DONAL O'GRADY: Cork energy serves culture shock to McGrath’s Déise

The concern in Cork prior to Sunday’s game was that Waterford, unlike Tipp, would adopt a tough, tight approach, cutting down Rebel space up front, strangling the game.

This never materialised. Waterford dispensed with their defensive system, going 15v15 in a disappointing display, where they were well below their best. This allowed Cork to play to their strengths.

There was lots of space up front. Kieran Kingston’s team were full of enthusiasm, endeavour, pace and power, with each defender dominating his opponent throughout the second half.

The Déise had 15 wides and only managed six scores in the second period, while Cork slipped over 13 points.

From the start, the Rebels showed great skill, resolve, and commitment. Playing without a sweeper, Waterford’s defenders were under pressure all through, while Cork’s defensive unit grew in stature as the game evolved.

The Rebels half-back-line were on top and this provided the necessary attacking platform. Once Cork’s half-backs gained possession, the Déise midfielders Jamie Barron — by far their best player — and Kevin Moran dropped off their men and began to retreat.

Accurate short quick passes bypassed these two and the Déise defence, used to a sweeper and midfield cover, was left exposed.

Cork’s forwards rotated and made diagonal support runs, based on a clear game-plan. In contrast, Waterford didn’t seem to have a structured plan.

Having dispensed with the sweeper, they were attempting to develop a different playing culture, but this takes time. They were outplayed, everywhere but on the scoreboard, in the first half. However, the team management didn’t avail of the half-time break to restructure their lineout to operate a more defensive set-up in the second half.

Cork had an opening game against Tipp whereas the Déise went almost three months without a competitive game. The men in red looked extremely sharp and played with a high tempo. Anyone tuning into the broadcasts from the Lions tour will hear constant references to defensive line speed.

Cork’s ‘line speed’ was excellent from the start. Their tackling was very quick and sharp. As a result, the Déise players got little time on the ball. This forced Waterford to be reactive rather than proactive, handing Cork the initiative.

Waterford have played with a sweeper in most of their games under Derek McGrath. Last Sunday they operated a conventional 15v15. I didn’t see the benefit of this change.

They hadn’t played for a long period and they may have been better off going with the tried and trusted.

Challenge games do not mirror the pace and intensity of championship. Defensively, the Déise played into Cork hands by going without the seventh defender. As a consequence, their inside defenders, Barry Coughlan and Noel Connors, were operating with a lot of open space outside them, with Cork playing accurate diagonal deliveries to the two-man inside attack.

Cork’s approach in their two championship games so far is based on pace, power, and quick support play.

The Rebels are playing to their strengths. The 30m/40m deliveries from defence and midfield are accurate and played to the advantage of the receiver. This has made a massive difference.

Opposing defenders are now caught in two minds with decisions to make and are forced to err on the side of caution, playing from behind thus giving the attacker the advantage.

In the first half, Cork created a number of goal chances. Harnedy’s strike was saved well by Stephen O’Keeffe but it was the right height for the ‘keeper with no bounce.

Pat Horgan, having broken clear from Noel Connors with a skilful little flick, should have run directly towards goal but stayed straight and dragged his shot wide. Alan Cadogan had another effort from a tight angle but O’Keeffe made a superb save.

On the run of play, Cork could easily have led by two goals at half-time. Waterford may have been lulled into a false sense of security by levelling the match just before half-time. However, the creation of these good goal chances in the first period should have set alarm bells ringing in the Déise dugout.

In a pregame interview, Derek McGrath told RTÉ reporter Joanne Cantwell that the team were in training for the past eight weeks. Disappointed Déise fans may feel entitled to ask why they failed to shut down Anthony Nash’s excellent puckout strategy, having had the training time to do so.

It was clear from the Tipp game that Cork’s prime puckout targets, Conor Lehane and Mark Coleman, who were both excellent again, needed to be negated. However, Coleman received three in the first half while Lehane was allowed to drift onto the left wing unmarked, directly in front of the Waterford bench, taking four puckouts.

Ferocious tackling back by attackers is a prerequisite for success in the modern game. It is a major help to a defence as those delivering the ball to the attack are less accurate, being forced to hit under pressure.

This tactic requires energy and enthusiasm, which Cork had in abundance. However, Waterford were devoid of the necessary ingredients to put these tactics into practice and the Rebels were afforded the vital second or two to take the correct option and pick out receivers in space.

Austin Gleeson scored two points from play, the same tally as Seamie Harnedy. However, that is where the comparison ends. Whereas Harnedy roamed and ran with power and intent, Gleeson brought little to the Déise cause.

He was handed a free role in the first half but achieved little. I think he operates better in a defined position and Waterford need to find one quickly for last year’s hurler of the year.

If Waterford are to progress through the qualifiers and beyond, they need an injection of pace into the attack. When McGrath and his backroom team sit down to pore over the entrails of this defeat they may feel an eight-week training period was far too long and that it dulled, rather than sharpened, their focus.

The post-game ‘pitch invasion’ by Cork fans signalled a newfound confidence off the field. “We’re back” was the comment of many after the game on Sunday. On the field, the massive hit by Bill Cooper on Waterford captain Kevin Moran signalled a newfound physicality and intent as Cork marched resolutely into the Munster final.


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