Previewing Kilkenny in the championship is increasingly difficult, says PM O’Sullivan.
OK the pundit’s lot elicits similar levels of sympathy to a fishmonger’s cat. But bear with me. Until these champions are beaten, their opposition can seem ranged against an era as much as a specific team. Waterford are up in this Sunday’s All Ireland semi-final and punditry’s song remains the same.
The first challenge for any current opponent, psychology wise, is an act of reduction.
They must shrink Kilkenny into a mere team. How are Waterford fixed in this regard? Not so bad, in one sense. They head for Croke Park unburdened by expectation.
That last word is the key one. This group, like previous Déise groups, relishes an underdog identity but appears to find anything approaching frontrunner status an inhibition. That Munster Final collapse to Tipperary four weeks ago was part of a narrative that runs back to 2002’s All Ireland semi-final, when Waterford, as Munster champions, should have won but Clare took the day by three points.
All hurling cultures differ. Waterford’s one rises giddy at hair trigger prompts. Within the county, there came a ridiculous response to Munster semi final victory over Clare on June 5 last. John Mullane wondered whether there was a team out there to beat his crowd. He was not a solitary voice on Planet Overreaction. Did nothing at all get learned from 2007 and All Ireland semi final defeat to Limerick, when complacency engulfed Suirside?
Part of the same phenomenon in 2016 saw WLR FM, the leading local radio station, announce in late June their best XV of the previous 25 years. Five current players (Stephen O’Keeffe, Noel Connors, Kevin Moran, Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh and Maurice Shanahan) were picked. This craic, as preparation for a Munster Final with Tipperary, was Humpty Dumpty stuff. That selection should have been left for discussion over plum pudding on Christmas Day, leaving off loose talk over fish and chips in Tramore. Kilkenny’s hurling culture is different for many reasons. Following 11 senior titles in 16 seasons, the place is much altered itself. There is no comparison with how the land lay in 1999.
Brian Cody has rewired the Noreside tradition. Before his reign, Kilkenny were viewed as supreme ballplayers but flaky enough ballwinners when the real flaking started. The 2010s have seen Kilkenny inherit Tipperary’s mantle as the game’s most lethal converter of opportunity into achievement.
Hurling wise, what is Waterford’s challenge this weekend? To be different, I would say. Can Waterford, with so much ability, dare to be different?
Recent history provides pointers. There is a commonality to Kilkenny’s defeats under Brian Cody, from 2001 and Galway in an All-Ireland semi-final to 2012 and Galway in a Leinster Final. Throw in the Galway of 2005’s All- Ireland semi-final, Tipp in the 2010 All Ireland final and Dublin in 2011’s NHL final.
All those opponents saddled a whirlwind. This factor meant they were out of sight with significant time left. Kilkenny forever die in their boots, as Cork rediscovered in a mere league tie last March, when they lost a six point lead with six minutes to go. Tipperary unlidded the same trait in 2009’s All Ireland Final, caught on the line by the sort of iron belief Kilkenny never possessed until the 2000s. To beat them, you must do something unexpected, get goals and force them to chase beyond their comfort zone. While the present side might not be as replete with sheer class as its late 2000s counterpart, their collective psyche is at least as strong and maybe even stronger.
Every day, Kilkenny get off the bus. They might underperform, as happened to some extent in the first-half during their last three championship outings, but they still have to be beaten. Kilkenny will not give up. The aptest question is the obvious one: how can Waterford eliminate the six point gap of 12 months past? What has changed? Scarce little, on the evidence of 2016. On this front, they are hardly so well fixed.
Recall a key passage in the 16th and 17th minutes of 2015’s outing. A high ball is delivered into the Kilkenny defence, where they are emphatically two on one with a Waterford forward. Paul Murphy fetches and moves the ball short to midfielder Conor Fogarty, who makes ground and handpasses to Walter Walsh. He immediately lays off to Pádraig Walsh, advancing up the right side.
Walsh sends low towards Ger Aylward, who is beaten by his marker, Noel Connors.
He handpasses to Tadhg de Búrca, Waterford’s sweeper, who sends short to Colin Dunford in midfield. He handpasses to Jamie Barron, who dispatches another high ball into Kilkenny’s full back line.
Now goalkeeper Eoin Murphy gathers at his ease and sends precisely to Michael Fennelly, over in left midfield. He drives high into attack, where TJ Reid engineers a collision between full-back Barry Coughlan and de Búrca. Then Reid sprints ahead, gathers smoothly off the ground and nets with precision beyond Stephen O’Keeffe, prising a lead of 1-3 to 0-3.
This sequence compresses the story of that contest. Waterford’s concession of space to Kilkenny defenders merely allowed their use of the ball to be cuter. What transpired?
A game-breaking goal.
A lead-establishing goal is that bit more difficult for Waterford to absorb, given they routinely hurl with only one inside forward. Chasing a lead with extra defenders and extra midfielders can be like bailing a boat with a colander.
Kilkenny will have prepared meticulously to meet what expect of Waterford. They will work the lateral channels and probe for openings. They will have noted how Tipperary crowded Tadhg de Búrca by making him a primary contester of possession rather than a secondary receiver of it.
Equally, this defence lacks pace on its left side. Placing Colin Fennelly at 10 and Walter Walsh at 13 (where he would have a marked advantage in reach over Noel Connors) could be a trump card. Richie Hogan at full forward is another click. So: can Waterford saddle a whirlwind? They have the requisite pace via Jamie Barron, the Bennett brothers, Patrick Curran, Colin Dunford, Austin Gleeson and Brian O’Halloran. But will we see those figures unleashed in this fashion?
We can infer merely on the hurling evident in 2016. On that basis, the whirlwind will not appear.
Hopefully some version of it drops but there have been no portents.
So: Kilkenny by a bit (and maybe by a nice bit if reports of Richie Hogan and Michael Fennelly scorching grass in training are accurate).
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