Waterford dared to be different.
Management and hurlers held hands and jumped. Last weekend’s result was twofold: a 21st-century classic, plumped by the bonus of a replay. There should be a much bigger crowd in Semple Stadium tomorrow evening than travelled last Sunday afternoon to Croke Park. Is it too much to say that people fell back in love with the most beautiful game?
Those of us who could always see the raw ability in this Waterford group were frustrated. Their talent was becoming overcooked through a weighty emphasis on systems and structures at the expense of instinct and speed. That emphasis had served its purpose, establishing stability as regards performance level and thereby establishing confidence.
Not every championship hour carries the same weight. Some moments are ‘must perform’ and some moments are ‘must win’. For Waterford, last Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final hovered between those two co-ordinates.
Derek McGrath, as manager, had a call to make. Managers live and die by their calls, same as poker players. He changed his mind, judging by post-Munster Final comments.
McGrath proved prescient. This time round, going orthodox offered the ambush potential. Equally, if he wants to be there in 2017, McGrath could not oversee a loss using a sweeper. Management wise, he could afford second best while deploying an orthodox formation. This scenario offered a potent retort: ‘Here is what happens when you go away from our system…’
All credit to McGrath and colleagues. Courage is the only sure source of momentum. Once it became clear Tadhg de Búrca, against Kilkenny, would be centre-back rather than sweeper, Headquarters rippled with energy and anticipation. The day’s hurling fell in line.
The Déise hurling tradition, at its best, is far more articulate havoc than speak and spell. Item: the county produced 25 or so minutes of hurling at the start of a qualifier tie against Wexford in 2003 that were quite phenomenal. Led by Ken McGrath and John Mullane, selection moved the ball with severe and unnerving brilliance, changing the angle of attack at will, shooting into a five-point lead without scoring a goal. The standard of that hurling got matched few times in the 2000s. The other side of their tradition saw Waterford lose said contest by five points. A Wexford goal before half-time, abrading the run of play, seemed to spook them. They fell away in the second-half, losing the game because they lost that unnerving rhythm.
Fatally, Waterford ended up failing to match their own standard. Meanwhile, Wexford held onto their coattails and ended up garbed in overperformance.
2003 is worth recalling for the instructive value of sublime and ridiculous when juxtaposed. Last weekend, Waterford verged on sublime. Some of their score-taking was of the highest order. Save for the semi-final’s last 10 minutes, when they defended too deep, Waterford’s players trusted to first thoughts. This new emphasis served terrifically well, launching them to the brink of a remarkable victory.
Caveat time… Last weekend was a jump. Tomorrow is far different. Tomorrow will have been a long walk to the ring while holding a stare.
Different qualities are required. If Waterford can make the requisite mental adjustments, they have every chance of being in Croke Park on September 4. The ability, honed by a fresh emphasis, is all there.
Waterford must learn to hurl amid streamers of expectation. This facet has never been a strength. Tomorrow evening in Thurles is a cusp moment. Surmount this replay and this group should be mentally strong for a long spell.
Those expectations, so soon after grievous Munster Final disappointment at Tipperary’s hands, are once again considerable. I spent an hour in a pub on Waterford’s Vulcan Street last Wednesday evening. There were two pleasant elderly gentlemen across from me, both much nearer 80 than 70.
Said one to the other: “That Austin Gleeson, he’s every bit as good as Christy Ring! And I saw Ring…” Here was a sliver. We are back to feast or famine, heaven or hell, black or white. This weekend, Waterford require the matt grey of focus.
Relatedly or not, there was mucho cribbing in Déise circles about the Hawk-Eye decision that ruled wide Kevin Moran’s 67th-minute shot. That effort could have granted the buffer of a four-point lead.
Any cribbing runs beside the point. People who do not believe in the efficiency of Hawk-Eye would do well to avoid air travel when departing on holiday.
More seriously, this technology might have done Waterford a disguised favour. If sent through by a point on August 7, I doubt they would have won on September 4. Surmount tomorrow and they will have every chance of seizing that day. Every outing pushes Munster Final collapse further into the distance. Besides, a young side thrives on the nutrition provided by big occasions.
Kilkenny forever die in their boots. Never was this quality more evident than last weekend. Any other team, down five points and with so many championship miles clocked, would have lost by ten points.
While Kilkenny might not survive tomorrow, they have certainly paid their way in 2016. Only supreme champions could hurl 70 plus minutes on the back foot and stay standing. While nearly everyone wants to see them beaten, as is perfectly understandable, this truth deserves to be noted.
As widely noted, Brian Cody no longer owns that many options in the personnel department. There is far more scope for an alteration in mood than in the starting team.
Cody might obtain this change. Everything we know about these Kilkenny hurlers indicates they will have been extremely unhappy to see images of their captain being screamed at all over newsprint. Shane Prendergast is a particularly popular member of the panel.
Unusually and pleasingly, Sunday is another semi-final day. Galway, in absolute terms, look a bit short of Tipperary. 12 months ago, they bridged that deficit by a combination of hectic adventure on the day and Tipperary’s complacency before the day.
A big part of why Tipp will likely become All Ireland Champions in September 2016 is August 2015. The chafe of that slip can only be salved by Dr Liam MacCarthy.
For Tipperary, there can be no excuses. Their ball occupies a perfect lie, having teed up perfectly via reasons anticipatable and unanticipatable. That clean strike is a matter of concentration and application, because the necessary skill set is there.
Over to them.
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