Needed an intro for this piece. Desperate times calling for non-desperate measures, put a call through to Kieran O’Connor. Yes, that Kieran O’Connor. Ace WLR FM commentator, Glanbia guy, old friend of this column and lifelong Examiner reader.
A leading question and, let’s face it, an unfair question. Nevertheless: Is the pool of hurling talent in Waterford better than it’s ever been, or at any rate better than it’s been since the mid-noughties? Kieran O’Connor pulls first time. Not only is the pool better, he responds, theof the pool is better. The quality, the depth, the range of clubs. The 14 different clubs represented on the all-conquering U21 outfit last year. The Clashmores and the Colligans and the Ballysaggarts. All those country boys enflamed a decade ago by the exploits of Ken and Tony and Dan the Man and Flynner and the De La Salle skinhead.
There’s even a cohort bubbling under outside of the current panel. A number of them saw service last month during the Munster League.
They’re not on the National League panel, which doesn’t mean that one or two of them won’t be on the championship panel. Whatever else Derek McGrath may lack, most obviously a card-carrying full-forward, he doesn’t lack for numbers. And hurling, as you’re surely by now weary of reading here, is at its root a numbers game.
Waterford travel north this weekend as the third best team in the land. That’s not to say they’d be likelier than Galway to beat Tipperary in the championship — beating, or nearly beating, Tipperary in the championship is Galway’s sole remaining Mastermind specialist subject, bless them — but they were as good as Kilkenny were last summer and there’s no reason to believe they won’t be as good as Kilkenny again this summer.
What’s more, while tomorrow’s outcome depends to an extent on precisely how strong an XV Brian Cody is able to field, there’s no reason to believe the visitors have anything less than a very good chance of bringing home the spoils.
To the bigger picture. For McGrath, this is almost a free league campaign. He doesn’t have to get beyond the quarter-finals. He doesn’t even have to get that far as long as he avoids relegation. The real battles — the right to play the way he sees fit and the task of bringing the county, or at least a grudging majority thereof, with him — have been fought and won. The existential struggle is over. It ended the moment Waterford went man for man against Kilkenny at Croke Park six months ago and hurled the ears off them for 55 minutes.
McGrath was “sick of moral victories”, he declared after the replay. He was eminently right to do so. Show me a good loser, etc. But that’s not to say he missed the significance of what his team achieved over the course of those seven days. This was an evolutionary step forward, nothing less. Anyone can get lucky — theoretically anyway — on the day against Kilkenny.
Nobody gets lucky twice in a row against the striped beast. Not without deserving it. Not without the talent, the focus, and the belief.
The only thing more impressive about Waterford last August than the brio they demonstrated in the drawn game was the grit they demonstrated in the replay. A five-point deficit early in the second half against slightly superior opponents might have been their cue to crumble. They did nothing of the sort. Character in adversity.
McGrath’s job from here is to experiment with the dials and settings on the machine. Twirl this one, twiddle that one.
Audition someone at full-back; the memory of how easily Colin Fennelly wafted past Barry Coughlan in the first half at Semple Stadium has not vanished. Broaden the footprint, both literally and metaphorically, because Waterford have to become accustomed to colonising the final 30m of the field.
This means finding a full-forward who can play with his back to goal and make the sliotar stick, thereby allowing them to go long whenever the mood takes them and thus varying their game. Although Waterford possess any number of nippy forwards who can come onto a ball at speed, these zippy little crafts require a lighthouse.
It’s not about skill. It’s not even about first touch. It’s about arms and legs and determination and bloodymindedness. Seamus Prendergast never had style but he had presence and he did an unglamorous job year after year. Waterford could do with a Seamus Prendergast now. In view of the depth of that playing pool, his doppelganger has to be out there somewhere.
If McGrath has a couple of issues to solve but at least is blessed with the resources to do so, then his opposite number tomorrow has a multitude of them to tackle.
Who’ll be full-back? Who’ll be centre-back? Does Cody leave Pádraig Walsh and Cillian Buckley where they are? (Surely. One doesn’t attempt to strengthen one area by weakening another.) Does Robert Lennon have the pace for inter-county hurling? Is Kieran Joyce, far from the biggest problem in the All-Ireland final but jointly the first man substituted, likely to improve at his age? Will Cody persist with Joey Holden after his Callanan calamity? (Interestingly, Michael Ryan revealed lately that, while acknowledging the real issue to be the supply of ball coming in from out the field, the Tipperary management would have made a change at full-back had they been in Cody’s position.)
And that’s just the defence… The chasm left by Michael Fennelly scarcely needs to be mentioned. More pressing and irritating are the absences of Ger Aylward, John Walsh, and James Maher, the latter so promising in the league last year until his season was ended by a bang from a marauding gate at home. All of them are in varying stages of fitness. All of them were required to be challenging for places from season’s throw-in.
It should be noted that Cody is embarking on his biggest renovation job since 2006 with the group that won the 2014 All-Ireland minor title. All very well, except that’s the same group beaten by Westmeath at U21 level last year. Well, nobody ever accused the man of not enjoying a challenge.
Another front to be faced is the limitations of the range of attackers he currently has to choose from. Tipperary — and they’re cited because they’re the present touchstone, just as Kilkenny were the touchstone for most of the past 15 years — possess four scoring forwards. Even if two of them are off-colour on any given day, the other two will do enough to get the team over the line provided Patrick Maher and Dan McCormack are pulling the dray as per usual.
Kilkenny have two scoring forwards — one scoring forward, come to that, if TJ Reid is deployed in midfield, as he was for so much of last summer. Richie Hogan may be very gifted indeed but he can’t do everything by himself. Henry couldn’t have either.
That’s not to say that Walter Walsh and Colin Fennelly don’t work hard. They do, but in both cases a lack of oil in the swing and a lack of meat in the strike means each manages a good scoring day once in every, say, three outings. Those injuries can’t clear up quickly enough.
If they do, consider this much. Last September the weakest Kilkenny iteration in an All-Ireland final since 2004 — featuring a half-forward line consumed without salt, pepper, and cutlery by Seamus Kennedy and the brothers Maher — still managed to post a score of 2-20. This minus the elder Fennelly; minus Aylward, a reigning All Star; and with one forward making his first championship start and another making his second.
To put it another way, they’re not bet yet.
Kieran O’Connor will be commentating tomorrow for WLR FM, incidentally. If you can get him on your radio or internet radio, do try. He’s very good.
(So I’m told, leastways. I wouldn’t know. I’m always in the press box and never hear him.)