Results dictate analysis in every sport but hurling is particularly prone to this. The knock-out format means that there are very few games which really matter and it is hard to spot a pattern evolving across a whole season.
Because of this, too much is read into who wins and losses and important details about the performances of different teams can be overlooked.
Waterford under Derek McGrath provide a particularly stark example of this. After last year’s Munster final, their tactical set-up was widely dismissed as having being ‘found out’.
In contrast, last Sunday’s victory over Cork has been hailed as a vindication of that system. However, on closer examination this conclusion is far from clear-cut.
It is hard to read a great deal tactically speaking into a match which turned dramatically after Damien Cahalane’s sending-off.
Furthermore, even before the sending-off, the match followed different pattern before and after half-time.
Waterford certainly got their tactics right in the first half, which was played on their terms. Their match-ups were perfect but just as important was the structure of their team.
They had great success on Anthony Nash’s puck-outs. Cork won only eight of 17 first-half puck-outs. These only produced two scores and one sideline from which Patrick Horgan scored.
More generally, Cork were often forced to go long. This made it easier for the Waterford defence to contest balls into the full-forward line and win most of these, with Darragh Fives excelling in the sweeper role.
As a result of Waterford’s set-up, Cork had possession inside the Waterford ’45 just ten times in the first half, and twice more inside the Waterford ’65. (‘Having possession’ here means having control of the ball, either in the hand or on the hurley).
This is an important criterion for how Cork are performing, since their game is based on working scoring chances for their inside line and they rarely shoot from outside the opposition ’65.
Waterford’s own use of the ball was more mixed. At times they demonstrated some very precise short passing. Kevin Moran’s first point was a perfect example of this. But they also took a number of low-percentage shots which predictably led to a high wide count.
This is one of the weaknesses of the way Waterford play is that players are tempted to take on pot-shots because of the lack of passing options.
Shot charts compiled by Gaaapps show that Waterford took 13 of their 41 shots from outside Cork’s ’65. Eight of these were missed (Cork took five of their 36 shots outside the Waterford ’65). In addition, Waterford shot six wides inside the Cork 65 close to the right-hand touchline.
In the first 15 minutes of the second half up to the sending-off, the pattern of play was rather different.
Cork had possession inside the Waterford ’45 on seven occasions, and a further four times inside their ’65. They had eleven shots in that period, compared to 14 in the whole of the first half.
Furthermore, Nash’s puck-outs were far more effective in this period: he took seven, all of which were won by Cork (and only two of which were to receivers inside the Cork ’45). From these puckouts Cork scored 0-02 and won a sideline which Darragh Fitzgibbon pointed.
It is important not to overstate Cork’s improvement in this fifteen minutes of hurling, or suggest that they would have won the match had it remained fifteen-a-side. The point is that the match as a whole up to the 51st minute was extremely close and, if anything, Cork were getting to grips with Waterford’s set-up.
Simply treating the result as vindicating Waterford’s system is misleading.
The main weakness of Waterford’s way of playing, and the reason why many people slightly favoured Cork, is that they will struggle to build up a high score. Despite scoring 4-19, this worry still remains. Before the sending-off, Waterford had scored 1-11.
By way of comparison, at the same stage of last year’s semi-final against Kilkenny, Waterford had scored 0-20 playing a more orthodox system.
Of course, in the last ten minutes of that match, Waterford failed to push on and finish Kilkenny off. Something similar happened in this year’s qualifier against the same opponents.
But one key difference is what happened in extra-time of that match: Waterford, and in particular Jamie Barron, ran hard at the Kilkenny defence and looked for goals.
Likewise, when they went a man up last Sunday, Barron and Austin Gleeson were superb in creating and executing goal-scoring chances. They are the best team in the country at creating goals by running from deep at the opposition half-backs.
The 2-2 they scored without reply had echoes of the great Kilkenny team of the last decade, who specialised in killing off the opposition with a sharp burst of scores.
While their system may limit the number of scores they can expect against Galway, this ruthlessness in going for goals at key moments gives them a chance at ending the drought and claiming the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
Donnchadh O’Conaill, Pundit Arena
Check out the latest episode of The 16th Man where we heard from Derek McGrath and Dan Shanahan.