When Cork defeated Waterford in the Munster Championship, the scene was beginning to look all too familiar for certain sections of the Déise support. Long have they been everyone’s second favourite team, but the tag of competitive semi-finalists and nearly men looked set to be following Waterford yet again.
2015 and 2016 saw Waterford firmly position themselves as the second best team in Munster. Then when Cork went and beat Tipperary, much to everyone’s surprise, 2017 looked to be primely set up for Waterford to win the provincial title.
Waterford have been building a team since 2014. A 2013 minor All-Ireland title meant a host of new faces were introduced for the 2014 season. 2014 was a learning experience for both players and management and 2015 saw the Déise return with clear method and purpose to their play.
Their system was not to everybody’s liking, but it worked. Waterford went from exiting the championship in the qualifiers to being back-to-back league finalists, winning the league in 2015, to back-to-back Munster finalists and back-to-back All-Ireland semi-finalists. Derek McGrath and his players returned to the top of the hurling table.
The sweeper system was much maligned. Waterford then changed for last year’s All-Ireland semi-final with Kilkenny and they should have beaten the Cats. Austin Gleeson pushed up and played as an orthodox centre-forward. This gave the Déise a focal point in attack. Tadhg de Búrca pushed up as an orthodox centre-back and performed very well.
It looked as if Derek McGrath had opted to ditch the sweeper and evolve. And it was working. Waterford should definitely have beaten Kilkenny in the drawn semi-final last year. They were beaten in a replay. Colin Fennelly did get in for two goals. He may not have been afforded that space had a sweeper been there, but that was not Waterford’s reasons for losing.
The move between different systems made Waterford a very hard team to predict for 2017 and Cork’s victory over Tipperary only put more doubt in everyone’s minds.
Cork and Tipp played out one of the most open games seen. The game finished 2-27 to 1-26. 2-27 showed the scoring power that Cork have at their disposal and everyone questioned whether this would force McGrath to revert back to type, with Tadgh de Búrca sitting in front of Barry Coughlan.
Waterford played with a sweeper against Cork in the Munster championship, but there appeared to be a disconnect between players and management that day. The chemistry wasn’t right. All Waterford players looked lost in two minds; Tadhg de Búrca being the best example of this as Conor Lehane ran riot from centre-forward.
Austin Gleeson looked like a player not knowing if he was a midfielder or a forward. Collectively Waterford were a long way off the required pace and intensity and Cork were perfectly placed to capitalise on this.
The primary lesson Waterford must learn from that day is that they must 100% believe in what they are doing. Only the players and Derek McGrath themselves really know what went wrong that day, but something just did not look right from the outside looking in.
And it could be argued that it took a second, what proved to an almost, capitulation against Kilkenny for this Waterford team to finally learn that lesson. In reverting to type when in control of a game, Waterford very nearly threw everything away, but they eventually saw off the Cats for the first time since 1959.
This combined with the first game against Cork should have taught the Déise a lot of lessons. They need to back themselves 100% in whatever plan they implement and follow through on this with utmost belief and intensity for the full 75 or so minutes that they need to play for on Sunday.
The other two lessons to be learned are in their attack. Maurice Shanahan should start against Cork on Sunday. Despite being his sides best performer in defeat to Cork, Shanahan found himself on the bench against Kilkenny and against Wexford.
But McGrath has surely learned the lesson about playing against Cork. Cork will put up a score. They Cork attack have refound their ‘Gatch’ and are highly likely to put up a sufficient score on Sunday. They have had a layoff but 2-27, 0-23 and 1-25 in three games does not look like lowering.
Derek McGrath cannot get too caught up in trying to nullify Cork’s attacking threat. He must look at his own attacking prowess. It wasn’t until extra-time against Kilkenny that Waterford attacked and beat them. Waterford were nearly taught the harshest of all lessons that Saturday night in Thurles, they must learn for Sunday in Croke Park.
The final lesson for Derek McGrath to learn from the last outing with Cork is what to do with Austin Gleeson. It was this stage last year that Gleeson pushed up to an orthodox centre-forward role, and the hurling fraternity basked in what they saw as the games next big star.
Fast forward twelve months and progress has not been overly significant. Gleeson still remains a prestigious talent but Waterford need him firing if they are to win an All-Ireland.
His positioning against Cork in the Munster semi-final was all over the place. Despite scoring the point of the year that day, he was substituted and bore little or no influence in the remainder of the game.
The potential unavailability of Tadhg de Búrca may see Gleeson move to centre-back as we discussed last week. But Gleeson must play either centre-back or centre-forward. When it comes to big games, the best players need to be in central roles and Gleeson needs to at the heart of the Déise attack or the defence, not somewhere in between.
Waterford must learn to attack Cork, not contain them. And Derek McGrath must place his main man in one of the main positions. A sufficient attacking game would see Waterford mix it with the best.
Sunday presents a massive chance for the Déise. There is no margin for error and they must learn from mistakes made in previous 2017 outings against Cork and Kilkenny.