This season the Déise are creating far more scoring opportunities than in 2015, writes Enda McEvoy.
Lies. Damned lies. Statistics. Waterford’s scoring figures.
In much the same way that TV interviewers quizzing oleaginous politicians are supposed never to ask a question they don’t know the answer to, the research for the accompanying table was undertaken because your correspondent was convinced he knew the bottom line.
It seemed obvious. Waterford hit a large percentage of their scores last year from placed balls, understandably so in view of their counter- attacking dispensation.
This season they’ve adopted a more expansive approach, meaning that their reliance on scores from frees and 65s has exponentially lessened. Hasn’t it?
Not so. The figures show that whereas in 2015 they sourced 61% of their scores from play, a rate admittedly skewed by the turkey shoots against Antrim and Laois, in 2016 their return from play actually decreased to 59.6%.
Lies. Damned lies. Waterford’s scoring figures. Grrr.
Of this much we can be sure, however. Derek McGrath’s troops sourced a seasonal percentage high from play against Clare last month. Factor in the 14 wides they drove the same day, plus the 20 wides in normal time in the drawn league final, and it’s clear that Waterford are are creating far more scoring opportunities than in 2015.
They weren’t racking up the wides then because they weren’t creating a sufficiency of chances — understandable, with so many bodies back the field. Their top scorer from play after Maurice Shanahan (0-3) in the Munster final was Shane Fives with 0-2, and he was uimhir a dó.
This year the bodies are up the field, Patrick Curran and Shane Bennett have added intelligence and incisiveness, Austin Gleeson has tariff-free EU roaming rights and the shots are coming in from all angles. While McGrath hasn’t taken off the handbrake completely, Waterford are evolving alright. Still the same structure. Fewer strictures.
Something else has changed too. Tomorrow is a clash of the two teams not managed by Brian Cody likeliest to win the All-Ireland. The only two teams not managed by Brian Cody capable of winning the All-Ireland, one can venture to say.
A year ago it was anything but. A year ago Waterford went to Thurles to fulfil a fixture, to keep the ball pucked out to Tipp and keep it away from Seamus Callanan. Damage-limitation stuff, whatever gloss they tried put on it before and after. Staying in the contest for as long as possible was the priority, and as priorities go, there was nothing wrong with it. The priority has altered. They travel to Limerick not to participate in a Munster final but to win it. A new mindset.
Their disposal of Clare last month wasn’t simply a win for Waterford, it was a statement. For the first time under McGrath, they won a really big match they weren’t necessarily entitled to win. The lesson of both league finals — the importance of kicking on when you’re ahead — was learned; their game management is improving. Another milestone on the road to Croke Park in September. Whichever September.
Maurice Shanahan and Pauric Mahony were back, meaning Waterford were able to start their optimum XV for the first time in 13 months. They had eight different scorers, meaning Shanahan and Mahony didn’t have to do everything by themselves. Not among the eight was Patrick Curran, their star performer of the replayed league final. It mattered not a whit.
The importance of Mahony’s return should be neither overstated nor understated. He’s not flashy not fast and doesn’t take the sliotar to hand and go past people. He’s no Tom Cheasty, basically, not that anyone ever claimed otherwise. But he’s big and he’s self-sufficient and he does a lot of unseen work and he’s a better freetaker than Maurice Shanahan and he offers another outlet. And what Waterford lacked above all against Tipp and Kilkenny last summer, when Shanahan was forced to be a one-horse ploughman, was outlets.
Yes, there are two teams playing tomorrow and the other crowd are the holders and favourites. And if Kilkenny are the most relentless gallopers left in the field, and rather smoother at it than Olivier Giroud, Tipperary are the horse with the best turn of foot.
That they’ve have been competent to date rather than spectacular is heartening. The time for Tipp to worry is when they’ve been spectacular.
Striking a balance in judging their two wins so far is tricky. What Michael Ryan’s men did, they did cleanly and without fuss. What they were required to do, well…
To these eyes, Limerick were worse than Cork had been. Really. Cork at least had a gameplan, badly though they executed it. Limerick appeared to have no gameplan whatsoever, no idea of what they were attempting to achieve. How Tipperary had only two points to spare at the final whistle when they looked eight points a better team, and that with a man fewer, can already be classified as one of the mysteries of the season. But prudence and conservatism was called for in the conditions and Tipp’s game management was clearheaded and coherent.
Some other observations.
John McGrath scored a point in the second half against Limerick — winning a greasy high ball, hanging onto it, shrugging off Seamus Hickey, taking a few steps and letting fly off his left — that any forward would have been proud of. First-season forwards aren’t supposed to be able to score points like that.
It was John O’Dwyer more than anyone who saw Tipp through against Waterford last year, when they landed four of the closing six points to win by five. Clearly his ability to snipe scores from angles and corners and small pockets of space will be missed. This is a day for Noel McGrath to do a little more than pick off a couple of points from play.
If Michael Breen scores a goal, never mind two goals, he’ll have earned it, having dodged three Waterford security checks plus two full-cavity searches to get into position to shoot. But Breen has given Tipperary a marauding presence at midfield and allowed Brendan Maher — never the most convincing as the more attack-minded half of a midfield duo — sit back and attend to the household duties with his usual poised intelligence.
Colin Dunford one of Waterford’s key players last year, was good in the Munster final and excellent in the All-Ireland semi-final landing four points. These days he’s only a sub, and not their first sub. But Dunford’s pace may prove a useful weapon off the bench before summer is out.
Tipp’s championship record against Waterford is substantially superior to their championship record against Limerick and Cork.
Tipperary have no obvious inherent weakness to incline one against them. But Waterford know what they’re at, are an improving team and in Mahony, Bennett, and Curran possess three attacking upgrades on 2015. Darragh Fives didn’t start that day either. There’s every reason, then, to believe it’ll be the Déise’s day. And if it is, rest assured we’ll contrive to draw up some kind of statistical table to prove it was inevitable all along.
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