Even as the hurricane Cork brewed up against Tipperary was subsiding, warnings could be heard that Waterford would prove a very different proposition.
The Munster quarter-final was exceptionally high-scoring and open, while the feeling was that Waterford would prefer a much tighter and more physical game.
After all, they have gained a deserved reputation as a team who place a premium on defensive structure, frequently playing with one or two extra defenders.
That said, there are a couple of reasons to think that in this match Waterford will not play with a sweeper.
The first reason is the specific challenge Cork pose. While their forwards ran up a huge score against Tipp, what won them the game was what was happened in their half-back line and around midfield. Relatively few of Cork’s scores came from turnovers in the Tipp half, or from winning loose ball there or scoring directly from long deliveries into the forward line e.g. from puck-outs contested in the air. Rather, ball gathered around midfield or by the half-back line was worked into the forwards with precise, angled passes. This allowed the Cork forwards to use their pace and exploit the space left by their half-forward line dropping deep.
Deploying an extra defender between the full-back and half-back lines is probably not the best tactic against the specific threat Cork pose. A team with pacy forwards and players capable of picking them out with precise passes will be well-equipped to bypass a sweeper, much as Tipp did against Cork last year (and which Kilkenny failed to do against Wexford last weekend).
Rather than play with an extra defender, Waterford would be better advised to concentrate on the kind of ball the Cork forwards will receive. Cork did very well against Tipp when given a supply which favoured their forwards. It is not clear how well their forwards are equipped to win loose ball or contest possession in the air. Whenever Cork are forced to hit high, 50-50 balls down on their forwards that will represent a small victory for Waterford.
To achieve this, Waterford may well play with extra bodies in midfield. The more players they have there, the more pressure they will be able to exert on the Cork players in possession, and the better their chances of preventing Cork playing the kind of heads-up hurling we saw against Tipp. Waterford may play long spells with a two-man full-forward line, or drop their half-forwards quite deep. However, it would not be advisable for them to do both, since in that case there is a danger that Waterford will end up with only one or two players inside Cork’s 65 – precisely the kind of problem that plagued them when they used an extra defender.
We may also see Waterford’s forwards dropping off the Cork full-back line on Anthony Nash’s puck-outs. The reasoning here would be that if the Cork full-back line gain possession they are more likely to go long if there are no short passing options.
The second reason why Waterford will probably not play with an extra defender is down to the evolution of their own team. It has frequently been suggested that playing with a sweeper limits a team’s attacking options. Whether or not this is true in general, it certainly seems correct in the specific case of Waterford. Playing with a sweeper against the best opposition (Tipp and Kilkenny in 2015, Tipp in 2016), they never managed more than 0-20. When they adjusted their formation against Kilkenny in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final and replay, they twice exceeded that total. The difference wasn’t entirely down to playing without a sweeper, but having an extra player further up the pitch certainly helped.
While Waterford probably will not play with seven defenders, Tadhg de Búrca may well be positioned like a sweeper, covering the space in front of his full-back line rather than tracking Conor Lehane further out the field (assuming the Midleton man is fit to start). In this position he can provide extra security against the marauding runs of Séamus Harnedy, who set up Shane Kingston’s goal against Tipp and probably should have created another for Alan Cadogan. If de Búrca takes up this position, it will be up to other players to pick up Lehane. This is a further reason for Waterford to play with an extra midfielder, or at least to seek to outnumber Cork in this area of the pitch.
Whatever specific plan McGrath devises, Waterford’s first task on Sunday will be to set the terms on which the match will be played. Do that and they will fancy their chances of quietening the Cork storm.
Donnchadh O Conaill, Pundit Arena