DONAL O'GRADY: Waterford must be proactive to inconvenience settled Kilkenny

At this stage everyone knows what you get with Kilkenny. 

They will employ their usual system; all-out defence once they lose possession. Both midfielders, Michael Fennelly and Conor Fogarty drop swiftly into defence, acting like two sweepers while the half-forwards funnel back as far as the half-back line to clog up attacking avenues.

The full-forwards also deploy themselves towards the 45m line. However, through their understanding of attacking formation, their athleticism, and their skill, they seamlessly turn defence into attack once they regain possession.

The smooth operation of this strategy separates Kilkenny from their rivals. Their half-backs and forwards move forward in unison once possession is regained.

Walter Walsh now displays a serious defensive work-rate while still popping up to fire over points or set up scores for others. He is now akin to Eoin Larkin in his prime. 

Richie Hogan and TJ Reid display great attacking nous while also engaging in the heavy defensive lifting around midfield. Lots of bodies congregate in the middle third making it difficult to launch creative attacks against them. A tried and tested system hard to break down.

Kilkenny are still winning matches but against serious opposition they are only managing a single goal a game which can keep opponents interested until the finish.

Kilkenny have always sought out the weak spot in the opposition, whether through direct match-ups or probing deliveries. They will seek to drag Noel Connors around and to the opposite wing as he is most effective in the left corner. 

Wing-backs Padraig Walsh and Cillian Buckley, as well as Michael Fennelly, may take a page from the Tipperary Munster Final playbook and launch angled high deliveries down on the Waterford 13m line.

I was a little alarmed to see Waterford’s sweeper Tadhg dé Burca attack high deliveries with a one-handed blocking motion against Wexford. Control can be easily lost with this blocking action and control is everything against Kilkenny.

Their highest possible level of aggression, allied to a steely discipline, must underpin the Waterford performance. They need to be proactive rather than reactive, taking the game to the champions and meeting every challenge full on. Anything less will not do.

Can this be achieved by the current panel? Aggression is relatively easy. Disciplined aggression is a different matter. The Cats need to feel similar pressure to that encountered against Tipp in 2009 and 2010. 

The concession of ‘low value’ scoreable frees to Kilkenny releases the pressure valve and must be avoided at all costs. In general life, discipline can be taken to mean punishment for poor behaviour. In team sport. discipline means a lot more than the non-concession of frees. Basically, it means changing one’s behaviour by learning from negatives and turning them to positives.

The video of last year’s corresponding fixture pinpointed many Waterford negatives. Chief amongst these was the non-existent marking of Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan for four of his five points. 

The first came from an uncontested catch under a long puckout, similar to Tipp’s second and third goals in the Munster Final. TJ Reid’s game-defining goal in the first half of that game was the result of poor defensive organisation, same as Tipp’s first and fifth goals. These are basic defensive fundamental and a huge improvement in this area is needed for Waterford to have any chance. Kilkenny usually punish any defensive deficiencies.

Déise ‘keeper Stephen O’Keeffe can be careless with his ‘protection of the sliotar’. In last year’s semi-final, he was directly responsible for three Kilkenny points. O’Keeffe must ensure that all his possessions are productive. 

I would use him as a receiver for outlet ball from under-pressure defenders. Rather than recycling from his goalmouth, I would have him making ground out the wing for 30 metres or so. From there, he could fashion 40 metre accurate passes to colleagues or drive long to the fringe of Kilkenny’s square.

Derek McGrath knows he needs something different. He could place Austin Gleeson around centre-back with no marking duties, allowing him drive forward and shoot from long range or to offload to parallel runners. While Kevin Moran could go head-to-head with Michael Fennelly in a big psychological battle.

When Waterford play one or two inside and their half forward line drops deep, the gap between the two lines is too great. Advantage lies with the defence. To close this gap, McGrath could place his four attackers around the half-forward line and have them offload to runners from midfield or parallel forward runners.

Colin Dunford needs to be deployed in this area for his pace. Carrying the ball and running directly at the goalposts will yield more goal chances. Waterford must also cut down their wides tally. 

They need to recycle the ball quicker and not hit aimless deliveries wide or short into Eoin Murphy, as they did last year. It would be far better for Waterford to knock the ball into touch at the Kilkenny corner-flag in a preplanned way, if there are no passing options up front. Then they can push up tight for the resultant ‘cut’.


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