ireland. But they have followed a clear upward curve under Derek McGrath, and a breakthrough is now a realistic possibility.
Donnchadh O Conaill, Pundit Arena