Clinical Kilkenny brush aside sweeper fears

The advice given by the wise newspaper editor in the case of Liberty Valance all those years ago still holds: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Clinical Kilkenny brush aside sweeper fears

In the case of yesterday’s All-Ireland semi-final, however, we need to tread warily when it comes to possible errors in the mythology.

Kilkenny as avatars of the game played as it unfolds in front of them? Waterford betrayed by the now-famous system, sent back to the southeast to brood on creating goals?

No. Kilkenny held their own shape well yesterday and had clearly planned for a spare man; Waterford’s defeat wasn’t caused by deploying a sweeper. First things first, though.

The game was delayed yesterday by quarter of an hour because of the drawn minor match, but any tension generated among the 41,122 spectators by the late throw-in evaporated long before Brian Gavin’s final whistle. We had quite a few references during the week to the previous semi-final clashes between the counties, with the 2004 shoot-out fondly remembered, but yesterday had more in common with 1998’s airless, dour encounter.

There was the same imbalance in experience and the same sense of a game which slowly deflated in the closing stages. Not all the comparisons stand up — we’ve had far more instances in the last couple of years of players truffling in rucks for possession, for instance — but the most significant similarity was the single goal which proved crucial.

TJ Reid’s swoop and strike at the end of the first quarter yesterday was clinical, and Kilkenny were never headed after it, but Derek McGrath and the rest of the Waterford management team will not enjoy rewinding the tape. After a season of discipline and decisiveness at the back, two Déise defenders went for the one ball, with the same result you get when you dangle pork chops in front of a piranha: acceptance without apology.

Reid had an accompanying apex predator further out the field in Richie Hogan. There had been rumours of a back injury last week which hardened into fact after the game, when his manager paid tribute to the player’s character in getting himself right.

Hogan spent some extra time on his back stretching and rolling before the throw-in and was hooked on his first possession, but then he clicked into that smooth economy we’ve come to associate with him.

Mick Mackey said that Waterford’s Frankie Walsh was a small man but he hurled big. The compliment suits Hogan. So does the company.

It would be stylistically neat to be able to pick a Kilkenny giant and say he was a big man who hurled small, but one of their mainstays also defied injury to contribute — Michael Fennelly’s long-standing back problem meant he was not the rampaging force he can be, but his interventions were telling, and he managed his resources to make inroads late in the second half.

In the white and blue corner, Waterford have become synonymous with having a spare man at the back and attacking in numbers from deep, and the inclination when you see the scoreline is to presume that this system broke down.

That would be the classical category error: Waterford were only two points down early in the second half thanks to fine scores by Maurice Shanahan and Kevin Moran, only to be undone by faulty handling and misplaced passes, not tactics, which restored the initiative to Kilkenny.

True, they might have ventured forward late on, when they still had three men loitering in the middle third even as their full-forward line was outnumbered. They badly needed a goal going into the final quarter, but more than once, Kilkenny were a pass or two away from a second goal which might have led to a third, and to the kind of punishment beating which could have undone a lot of the work done by Waterford in 2015.

“The first half was always a period of the game where it’s serious, serious stuff,” said Kilkenny boss Brian Cody afterwards.

“Kind of teasing each other out and all that kind of stuff.

“It was always going to be a huge battle and we went in at half-time two points up so, it wasn’t a bad situation for us to be in.

“The game probably opened more for us in the second half. And we probably created a bit more and the goal we got in the first half was crucial.

“But it was just a great game, I felt. A great contest from start to finish, really, from end to end. There was huge scores taken from all over the field from both teams. Also some misses as well but there were serious, serious, serious questions asked of both teams.” It’s safe to presume the Kilkenny boss was being tongue in cheek describing yesterday as a great game — he told an actual joke later, after all — but he was correct about the misses. We had a period of five wides around the three-quarter mark — three from the Cats, two Waterford — before Kilkenny hit three on the bounce to start killing the contest, as acknowledged by Waterford boss Derek McGrath.

“They do what they do,” he said of Kilkenny. “Just after half-time, I think they got a couple of points to nip ahead. Into the middle of the second half, we were relatively happy with how it was going but then in the last quarter, Kilkenny just drove on and they were worthy winners.

“Any analysis of us is balanced by a counter-analysis of how good Kilkenny are and how hard they are to physically compete with, and compete with hurling-wise as well.”

The honesty which has served McGrath and his colleagues so well all year didn’t desert him yesterday.

It’s interesting to compare Waterford’s efforts in competing with Kilkenny physically — all those knotted rucks, channels clogged with defenders — with Cork’s inability to come to terms with Galway’s power a few weeks ago.

Index-link Kilkenny’s display yesterday with Galway’s in Thurles and there’s enough material to give serious concern to Tipperary, the Tribesmen’s opponents in Sunday’s second semi-final.

The strands of the narrative are already converging on September 6 in terms of yet another instalment in the Kilkenny-Tipperary rivalry, but there is that small matter of next weekend first.

Whoever comes out of Sunday’s semi-final will find a consistency to the Kilkenny attitude next month even without the likes of Jackie Tyrrell and Richie Power, or with Richie Hogan and Michael Fennelly carrying injuries.

That’s been a constant under Brian Cody. The alternative, envisaging a team in black and amber who won’t engage in the battle? Go back to the John Ford canon for clarification. That’ll be the day.

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