Saturday night in Croke Park was the classic game of two halves. Waterford’s superb display in the second half was in total contrast to their tentative efforts in the opening period.
Early in the game, they looked unsettled and anxious. Their touch was off, they lacked the interplay and hard running that was a hallmark of their previous performances. Composure, that vital ingredient for success was also absent.
A lack of composure forces a team into poor decision-making and this was a feature of Déise play in the first 30 minutes. However, after the break there was a complete turnaround: they looked a different outfit. They were much more composed and they executed their gameplan perfectly.
Kilkenny opened strongly and they put a tense Waterford under severe pressure from the beginning. The Noresiders hunted in packs. Their forwards funnelled back energetically into the middle third supporting their defenders who were patient and sharp in the tackle. Their inside attack drew their opponents outfield creating lots of space. Centre forward TJ Reid, alternated between an outfield role and supporting his inside attack.
The Déise were finding it difficult to contain him as he roamed in and out. Whether Waterford’s shaky performance was completely down to Kilkenny’s sustained pressure or was a result of some big game nerves will only be known by the immediate camp.
When a defence is under pressure, as Waterford’s was, they make mistakes. They conceded two goals in that opening half. Stephen O’Keeffe erred in not leaving his goal to intercept the through ball with Martin Keoghan netting Kilkenny’s first while TJ Reid latched onto a breaking ball off fullback Conor Prunty’s hand to dispatch a strong shot to the net for their second. This put the Cats in front by eight points after 25 minutes.
However, Kilkenny were wasteful and had poor wides at a time when they were dominant. Seven points down at the break was manageable. Twelve down would have been a horse of a different colour. Waterford never panicked. They fought back and outscored their opponents 0-4 to 0-3 in the final five minutes. This was significant as they showed in this period that Kilkenny were vulnerable when attackers ran at their defence.
A team must be aggressive to win any contest but they must also be relaxed and composed on the ball. The half time break gave Déise manager Liam Cahill the opportunity to stress the positives as well as their poor decision-making. Waterford had nine wides in the first half. Five of these were low percentage shots which fell into the ‘poor wide’ category. They were seven points behind on the turnaround but I’m sure, Cahill, stressed the number of chances they had created and how their direct running at Kilkenny yielded scoring opportunities.
Cahill would have re-emphasised the gameplan that had got them to this stage. He would have stressed the need for calmness, composure, belief and to trust in their fitness levels. He knew that Waterford had a month’s fitness work on Kilkenny. When a team is down at half-time by a significant score it can have the effect of releasing the shackles. It allows a team to relax completely, to play without fear and to ‘go for it’ with the players deciding on a ‘nothing to lose’ attitude.
Whatever it was, it had the required effect. Waterford hit Kilkenny with a ‘tour de force’ display in the second half. They scored 2-17 (2-16 from play) as Kilkenny were completely outplayed. Only the superb TJ Reid and to a lesser extent John Donnelly added to their reputations.
Waterford did all the damage in a tremendous third quarter. They took over the middle third striking 1-11 to 0-4 to lead by three points. Their half-forward line dropped deep into the middle creating an overload. The Kilkenny half backline didn’t mark tightly and this allowed Waterford pockets of space for neat, well-practised interplay before running at their opponents.
The Kilkenny attack didn’t funnel back with the same energy or effect as they had in the opening period. As a result, there was lots of exploitable space for Waterford’s attackers. Kilkenny’s under pressure defence was left facing waves of Waterford attackers with little help from upfield colleagues.
Kilkenny lost most of Eoin Murphy’s long puck outs in this half as Calum Lyons and the retreating Jack Fagan dominated the air. Murphy had lots of opportunities to go short. However, when Kilkenny attempted to move the ball from short puck outs they got bogged down. As a consequence, the supply of good ball to the inside attack dried up. Kilkenny lost their way once they hit the Waterford wall in midfield. The intended receivers were static when taking offloads and as a result they were easy targets for Déise tacklers. It was obvious that transitioning from short puck outs was rarely practiced on Noreside.
In contrast, Waterford were fluid with players coming onto short passes at the correct angles and at pace as they transitioned from defence.
Stephen O’Keeffe’s restarts, both short and long in the second period were well directed especially to the right half forward position. They won almost 80% puck out possession- a huge statistic in their favour.
Austin Gleeson, Jack Fagan, and Stephen Bennett were very prominent under these and quick transfers to colleagues moving into space or direct shots from puckout possession led to scores.
Calum Lyons and Bennett had brought the fight to the Cats in the first period. Bennett led the charge again in the 38th minute. A simple over the top pass released the Ballysaggart man-of-the-match to run powerfully at the goal from the right. There was acres of space, unusual for modern defences, but there was no covering defender from midfield or attack and Bennett struck for an inspirational goal.
In light of the collapse against Dublin, I wonder if the Kilkenny management considered clogging up the midfield area and defence at half time, for the opening ten minutes, to kill any comeback. Kilkenny’s four replacements up front contributed little while reinforcements were needed elsewhere. In contrast, Waterford’s bench contributed a huge work-rate and 1-3 with a goal from sub Darragh Lyons.
In all team sports, we hear a lot about leaders standing up when needed. The Déise had them in abundance. Jamie Barron ruled midfield. Stephen Bennett and Austin Gleeson were superb while Calum Lyons, Jack Fagan and Ian Montgomery got through an amount of work. Waterford were a team of leaders in that second half.