This intro was written during the week rather than yesterday afternoon, and not for the sake of having one already baked in the event that yer man in North Korea decided to rain fire and fury down on top of the one world leader who has taken to making him look vaguely sane.
It was written in order to avoid fixating on the case of Tadhg de Búrca, an inoffensive young man who’s unlikely to rain down fire and fury on anyone but who was caught bang to rights at Páirc Uí Chaoimh last month.
While Waterford’s prospects tomorrow were always going to be healthier with de Búrca on the field rather than in the stand, to get worked up about his presence or absence was to risk concentrating on the frame and ignoring the painting.
The real issue for Derek McGrath’s side was always going to be whether they scored enough to compile a winning tally.
Nothing has changed since the early hours of Friday morning. It still is.
So what kind of quota will they need to surpass? Let’s run a few numbers. Hold tight. This will be really exciting.
Cork have returned 2-27, 0-23 and 1-25 in their three outings to date for an average of 1-25 a game.
Suppose for the sake of argument and for sundry reasons – they’re a new collective, they’re not battle hardened, Croke Park plays slightly smaller than Semple Stadium and any other caveats you care to think of – they hit slightly less tomorrow. They finish up with 1-22 or 0-23, something in that ballpark, on the scoreboard.
Not a daunting yardstick. Not daunting for Galway or Tipperary. But quite the ask for a team fielding five forwards, a team who in three of their four fixtures this summer – the qualifier win against Offaly is discounted here on the grounds of non-competitive practices - have registered 1-15, 2-15 and 1-23.
That 1-23 last time out was satisfactory, even if it came against a Wexford team running on physical and psychological fumes. If you’re so inclined you can dismiss their 1-15 in the Munster
semi-final on the basis that they simply failed to get off the bus the same day.
It’s the 2-15 in normal time against the most limited Kilkenny team in two decades that niggles. Is a team that has failed to break the 20-point barrier on two occasions recently likely to outscore a team that manages the trick every day?
If all of the above has lulled you into a mild stupor, apologies. No two games are ever the same and trying to work out the outcome of a hurling match cannot be reduced to a joyless exercise in mathematics. The play’s the thing.
Nonetheless in order to win tomorrow the underdogs will almost certainly be required to hit two goals more than their opponents do. Now that the goalfests of early summer have ceased, with Galway apparently bent on following the example of Portugal at Euro 16 and winning the tournament without the benefit of goals, are we really going to witness the rigging shake twice, never mind three or four times? Since 2015, the
season when Derek McGrath’s Waterford became Derek McGrath’s Waterford, they’ve hit 15 goals — including the two in extra time versus Kilkenny last month — in 13 championship outings.
Cork 1-22, yes, but Waterford, with a five-man attack, 3-19? Hmm.
One returns, inevitably and unavoidably, to the bleedin’ obvious. Cork are designed to flow; Waterford are designed to stop floods. The Cork forwards are there to score; the Waterford forwards are there, broadly speaking, to help someone else score. It all renders the job of constructing a winning bottom line harder for the men in white than it does for the men in red.
Seamus Harnedy may be the Munster champions’ target man but he knows where the posts are, has shown in the past when located closer to goal that he knows where the net is. Conor Lehane and Alan Cadogan are electric, Patrick Horgan artistic. Luke Meade and Shane Kingston won’t both set the place alight this weekend but one might, and even if neither does they’ll have future opportunities.
Waterford? Michael Walsh may engineer a couple of frees but he’s not there to score; spiritual leaders never are. Though Kevin Moran will snipe a couple of points from distance, as he usually does, he’s not a card-carrying
attacker. Jake Dillon and the Bennetts will do a bit between them but they won’t shoot the lights out and they won’t last the 70 minutes.
That leaves a lacuna, one that has to be filled by Austin Gleeson, by Jamie Barron steaming through from deep and by the men sprung from the bench - primarily Maurice Shanahan but of late also Brian O’Halloran and Tommy Ryan.
Judicious deployment of their subs is one area in which Waterford’s game management has impressed this summer. It still, however, constitutes the equivalent of needing second-preferences to exceed the quota.
All of which is a roundabout way of posing an impolite question: how many of the Waterford forwards would make the Cork team?
On the plus side McGrath’s troops are hardier and more experienced than their opponents. They’re no longer the naïve lightweights who were out on their feet ten minutes into the second half of the All-Ireland semi-final two years ago, they ought to be a more confident proposition for rewriting history against their neighbours last month – the victory against Kilkenny ticked off yet another milestone negotiated in the development of this group – and they were never in the slightest danger against Wexford.
If Waterford’s recent Croke Park record is nothing to prompt paeans, neither is Cork’s: one big win in ten years. And these Waterford lads have been there more often than these Cork lads.
Another reason for Déise folk to harbour cautious optimism is the fact that two months ago their boys were the majority choice to win the Munster semi-final. Has all that much changed in the meantime?
Granted, they’ve stayed to some extent moving up and down on the spot while Cork have improved. But Waterford had too long a run-in to the championship and altogether overmuch time on their hands. Staring at the sun leads to blindness. Same with the expectations heaped on them prior to last year’s Munster final. Waterford are a better team when they don’t overthink.
It’s not asking the earth for their main man to be better than he was in mid-June. His John Troy-esque point apart, Gleeson in the provincial semi-final had one of those days of self-indulgence and fuzzy thinking when you don’t want to slap him on the back, you just want to slap him.
Still, after Gleeson the player Waterford could least afford to lose is the player they’ve lost. For all that De Búrca worked off a narrower canvas than the Hurler of the Year his job had two dimensions rather than one:
Sniffing out and snuffing out danger, then possessing the poise to carry the sliotar into space and the patience and precision to pick out and feed a colleague. Simultaneously fireman and firestarter. Darragh Fives will not be a like for like replacement and the thrust he provided from deep against Wexford will be missed.
If it’s in the melting pot with five minutes left feel free to decide yourself what will sway the issue: the Cork crowd shouting their lads home, a la the 1999 All Ireland final, or Waterford’s big-day experience and breadth of endgame options.
It may not get to that. No fire and fury, but Cork to manage a quota and Waterford to come up a little short. De Búrca or no de Búrca.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved