Tadhg de Burca’s availability for next Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final is looking less likely after another appeal failed on Thursday night. De Burca has been a key figure in the Déise’s return to the top tier of hurling over the last three years.
The much publicised and heavily scrutinised sweeper role has been exemplarily filled by the Waterford number five. De Burca has also demonstrated his ability to play as an orthodox centre-back in last year’s cracking semi-final series against Kilkenny.
But 2017 saw a return to the sweeper role and de Burca, while playing as a free man, gave an exhibition of hurling in Waterford’s ground breaking victory over Kilkenny in the qualifiers, their first win over the Cats since 1959.
Waterford then accounted for Wexford in Páirc Uí Chaoímh. It was a case of job done and box ticked for Waterford that day. But there was one dampener on their victory, their deep lying ‘quarter back’ received a straight red-card for an off the ball altercation with Wexford’s Harry Kehoe.
The immediate fall-out was a simple case of ‘what happened’? Replays and television footage failed to show any sufficient evidence of the incident. Rumours of an altercation with a faceguard were later confirmed by somewhat inconclusive video footage.
The appeals process has not followed the same frenzy of Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly, but de Burca now looks set to miss next Sunday’s game as a one game ban does not look like being overturned.
Attention will now turn to what Waterford will do without a man that is so key to Derek McGrath’s system. There is no doubting that de Burca would be a huge loss, but it could force the hand of McGrath and the Waterford management into a game changing move.
The man who wears number six for the Déise is current Hurler of the Year, Austin Gleeson. Gleeson’s underage credentials were all established as a centre-back. Waterford’s 2013 All-Ireland minor success was spearheaded by a colossus at the heart of the defence and this was repeated by last year’s under-21 success.
The performance of Gleeson in last years under-21 Munster final was one of the finest seen in recent years. It was a clear example that centre-back is Gleeson’s best and most effective and one must wonder if de Burca’s proposed suspension could now lead to Gleeson actually lining out in his named position?
Adopting Gleeson as a forward has been successful and understandable. Waterford lack attacking options and Gleeson’s talents allow the ‘you could play him anywhere’ tag to be correctly used. He has shown the ability to torment defences, but as time as gone he looks more like a half-back playing in the half-forward line.
His debut goal against Cork in 2014 was one of the finest hurling goals ever seen. His performances in last year’s two All-Ireland semi-finals against Kilkenny really established him as one of the country’s best. His high fielding is as good as has ever been seen and he is only in his first season out of the under-21 grade.
Problems require solutions. Waterford could be in danger of focusing on the loss of de Burca as opposed to being proactive and coming up with the most effective way to fix what may be broken.
Maurice Shanahan has shown his ability to influence games coming from the bench, but he also caused a lot of trouble from the start against Cork in the Munster championship. Gleeson would leave a space in the forward line, but Shanahan along with players like Stephen Bennett, Colin Dunford, Brian O’Halloran and Patrick Curran would all be itching at the opportunity to play from the start.
So while Waterford fans may panic over the loss of their centre-back, the solution to the problem may not be as bad as they feel.
De Burca’s suspension could lead to what many would describe as the country’s best centre-back finally getting picked to play in his position. De Burca is a great player, but Austin Gleeson displays all the traits of what a centre-back needs.
And playing Gleeson as an orthodox centre-back may also negate the need for a sweeper. It is not a drastic change and it also throws a curveball at the opposition.
Obviously Waterford will want Tadhg de Burca to line out next Sunday, any team would. But his unavailability could lead to a tactical change that many Waterford fans are possibly crying out for already.