Today, RTÉ Two, Sky Sports Mix, 6pm
Rather less than the sceptics are touting, one suspects. Liam Cahill’s troops are young, they’re fit, they’re mad for road and they have momentum. Their efforts over the past fortnight shouldn’t have drained them, given that they hurled on one carpet in Thurles and another in Cork. Despite the turnover of personnel in the interim their victory three years ago exploded a non-winning run against Kilkenny that went back to 1959' ergo the sight of the stripes won’t be a subconscious issue.
What’s more, Cahill has demonstrated an ability to diagnose problems and tackle them. After the Munster final it was clear Waterford needed goals. They did more than merely discuss the issue. In each of their first three attacks last Saturday they went bald-headed for goals - and scored two.
Very much among the ranks of middleweights, but on their day a middleweight with a hefty punch, as Limerick and Galway can testify. Have won four of their last five championship outings, which bespeaks an easily overlooked level of consistency.
The result aside, the main takeaway from their performance a fortnight ago was the manner in which they attempted to work the ball up and across the field. A one-off or a portent? We’ll see, but it’s not as though Waterford’s configuration will flummox them. If Kilkenny hit enough ball into Tadhg De Burca to make him the man of the match they’ll not only lose, they’ll deserve to lose.
As TJ Reid can only do so much Brian Cody will need more from Colin Fennelly, taken off after 51 minutes against Galway having failed to score. Although his role is that of link man operating with his back to goal, the Leinster champions are not so burdened with assassins to be able to afford Fennelly as merely a “worked hard”.
With two goals and a smart assist for a third, Dessie Hutchinson produced quite the first half against Clare. At 23 he’s physically mature despite his lack of top-class experience and as a latecomer has a refreshing chutzpah about him. He may soar; he may bomb. But if he were to finish with, say, 1-1 or 0-3 beside his name, that would constitute a highly satisfactory Croke Park debut.
With his hammer, Brian Cody may look to nail Waterford’s own mallet in de Búrca who is in All-Star form at the moment. De Búrca’s diligence, doggedness and distribution as a sitting centre-back were his calling cards prior to this year but it’s his attacking play that has been obvious in Waterford’s outings so far. He is unquestionably strong in the air but Reid is a different prospect under a dropping ball and should de Búrca lose a couple of those tussles it would be as psychologically damaging to the Waterford cover. The Kilkenny attack is more evolved that defences realise - if de Búrca can deal with Reid then the Déise have a real chance.
For the second weekend in a row, a referee hails from the same county as one of the managers - this time Horgan and Liam Cahill. Given he played the game to a high level, Fergal would have had a good feel for the game and probably understood intent more than others. However, in recent seasons he probably let too much go and it has cost him final appointments.
I think back to that Galway-Clare replay in 2018 as a prime example of him overdoing the “let the game flow”. Somebody clearly had a word with Fergal last year because this season he is calling fouls quicker but he is finding it difficult to strike the balance between the rules and helping to make the game a spectacle. There’s no doubt he can but he’s not there yet.
At this stage, there shouldn’t be too many things in hurling that surprise Brian Cody but his body language after the Leinster semi-final and final victories said otherwise. For different reasons, it screamed, “How did we get away with it?” Ger Loughnane was criticised four years ago for claiming Cody was doing wonders with a “functional beyond belief” Kilkenny side. It wasn’t without foundation then, nor now, but the current side are finding ways of winning games not known to many.
After one weekend off in six, Cavan’s win over Donegal last weekend has blown the theory about too many games out of the water but it still applies to hurling. No team in the Munster round-robin stages has won three weekends in succession and it has to be a factor for Waterford, as young, fit, and nimble as they are.
It was exuberance which cost them in the final quarter of the Munster final against a more calculating Limerick side and Kilkenny have enough wise heads to anchor that impetuousness. That being said, this is a field Dessie Hutchinson will have been dreaming of playing since he returned from soccer and the fast turf will appeal to his style.
Colin Fennelly and Walter Walsh won’t have needed reminders after their mediocre returns in the Leinster final and how Kilkenny went on to win it without them is healthy. But it is those All-Ireland winners who will be required here as it’s that pedigree that separates them from their southern neighbours.
Waterford’s work ethic is incredible but Kilkenny can not only match it but use their energy more efficiently and productively.
Kilkenny 3-20 Dublin 2-22 (Leinster semi-final)
Kilkenny 2-20 Galway 0-24 (Leinster SHC final)
TJ Reid 2-20 (0-15 frees), Billy Ryan 1-2, Richie Hogan 1-2, Colin Fennelly 1-1.
Waterford 1-28 Cork 1-24 (Munster semi-final)
Limerick 0-25 Waterford 0-21 (Munster SHC Final)
Waterford 3-27 Clare 3-18 (All-Ireland SHC quarter-final)
Stephen Bennett 0-24 (0-17 frees, 0-1 ‘65’), Dessie Hutchinson 2-6, Austin Gleeson 0-8
2017: Waterford 4-23 Kilkenny 2-22 aet (All-Ireland Qualifier)
2016: Kilkenny 2-19 Waterford 2-17 (All-Ireland semi-final) replay
2016: Kilkenny 1-21 Waterford 0-24 (All-Ireland semi-final) draw
2015: Kilkenny 1-21 Waterford 0-18 (All-Ireland semi-final)
2013: Kilkenny 1-22 Waterford 2-16 aet (Rd 3 Qualifiers)
This will be the 20th time that Brian Cody has led Kilkenny into the All-Ireland semi-final since taking over as manager in 1999. They have won 16, drawn one and lost two - the defeats coming against Galway in 2001 and 2005. It will be the tenth time Cody has led Kilkenny against Waterford in the championship, winning seven, drawing one and losing one.
Waterford have made huge progress. Liam Cahill has said he’s prepared to go toe-to-toe with anybody and they’ve been very positive, using players in the best positions. Their workrate and speed is something to behold. The newcomers are playing very well, Jamie Barron is running the show and Tadhg de Búrca outstanding. Cahill won’t fear Kilkenny and Croke Park should suit. But they conceded three goals against Clare, who created six goal chances.
And Croke Park is Kilkenny’s second home. Brian Cody made hard calls the last day and they finished with a very strong team. There’s the reinvention of Richie, the brilliance of TJ and Padraig Walsh, Conor Delaney playing very well, Conor Browne coming into his own. I feel Kilkenny have a point to prove and in what could be a swansong for one or two, I think they’ll get vital goals at key stages.