DONAL O'GRADY: Thurles action proves hurling landscape has changed forever

Prior to the weekend certain question marks hung over the Waterford camp.

The chief one was about their attitude approaching yesterday’s Allianz League semi-final.

Having won the title last year, would it be a case of ‘been there, done that’ and some wondered if their focus had already shifted from this league semi-final towards their Championship clash with Clare.

Maurice Shanahan, their target man and their sole inside forward for most of their games, was out through injury and I felt Waterford manager Derek McGrath would see his loss as an opportunity to tweak their system as a further road test for the summer campaign.

I was in no doubt about Limerick’s attitude. Having lost promotion from Division 1B to Clare with a below par performance, this was redemption time.

McGrath left us in no doubt in his pre-match interview with TG4 that Waterford were ‘up’ for this game and Dan Shanahan expressed a similar view point when I met him on the pitch earlier.

You can usually judge a team’s intent when you watch their warm-up. The Déise looked enthusiastic and sharp as they went through their routine.

They also brought this sharpness to bear on proceedings, particularly in the second-half.

Limerick, (with seven of last year’s U21 side), won the toss and elected to play with the breeze. There was nothing between the teams in that opening half, however, all was to change dramatically after the break.

Waterford tacked on 1-6 in the first 15 minutes of the second-half. Limerick had only two points in reply with 12 minutes between each score. McGrath’s men upped the pace all over the pitch tackling quickly and effectively and inexperienced Limerick were in trouble. Shane Bennett was taken down going through and he smashed the resultant penalty to the net. It was a key moment and try as they did, Limerick simply couldn’t reel their opponents in.

Waterford have been criticised for a lack of goals this spring. However yesterday they a finished series of good chances. The highly impressive Brick Walsh cleverly set up young Patrick Curran who finished confidently for their second which sealed the win.

Limerick had chances to close the gap in the second period but their shooting let them down.

By contrast, Waterford were ultra-economical with their possession in this period. They had no wides and their work rate and clever recycling of possession kept the pressure on Limerick’s creaking defence.

Limerick hit only five wides in this second-half, but their last three would have drained confidence as they ran out of ideas to deal with Waterford’s system and power plays.

The Limerick forwards, apart from Tom Morrissey, failed to put the opposition defence under any kind of pressure Limerick needed goals but the Déise defensive system generally provides excellent cover for Stephen O’Keefe and did so again yesterday.

For this game Tadhg De Búrca, who was expected to play in the centre as a sweeper, operated at right half back negating any plan Limerick may have hatched to reduce his influence as a sweeper.

Waterford honed their system over two seasons while Limerick’s playing personnel are simply not equipped to face this type of challenge at this juncture.

Anyone in Thurles will have seen that hurling has changed completely.

Match programme numbers mean very little, particularly from midfield forward.

The game has completely changed from the orthodox 15 in set positions. It is now a completely counterattacking game where players funnel back quickly to squeeze the space available for opposition attackers and then move the ball at pace as support runners race from behind with defenders out of position.

Teams are content to give up possession from puck-outs, the majority hit to defenders. Limerick won 20 of their 32 puck-outs which would have been an impressive stat in an orthodox game whereas Waterford only lost four from their 28.

As always it is the scoring stat that makes the difference. Limerick had 19 scores from 29 chances. Waterford had 26, including three goals, from 29.

It has the makings of an intriguing final.


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