So important in this contest. I expect Waterford to line-out with Tadhg de Búrca playing his usual sweeper role, Darragh Fives policing Joe Canning with Kieran Bennett at right half-back. Noel Connors may switch corners to mark the dangerous Conor Whelan, while Shane Fives would mark the much taller Johnny Glynn. Mícheál Donoghue will have some planning to do at the other end. I expect to see Gearóid McInerney move sideways to police Michael Walsh, Daithí Burke to mark Shane Bennett while Pádraig Mannion follows Austin Gleeson. Adrian Tuohy and John Hanbury would concentrate on Pauric Mahoney and Jake Dillon respectively while Aidan Harte would have a free role.
Waterford have a strong bench and Derek McGrath has a formula for impact substitutions. He introduces Maurice Shanahan and pacy attackers, Brian O’Halloran and Tommy Ryan, when the play opens up near the finish to close out games. Galway have replacement attackers, notably Jason Flynn. Galway have ‘ball-winning ability’ on the ‘edge of the square’ if route one ball is required near the finish. It’s an area in which the Déise have been found wanting at times and are liable to be tested at some stage. The one problem for the Tribesmen is that they are short of defensive cover, particularly in the full-back line since Paul Killeen was injured against Dublin.
Waterford’s system is designed to prevent opposition scores and it always works better when defending a lead as the seven defenders can sit back in their traditional positions. Their primary aim is to prevent goal chances. In their previous three games, the Déise have started well. Against Kilkenny they led by four points after 20 minutes. The gap was five after a similar period against Wexford. It was level against Cork after 20 minutes but they led by two points on the half hour mark.
A good start is essential for Waterford. It affirms their system. Kevin Moran and Brick Walsh have been to the fore in the early stages in their ‘backdoor run’. Pauric Mahoney and Austin Gleeson operate near midfield. Michael Walsh patrols the right flank in acres of space as they play without a right-corner forward. There is a direct contest then between Walsh and his marker, with no covering defender inside. Clever diagonal ball is provided from the opposite side by Jamie Barron and Walsh uses his considerable strength and experience in these situations. He is backed up by Kevin Moran and Pauric Mahoney coming from deeper positions. Waterford’s confidence has been boosted by their early good play. It has allowed them to ‘settle’ into the games and they will be aware that Galway’s defence looked uncomfortable at times when opponents ran at them.
All-Ireland finals are different. They are won by dominating the important time periods, the beginning and end of each half. Galway will want a good start and they will be well aware that their chances of success will be boosted considerably by preventing early opposition scores. In the first 20 minutes, this could be achieved by midfielders David Burke and Johnny Coen operating just in front of their half-back line. The half-forward line would drop into midfield while two of their inside attack would operate further out the field, leaving Conor Whelan to occupy the left corner position.
This tactic would condense the play in midfield, cut down on the space available to their attacking opponents and crucially deny Waterford the time to deliver accurate forward deliveries. It would also force the Waterford defence to keep two players back on Whelan while the others would have to play further out from goal in an alien ‘man to man’ defensive system, rather than employ their usual zonal defence, with no cover from the sweeper. Galway’s forwards are tall and strong. They are very mobile, interchangeable and versatile with an ability to score from long range. Slick inter-passing from deep would provide the space for them to run at the Déise defence. This would provide scoring opportunities and negate the value of the Waterford sweeper.
Correct options, more so than possession, holds the key to any game. Waterford’s ‘keeper Stephen O’Keeffe is more inclined to hit long, rather than short puck-outs aiming for Austin Gleeson or Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh. He may have to seek out a free defender to run the ball out of defence.
Galway are quite strong in the air and defenders only have to ensure that an opponent doesn’t gain possession, a much easier proposition than an overhead catch. In general play, Tadhg De Búrca may have to go forward more frequently than he usually does, offloading to the supporting Barron or Moran as they drive forward or to “hit” his forwards with accurate, shorter ball.
Galway will want O’Keeffe to go long with his restarts. However, the Déise will have seven defenders to Galway’s six, so one defender will be free to receive short puck-outs. The opposition always decide who is free as a receiver. Galway attackers should leave Noel Connors free but mark all the others tightly. The aim would be to force a long delivery from either corner which is easily defended by a drifting defence. A return pass to the keeper also forces a long delivery down one wing. Not allowing the short puck-out receiver to offload to colleagues will be essential. If the corner-back attempts to run the ball out, forwards should back off until he reaches a preplanned position and then force him to strike under pressure. This would be the mainstay of the plan.
Of course Colm Callanan, Galway’s netminder, also has a huge responsibility on his shoulders when it comes to restarts. Aidan Harte, free from marking duties, is very competent receiving short puck-outs. It is important that he doesn’t then launch the ball aimlessly into the sweeper’s domain. Galway defenders’ use of the ball against Tipp was less than perfect. Striking long aimless deliveries forward will only play into the hands of the Déise defence and build their confidence. Galway have attackers that will thrive if they gain possession in ‘one on one’ situations. Short accurate deliveries are always a surer way to achieve this objective.
A good first touch comes from confidence and mental relaxation. Big match nerves and pressure impact negatively on this vital ingredient for success. Galway deserve to be favourites. This brings its own pressures. However, they will have learned from their final defeats in 2012 and ‘15. The Tribesmen will be comfortable in the surroundings of Croke Park, as they have been regular visitors to headquarters on big occasions over the last five years. They look a different outfit this year with an air of confidence and self-belief. Waterford were bereft of these necessary ingredients in the 2008 final. Moran and Walsh played that day. Their experience and that of Dan Shanahan and Eoin Murphy of the ‘lead in time’ to that final will have helped Derek McGrath avoid some pitfalls, making for better mental preparation.
“Tosach maith” is “leath na hoibre” and so important for both teams but especially for Waterford.
Otherwise, their confidence may suffer. They cannot afford for any doubts to invade their minds, even if they are behind on the final stretch.
If this is the scenario with ten minutes left, Galway will play with an eight-man defence and clog up midfield. If this is the situation, Waterford must continue to believe.
Both teams have many strengths and some weaknesses. They will cancel each other out in various areas. Some finals are decided by creativity. Some are decided by mistakes. Composure is a vital ingredient for finishing chances and for ‘mistake prevention’. The more composed side usually prevails.