When the ball is thrown in on Sunday afternoon the battle between skill and will shall commence. Kilkenny’s masters will look to see off a young, enthusiastic and hard-working Waterford side – who don’t lack for skill either.
Waterford are looking for their first championship win at Croke Park since 2008. In the three seasons that followed their ’08 All-Ireland final appearance, they lost in HQ to Kilkenny twice in 2009 and 2011 and Tipperary in 2010. The six-point loss to Kilkenny in 2011 was Waterford’s last championship outing in Croke Park.
These Déise men have no baggage and, moreover, some of them have medals in the form of an All-Ireland Minor crown in 2013, as well as several schools and colleges titles in their back pockets.
Waterford manager Derek McGrath has been praised for integrating a large number of recent – and some current – minor and under-21 stars into his senior set-up. The high-intensity game plan they employ means youth is a valuable asset to hold.
Their game is based on work-ethic, and they have it in abundance. Crucially, they can move forward in waves, or in the space of a few seconds with a long, accurate ball. They use a defensive system with some forwards withdrawn, but their scoring totals haven’t dwindled – averaging almost 24 points per game.
Like the revered Waterford sides of yesteryear, they have that bullish, swashbuckling, fist-pumping style – of course it would be hard to get away from that with Dan Shanahan on the line. Watching them, one feels anything can happen but there is an added sense of control or purpose which guides them.
The system is a fantastic idea when it works, but players win matches. Over-reliance on plans can be a huge problem for teams. Waterford don’t seem too dependent on theirs, but if they are it will be exposed ruthlessly this Sunday.
They fell short in the Munster Final. In fairness, they played well and Tipperary had little or no chance of scoring a goal. Nevertheless, Waterford couldn’t manufacture scores easily enough – 0-16 in total – and while they were defeated by just five, things didn’t click to the levels required. That’s not an option at this stage of the year.
Against a lacklustre Cork, 1-03 came from the Waterford subs. In the Munster Final only one point came from four replacements. They made five changes against Dublin, but two came in stoppage time and none scored. Can their bench sufficiently supplement and improve their performance should things not go their way initially against Kilkenny? History would suggest no.
Kilkenny have a forward line the likes of which only the Cats ever seem to possess. Their six attackers are told to go out, win ball and get scores, and if they don’t they’ll be replaced by someone who will.
An overly-defensive approach won’t phase the Cats – they’ll just pick off points from half-way and beyond. A man-to-man approach could ascend into a lofty scoring-spree – hopefully an even one, something the hurling championship needs.
The latter won’t happen. Waterford haven’t changed all year, why do it with only two weeks’ preparation time?
Waterford need to do what no Déise side has done since 1959, and that’s beat Kilkenny in Croke Park. They are capable, but they need all moving parts to operate cohesively for them to have a chance.
They need something sports fans believe exists but rarely see, and that’s a bit of luck against the dominant team. They need the breaks that never seem to go the way of the underdogs and they need cool heads from the first whistle to the last to make use of their luck.
Waterford shouldn’t be far off regardless, but Kilkenny are well capable of inflicting a six or seven-point hammering.
To win, Waterford need their best performance of the year. If all that comes together, we’re in for a cracker.
However, Kilkenny will not be caught cold and after their Munster final loss, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is a bridge too far for Waterford.
John Ivory, Pundit Arena