Another giant stride on Waterford’s evolutionary road

The listings in the current edition of the RTÉ Guide announce that 3.30pm is “throw up” time in Thurles tomorrow. Two thoughts occur.

First, good sub-editors really have become an endangered species. Second, the error could turn out to be a Freudian slip. As this game comes with a clear government health warning attached, we’ll start by sketching the worst-case scenario. Just in case.

It’s as stark and unedifying as you imagine it to be. One manager, or both, decides to be clever with June 5 in mind. One team, or both, fail to seize the bull by the horns as comprehensively as they did last Sunday week. One team, or both, opt to play on the counter. Both sides being paranoid about the prospect of getting overloaded in the first two thirds of the field, chaos ensues between the two 45s.

It is like the Red Cow roundabout at 5pm of a Friday. It is like the first half of Clare and Limerick last summer. It is utterly horrific to behold.

A turgid point-scoring battle ensues and next week’s papers resurrect those thousand furrow-browed Goals Are Dead pieces they had prepared for after the semi-finals.

Not that it should come to that. We’re not expecting the stewards to be called into action tomorrow. Waterford, for instance, cannot possibly get to this stage of the competition and not strain for victory with every fibre of their being. They’ve never won successive league finals before. They’ve never reached successive league finals before. Granted, they ran a non-trier against Galway in the 2004 decider but that was in a different era, and because they were facing Clare seven days later, and because by then they’d established themselves as a championship team under Justin McCarthy.

A passing thought. If they’d tried to be a better, more consistent league team under Justin, might they have become an even better, more consistently successful championship team? Perhaps not. Frequent high days, frequent off-days: maybe, like the scorpion, it was in their nature and that was that.

You seriously think the Waterford of Derek McGrath don’t want to win this? You seriously imagine they want their momentum – one defeat in 15 league outings – halted on the eve of the championship? Yeah, right.

Ditto for Clare, who also have previous when it comes to drawing in their spikes at the business end of the league - but again in a different age under a different manager. Older readers will recall their 1998 semi-final defeat by Cork and the raft of conspiracy theories that ensued, most of them to the effect that they’d stopped off in any one of 20 venues en route to Thurles that morning and had a three-hour training session, watched by Lee Harvey Oswald, the Cubans, the Mafia and Shergar.

Look. Clare are 11 from 11 this season. Like Waterford they’ll be playing their hand tomorrow. Oh, they may have a couple of cards under the table they’ll take care not to play and that’s understandable. But there is no possible downside to victory here, and if either side can win by a few points, so much the better.

Get one’s retaliation in first, well ahead of June 5. Make the other crowd do the sweating in the meantime. Never forget that one of the opening chapters of the Book of Cody is entitled ‘If a Match is Worth Playing It’s Worth Winning’.

Another reason for optimism is the manner in which both counties broadened their palette in the semi-finals. Waterford were going to win on points? Clare were going to suffocate the Kilkenny attack? Far from, by two. Waterford won with goals. Clare shredded the Kilkenny defence.

While it’s far too early to deem it a fork in the road for the Déise, the fact remains that last Sunday week they finally found a new way to win.

All their wins since their emergence last year had been fashioned by means of a rifle; this one was by way of a shotgun. One suspects it came as a relief to them and to McGrath. It certainly came as a relief to the neutral observer.

As with their second-half revival in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final, Austin Gleeson was the go-to guy. Get him up the field and he leads the charge. Within two minutes of the restart against Limerick he’d burst through on goal and instead of popping over his point forced Nicky Quaid into a fine save. The trumpet had been sounded. A few minutes later Shane Bennett won and smashed home a penalty. Thereupon the floodgates opened.

Waterford are evolving, gradually and carefully. They had to and they are. They wouldn’t be here otherwise. Their increased strength on the bench has given them the resources to prosecute a 20-man game; the starting XV can happily empty the tank knowing their replacements will continue the job. They have seen the gameplan work and lo, it is good.

Every week McGrath repeats the litany. He never tires of it and, to date, neither have his players. Never work alone. Always work together. Discipline. Attitude. Nobody hung out to dry. No negative body language.

Appearing on the big days in Thurles is becoming second nature to this group. Being consistently competitive. Growing in confidence. Winning. For a team like Waterford, the best preparation for the championship is winning the league.

Clare’s change of tack a fortnight ago was similarly a welcome sight. No more running the ball into contact, or not to an obsessive degree anyway. No one-track attacking approach predicated on the full-forward playing with his back to goal and feeding the runners.

They were different and varied and unpredictable. They thought their way around the field without overthinking it. They played the percentages and on the day the percentages broke in their favour. Instead of doing the work for the ball they made the ball do the work for them, mixing the short game with the long and striking a joyous medium. It’s not often that Brian Cody is moved to acknowledge that the opposition “were much better than us”. It may actually be unprecedented.

Kilkenny have shipped big scores under Cody before, most of them in recent years. There was the 6-12 to Dublin in 2012, the 5-16 to Galway in the 2014 championship and 1-28 to Tipperary in that year’s All-Ireland final. Yet not one of those games resulted in defeat. The 4-22 they conceded to Clare resulted in a hiding.

The caveats have to be noted. Kilkenny’s absentees deprived them of both the ability of Paul Murphy to cover close to goal and the ability of their first-choice midfield to put pressure on the sliotar out the field. Their attitude and application were not at their high-summer zenith; what meaning could yet another National League final appearance hold, after all? Two of the winners’ goals were gifts while their own net had two narrow escapes in the first half, the second of them when Pa Kelly saved with his feet from Richie Hogan. It wasn’t a four-goal swing or anything of the sort, but it’s not a pattern that will be repeated every day either.

But so what? Clare could only beat what was in front of them. The real import was the stylishness of their victory rather than simply the fact of it. As with Waterford earlier in the day, it was a presentiment of the team they may become. Not today, not tomorrow, but some day.

Some other observations.

Two years ago in the Munster semi-final, Clare conceded a goal from a close-range Pat Horgan free because they weren’t tuned in. Horgan spotted their lassitude and lifted the net out of it. Although TJ Reid scored from a similar free at the same end on Sunday week, the sliotar taking two ricochets, it wasn’t because the defenders had switched off. This was the Clare of 2013 rather than the Clare of 2014. Sleepers awake.

Patrick Curran can win his own ball and protect it and in possession knows exactly what he’s doing. Not every forward does.

It’s not unlikely that DNA analysis will eventually reveal Colm Galvin to be comprised entirely of Lucozade. He broadened his own palette a fortnight ago, incidentally. Regular readers will recall your correspondent’s past rhapsodies about Galvin’s attributes, bar one: his shooting. Against Kilkenny he scored five points from five shots. Tomorrow he’ll have less in the way of time and space, naturally.

Ken McGrath was Waterford’s greatest hurler of the past 15 years. Michael Walsh may be their greatest hurling man of the same period.

John Conlon, whose sheer brute presence cowed the Kilkenny defence into submission, is the one Clare forward who would have fitted admirably into Ger Loughnane’s forward line. Most of the rest of them would have been far too good for it.

Four predictions. Waterford to win. Yours truly to be in a minority in tipping them. More than one goal to be scored, on the basis that both sides now have a taste for green flags and have no cause to return to their shells.

That being the case, nobody to throw up at 3.30pm or afterwards.

They may have a couple of cards under the table they’ll take care not to play and that’s understandable


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