Standing still means being overtaken

In Book VI of the Aeneid, as regular Examiner readers will doubtless recall, Aeneas descended into the bowels of the underworld. There he encountered all manner of interesting and notorious characters, among them eminent Romans like Romulus and Julius Caesar. On his return he gave a revealing interview to Virgil, who turned it into a book.

Last August, as regular readers of the Irish Examiner may recall, Dan Shanahan descended into the bowels of Croke Park after the All Ireland semi-final and found his way into the Kilkenny dressing room.

There he encountered all manner of interesting and notorious characters, among them eminent Noresiders like Brian Cody and Ned Quinn. On his return he gave a revealing interview to Michael Moynihan of this parish, who turned it into an article.

On an afternoon when the champions’ relentlessness forced Waterford’s youngsters into a sequence of errors from early in the second half, it was the physical definition of the Kilkenny players that had blown the big man — hardly an enemy of the Charles Atlas school of body shapes himself – away. “Powerful, powerful players. Years of strength and conditioning. Seasoned, mature men.” Waterford featured Shane Bennett, a Leaving Cert student and just over 11 stone. Kilkenny featured Prendergast, 29 years of age and nearly 15 stone.

Or take Richie Hogan. Not big in height but not small in girth. Not built like Michael Fennelly but doesn’t get knocked over by bigger opponents either. Cube-shaped. Bounces around like a rubber ball. Has been on the Kilkenny panel since 2007. That’s a lot of gym sessions.

“For our players to reach the next level they’ll have to match that physicality,” Shanahan stressed. A level it took Richie Hogan years to get to, a level it will take Shane Bennett and pals years to get to and a state of affairs Waterford fans have no option but to accept.

Ditto for Limerick and their supporters. John Kiely was quick to stress as much after last year’s All Ireland under-21 final and John Kiely was right to. These things take time.

If he’d really had to, Brian Cody could probably have found a 19-year-old left-corner back to understudy Jackie Tyrrell last year. After all, once upon a time he was that teenage soldier himself in an All-Ireland final. But why chance a teenager, however promising, when one can opt for a chap at the height of his physical powers? A chap who, while he may not hurl the ears off his direct opponent, will at any rate not lose the physical battle. Waterford and Limerick do not possess such a luxury yet. Some day – not this year or next year but a few years down the line — they may. In the meantime they’ll keep going.

In the meantime too Derek McGrath will nip and tuck as he sees fit. This season he faces a task that’s part mathematical and wholly logistical. How does he transform a team that hit 0-16 in the Munster final and 0-18 in the All Ireland semi-final into a team that can be relied on to hit 1-21 in the championship arena, not just on their day but every day?

“And now for my next trick” indeed.

But what exactly will the trick be? Can it be achieved? Can it be achieved without McGrath dismantling his beloved burglar alarm system? Is this one of those vexatious transactions necessarily involving the ubiquitous duo of Peter and Paul, meaning that something has to give? Or is it more that reaching a happy medium is a delicate process that will not be realised till the Bennetts, Austin Gleeson, Patrick Curran et al attain maturity? With McGrath, as we’ve posited before, John the Baptist rather than the Saviour? That the Déise were a blast of scented air last year – the one and only blast of air bar Galway – was obvious to anyone with a nose for the new. Liam Griffin put it best when decrying the hosts of naysayers who moaned, “Sure Waterford will never win an All Ireland playing that way!” As Griffin pointed out, who said Waterford were expected to win the All Ireland last year?

“They made great progress and more power to them.” Precisely. McGrath deserved a medal for Services to Making Everyone Think a Little Bit More About Hurling.

Depleting his forward line in favour of stacking his defence was a calculated gamble that led to a league title – only the county’s second national crown in over half a century, lest it be forgotten — and an All Ireland semi-final appearance. Thereupon the flaw in the system, already exposed by Tipperary in the closing quarter of the Munster final, was laid bare. Not enough bodies in attack.

Maurice Shanahan scored an improbable solo point in the first half against Kilkenny when he received a long clearance out of defence, turned, rolled Joey Holden and sent the sliotar between the posts while tracking away from goal. By the time he got his shot off there were no fewer than six opponents within a ten-metre radius of him. A fine piece of work, but reflect on the toil and precision that went into its components parts.

Waterford’s early-season fitness advantage having evaporated, the runners weren’t sluicing through from deep to provide Shanahan with an outlet. Thus the furrow was his and his alone to plough.

Addressing the sliotar with his back to goal he had to rise it immediately, swivel and either beat Holden or get a shot off instantly, with the attendant risk of being blocked or hooked. Having seen off Holden he then had to fashion sufficient room to swing and make clean contact off the back foot while the angle tightened. By way of a PS he had to ensure the shot went between the posts. In the end the only surprise was that he scored the point. In the end the only surprise was that Waterford were within six points of Kilkenny.

Though Master McGrath teaches English rather than science, the league will be as much of a laboratory for him this year as it was last year. More so, in fact, because whereas last time around he knew his gameplan and his best team, this time around he’s obliged to experiment. Standing still means being overtaken.

So he’ll have his beaker and his test tubes and he’ll blend and he’ll mix and he’ll match. Two grams of Gleeson here, half a pound of Pauric Mahony there, a few crystals of Curran every half an hour. Stir slowly and watch settle.

The object of the exercise will be to have concocted, by the end of the league, a formula that contains more attacking oomph than last year’s iteration without forsaking any of its defensive security. McGrath cannot return with 2015’s hand of cards. He knows it. We know it.

The first step in the process is shriekingly obvious. Get Austin Gleeson further up the pitch – if not to half-forward, then certainly to midfield. Someone else can be found to do a job at right-half back; Waterford don’t possess a someone else to do what Gleeson is capable of in an expansive role. After that, the other pieces of the jigsaw can be slotted in over time.

Kilkenny? As Brian Cody announced last week in what can already be receipted and filed as the least surprising revelation of 2016, they’ll be trying to win the league.

Ger Aylward’s loss is one that will not easily be accommodated.

On the plus side the Ballyhale contingent are back, while it will be interesting to see if Cody is moved to call up anyone from Bennettsbridge, the coming team in the county, who’ve gone an insane 30 championship games unbeaten and who last Sunday added All Ireland intermediate honours to the junior title captured 11 months ago.

Maybe he’ll tell Dan when the latter pops in to say hello afterwards tomorrow.


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