Waterford’s ‘madness’ can thrive within a plan

Waterford’s Conor Prunty battles to maintain possession against Clare’s Shane O’Donnell in last Sunday’s Munster SHC clash at Walsh Park. Tipperary will need to be ready for a wounded animal when they face Waterford on Sunday and manager Liam Sheedy will plan accordingly. Picture: Ray McManus

Business as usual in Kilkenny, Tipp are kidding no-one, but it’s a revision of the best-laid week-one plans for Messrs Meyler, Fanning, and Kenny, says Derek McGrath.

Monday started with a school trip to Limerick Prison. It concluded with our annual school awards where David Walsh, the CEO of Netwatch and past pupil of De la Salle, held a captive audience in the palm of his hand with a mesmerising speech to staff, students, and their families.

The prison, ironically, was a welcome release from the myriad of emotions — ranging from envy, fear, pride, love, frustration, anger and disappointment — that engulfed me after my sojourn to Walsh Park the day before.

Fifteen minutes into the bus journey, almost in Mooncoin, and the genial bus driver interjected to convey the message “we won’t feature this year”. 

Having picked up on the distinct dialect, my instant retort was “you sound like a Kilkenny man”. The craic was good as I picked up on the intrinsic ability of Kilkenny and their people to consciously downplay their chances of winning anything this year. Indeed, every year.

I love and envy the Kilkenny psyche, but you have to be wise to some of their false narratives. In April, St Kieran’s annexed their fifth out of the last six Croke Cups, yet the story goes “we’ve nothing coming through”. 

I accept that comparisons with Brennan, Power, Delaney, Walsh and Shefflin are far-reaching, but there are still good players in Kilkenny.

The change in language on Noreside in terms of the importance of planning is even more noticeable. 

Take TJ Reid’s comments immediately after Kilkenny’s victory over Tipperary in February of 2016, stating that “you hate a game where tactics are involved”, and compare it with his 2019 comments on Henry Shefflin being a moderniser who encouraged us to “hold possession and give five- to 10-yard passes”.

Then, there were his musings last Saturday night that it was important to go short with the puckouts, because that’s “what we planned to do”.

TJ Reid
TJ Reid

Kilkenny and planning... hmmm.

Tipperary’s plans are deemed the most extensive and laudable in the wake of the first series of Munster Championship games, because of the impressive nature of their victory and performance against Cork.

However, despite the obvious reconfiguration of the team and the obsessive drive and hunger of players and management alike, Tipp’s planning began many months ago. 

It began with the early season media drip-feed they were outside the top six, with lots of work to do to “close the gap”. They then managed to convince people it was a ‘gamble’ to play a forward line that includes John McGrath, Bubbles, Bonner, Callanan, Forde, and O’Meara. 

Come on now. Granted, Liam Sheedy is an exceptional motivator and a brilliant hurling man but he’s cute too and he knows what he has at his disposal.

His planning will now focus on ensuring that savage work ethic, combined with their obvious skill, will be accelerated to a higher plain this Sunday at home to Waterford. 

Liam will have the reversal of fortunes between the league victory over Cork and the subsequent flatness of their defeat to Dublin as a perfect stick to beat his players with. 

Tipperary will need to be ready for a dangerous and wounded animal. Never underestimate the importance of planning.

One of the fundamental aspects of any ‘philosophy’ must be your ability to plan and dedication to planning. People may, with justification, deduce that overplanning or, more pertinently, overthinking can hamstring the natural, instinctive nature of players, but my experience countered that.

Super-Bowl-winning coach Bill Walsh refers to his gameplans as “scripting”. Crucially, the famed 49ers coach informs us that his plans were “a felxible blueprint used to navigate through the turmoil, uncertainty and stress of competition”.

Flexibility and planning defined Clare’s approach in Walsh Park. Tactically, they ‘allowed’ Shane McNulty to receive puckouts in the first half of the game. 

Podge slips to 12, Diarmuid Ryan to midfield, Colm Galvin to six and Jack Browne sits on the edge of the D. The fluidity of their approach can be best seen if you pause your TV at 19:30 and 32:55. O’Donnell and Conlon inside, whilst the rest of the forwards occupy and own the warzone.

The point about planning is that you get the chance to analyse, to simulate. Then the rationale behind your decisions helps you make the best decision, whilst also allowing that intangible gut instinct to present itself at times. This is the key with planning around tactical structures in hurling. 

You need also to have an awareness that the random, off-the-cuff nature of the game can leave you perplexed and guessing.

When I hear people espousing the importance of just ‘letting them play’ at senior inter-county level, I tend to agree with Bill Walsh’s assertion about those who boast about flying by the seat of their pants: The stark truth being that the leader “who hasn’t prepared properly” may well see his “pants fall down”.

One would assume that Mattie Kenny, John Meyler and Páraic Fanning all planned meticulously for their respective games, but when the result doesn’t materialise as planned, everything is up for debate. 

The lads would do well to be cognisant of Robert Burns’ famous line that “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry”.

Páraic Fanning
Páraic Fanning

All are serious hurling men who have invested hugely in their respective projects. Meyler looked crestfallen and my mind wandered to a number of weeks ago, when I reasoned that Cork may not qualify this year, because of the preparatory time that they have been afforded. 

John declared publicly that it was important for the lads to return to their clubs, but the comparative narrative in terms of Tipperary’s and Sheedy’s use of April was starkly contrasting. Is it a mere coincidence that both Clare (no club games) and Tipperary (minimal) won their respective openers?

The task doesn’t get much easier for the Rebels on Sunday against Kiely, Kinnerk and Co, the masters of planning, and of merging off-the-cuff with off-the-training-ground.

Expect Cork to be resurgent, but expect Limerick to win. Their ability to attack their success with the same level of scepticism that they have approached previous failures make them the standout team.

However, Cork might believe that four points will qualify you this year, unlike last.

Páraic Fanning is a serious hurling man and, having spent many seasons with Davy in both Wexford and Waterford, he must be a planner. 

He won’t be happy we conceded the middle third to Clare by virtue of under-populating it with Déise bodies. He will retrospectively agonise over not playing Brick and not springing Maurice earlier, particularly in Walsh Park.

He will realise that if Tadhg is to be a sitting six, as he has often been, then the area in front of him must be flooded with bodies that must include one from the full-forward-line, similar to what Limerick, Clare and Galway do.

Stephen Bennett has had a fine league and championship campaign to date. His confidence is sufficiently high, he’s not at a juncture where he’s looking over his shoulder anymore. Therefore, abdication of the free-taking duties and a return to the norm for Pauric Mahony should ensue.

If Conor Gleeson is detailed to man-mark Bubbles and thus ends up at six, then Waterford must ensure Tadhg is not detailed to a free-scoring wing-forward, but instead leave him match up with a worker who might not damage us on the scoreboard. 

John O'Dwyer
John O'Dwyer

This will allow him to read the play and set up attacks for a forward line I feel can expose a Tipperary defence whose concentration levels may dip this weekend. I expect the reunification of Kevin and Jamie at midfield, therefore adding thrust and an unpredictability in terms of attacking threat.

The debate and conjecture in Waterford all week was prompted by my great friend Tony Browne insinuating in these pages that perhaps Waterford are wrestling with two philosophies, presumably mine and Páraic’s.

 Joe Canning called it more intuitively recently, when he referenced how people view the tactics used by different teams, saying he finds it funny, because “being in it is totally different to how it is perceived in public”.

When I was Waterford manager, I loved the opportunity to impart plans to the players, trying at all times to ensure that no matter what ensued we would be the proactive team rather than a reactive one. The notion that there are two different philosophies at play is inaccurate, as is the populist debate around ‘sticking or twisting’. The reality is that all teams have the ability to stick and twist within games. This fluidity and flexibility is crucial.

Páraic Fanning now has at his disposal a group of lads who are inherently decent, honest and extremely talented. I have great admiration for the bullish stance he took after the game, correctly pointing out that “we’re not done yet”. 

When we head to Thurles on Sunday we must adopt this siege mentality, an approach Clare took against us in Walsh Park.

Observe the two crucial decisions regarding the line balls and focus in on the aggressive, manipulative and unified approach of their “Maor Uisces”. All on point, tuned in, and ready to win even the perceived small battles. The small battles are vital.

As he spoke of the ordinariness of his home life and the values imparted to him by his late parents, David Walsh of Netwatch stressed the importance of passion and focused particularly on methodical and detailed planning. 

This plan, he said, must be adaptive, flexible, bold and innovative. Above all, he spoke of the sage-like advice his dad inculcated and imparted frequently: “In life, if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.”

My thoughts turned to the characters in that Waterford dressing room. Moran, Brick, O’Keeffe, the Mahonys, the Gleesons, Shanahan, Connors, Barron and particularly de Búrca. Their ‘philosophy’ has seen them invest and commit to what and who they are. Why? Because their philosophy is something deeper, it’s emotional, it’s their psychological heartbeat. 

This allows madness and attitude to fuse with and act as a catalyst for an energy-filled implementation of a meticulous plan.

Do this and, as Bill Walsh says: “The score will take care of itself”.

Waterford to turn the Munster Championship on its head.

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