Waterford marched on to the All-Ireland Hurling Semi-Final with a comfortable victory over Wexford in the quarter-final. Some saw it as a good way for the Deise to get over their Munster final horror show, but this writer is not convinced.
Before we start, this is not a piece aimed at criticising Waterford, nor is it jumping on any bandwagon. At the end of the league, this writer felt that Waterford were 100% moving in the right direction. They did the right thing in 2015 and achieved as much as they were ever going to achieve, in winning a league title and getting to an All-Ireland semi-final.
2016 looked to be bringing the whole project on that bit further. Austin Gleeson was getting better with every game. Shane Bennett and Patrick Curran were the two players in particular that were adding a lot more firepower to the Waterford side. They had the same ‘sweeper’ system in place as they had in 2015, but the system was evolving and the Deise were getting better.
They lost the league final after a replay. Of course they would have chosen to win, but losing it was not that big a deal. They were very well positioned heading into the summer and after beating Clare in the Munster semi-final, Waterford were seen as proper All-Ireland contenders.
Everything was moving in the right direction and the Munster final with Tipperary was heavily anticipated all over the country. That was the day when the hurling public would find out what Waterford were made of, but instead of taking another step forward, they took two steps back.
A team can lose a game, there is nothing disastrous about a defeat, but the way in which Waterford lost that game was worrying. They were too negative, instead of progressing their game plan like they had been doing, Waterford edged on the side of caution. There was no expression, no expansiveness and in the end, a far superior hurling team hammered them.
It did not have to be a hammer blow to Derek McGrath and his men. A defeat is not always the end of the world, particularly at the point in the season when they lost the Munster final. They had plenty of time regroup and learn from the mistakes they made against Tipp.
It is at this point where this writer really begins to question how much progress Waterford have really made. Waterford beat Wexford well yesterday. It was a win, but the manner of the win and the manner in which Waterford played was anything but impressive looking into an All-Ireland semi-final with Kilkenny.
And this is not a piece to criticise. Prior to the game, we said that Waterford had to do three things against Wexford. It was not just a game about winning, it was a game about progressing and learning from their mistakes.
Instead Waterford hit 13 first-half wides and the majority of these from long range. There was nobody as an option in the Waterford full-forward line leaving the player in possession with little or no option than either get turned over or have a pot shot from distance. This will not work.
If Waterford and Derek McGrath are to persist with the sweeper. They must play a running game from their own half-back line up to the full-forward line. The way they play automatically withdraws the bodies up the pitch, so striking the ball is idiotic. They must carry it through the lines, and the thing is that they have the players to do so.
Austin Gleeson, Kevin Moran, Jamie Barron, Colin Dunford, Jake Dillon, Phillp Mahony, Shane Bennett and Tadhg de Burca are all very comfortable solo-running the ball. That is eight players who are all very good at carrying the ball and add to that Brick Walsh, an expert at retaining possession, you have nine players who are well able to retain and move the ball efficiently.
These nine players should be playing between the two 45’s, moving and retaining the ball using a running game. This will eradicate the pot shots from distance, help Waterford play to their strengths and give them a better attacking platform.
Add to this a very good goalkeeper in Stephen O’Keefe, three good hurlers in the last line of defence in Shane Fives, Barry Coughlan and Noel Connors, you are up to 13. These leaves space for two extra players who should be positioned inside in the full-forward line at all times to give the Deise an outlet and a goal threat.
The way Waterford are playing at the moment, they carry zero goal threat. The way they are playing at the moment has gotten them to a stage, but if they are to go further, they must change. The last two games have shown no sign of change whatsoever.
The way things stand, this writer gives Waterford absolutely no chance of beating Kilkenny. The only way they will give themselves a chance is to develop their system. In this writers eyes, that involves playing a running game, getting the best out of Austin Gleeson and going out and expressing themselves.
Waterford have done none of the above in the last two games, making it very hard to see where change can come from. Waterford and Derek McGrath have two weeks to come up with a way of dethroning the Cats.
As it stands Waterford are comfortably the fourth best team in Ireland. Credit for this has to go to Derek McGrath, but if he is to get them further, he must develop what he has started.