The Munster final was a very bad day at the office for Waterford. A lot of neutrals thought that the Déise would really take the game to Tipperary and maybe even win. But the complete opposite transpired.
A lot of the general talk following the game was criticism of Waterford’s game plan. And it must be said that it has to be justified. They are a heavily criticised team, but they have been achieving some good results playing their current system and they looked to be making real progress as a group. The Munster Final saw the whole thing fall to pieces.
The question has been asked; was yesterday’s game a victory for hurling overall? Have we finally seen a game that shows that attacking with pace and power will see a team beat a sweeper? If teams deliver the ball long and win it in the air, or read breaks well enough, will they simply be able to bypass a sweeper?
These are the questions that Tipperary provided yesterday as this was how they combatted the Waterford set-up. Bonner Maher simply took on Tadhg de Burca. He ran at him and attacked his influence in the game. Their defence also carried the ball to a certain point that long deliveries would go past de Burca. Seamus Callanan and John McGrath won these balls and scored.
Tipp made the game look very easy, while Waterford made the game look extremely complicated. There was no real method behind Tipperary’s play. They played as a team at high intensity and we all know about their exquisite skill levels. They really showcased what is good about hurling.
Waterford on the other hand did the complete opposite. Waterford are a team that we have been complementary towards over the last 12 months. Granted, they used a sweeper, but good coaching and good tactics had gotten Waterford back to a competitive standard.
In last year’s championship, Waterford were not ready nor capable of beating Tipperary or Kilkenny, so they did their best to contain in the hope of pulling off an upset. Neither materialised, but Waterford had gone from the weakest team in Munster to All-Ireland semi-finalists, and this was mainly down to an effective system.
That system involved protecting the full-back line and not conceding goals, as well as having a method to work the ball from defence to attack seen as players tended to be withdrawn further out the field. This resulted in the likes of Colin Dunford and Austin Gleeson running the ball and Jamie Barron playing short balls to retain possession.
It got them to a stage and a good stage at that; a League title followed by a Munster final appearance in 2015. Then 2016 saw them lose the League final after a replay and qualify for another Munster final.
It looked like the Déise were making real progress under Derek McGrath. They began with a rigid system that looked to be changing. There was a greater scoring threat through the returning Pauric Mahony and the more mature Patrick Curran. They looked to be evolving their game plan and everything was pointing in the right direction.
While Tadhg de Burca was still sitting, he was in a lot more contests and wasn’t picking up lose ball on his own. Daragh Fives was adding something new in both attack and defence. Maurice Shanahan was no longer a ‘lone-striker’; he was supported by Curran and Shane Bennett, while Austin Gleeson was growing into one the country’s best.
Everything was positive for Waterford. Everyone anticipated this Munster final to be the real test of what stage Waterford had reached. They never looked like winning last year’s Munster final but it was acceptable for a young team learning its trade. Twelve months on, they were ready for a real assault on silverware.
Now we are looking at the fallout from the Munster final and it could be argued that Waterford have not made any progress at all. Maybe the Waterford management just had a horror show, but as it stands Waterford now look no better than they did at this stage last season.
By saying the Waterford management had a horror show, we are suggesting that they got their game plan horribly wrong. There was no need to go over defensive yesterday, they had to have more of a go.
They started Maurice Shanahan at wing-forward, they played Tadhg de Burca far too deep. They had extra bodies at the back, but they did not defend in numbers as Tipperary literally walked through for five goals.
The best example of the failings of their game plan was Austin Gleeson. Gleeson played every position on the field except for in goal or the full-back line and in the end he was everywhere but where he should have been.
If Waterford are to evolve, they must figure out what to do with their best player. He is flexible and can play a number of roles and in theory it sounds logical to move him around to keep opposition on their toes. But yesterday showed the limitations of this.
McGrath must decide whether Gleeson is a half-back, a midfielder or a forward. He needs to settle himself into a game and be influential. We have all seen his talents in action and if Waterford are to do anything, Gleeson will be at the heart of it.
Another thing Waterford must stop is the long range shooting. It is an understandable tactic in their game plan but it simply is not sustainable. Long range shooting is hit and miss. Some go over, but more go wide. Those wides deplete teams as they are such a waste of possession, and Waterford have been the architects of their own downfall in that regard.
Up until yesterday Waterford had showed a lot of the positive things connected having a system and a game plan, but yesterday showed the complete opposite; the negatives.
Waterford’s sweeper system got them to a certain level. But it was never going to be enough to win trophies in the summer time. It was not a bad system by any means, but it was only a starting point for a new team building up some resilience.
Waterford need to expand their game. It does not have to completely look at abolishing the sweeper but they need to get a far better attacking plan in place if they are to compete properly for honours.
So where are Waterford now? The answer is not even close to winning an All-Ireland. They could find themselves in an All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny, but the sweeper system will not beat the Cats, no way.
The Deise must change something, they have the personnel to be a good team, but now they must throw the shackles off and have more of a go at teams. If not, they will continue to be ‘The Nearly Men’ of hurling.