ON the day of last year’s drawn All-Ireland semi-final, Derek McGrath appeared to be at a crossroads with his Waterford project.
McGrath had led his team to successive Munster finals and All-Ireland semi-finals but his philosophy looked set to face its greatest test yet.
In his Sunday Times column that morning, Brendan Cummins detailed how McGrath and Waterford needed to change, to redirect and recalibrate the machine. “If they do, and lose going down fighting, McGrath is still on the right track,” wrote Cummins. “But if Waterford go all out defensive, and still lose, then McGrath is in big trouble.
“If McGrath’s doesn’t change now, when the need is greatest, his credibility will be undermined if he is trying to deliver a different message in November. Why wait? Now is the time.”
Waterford did and everything changed with it, especially the perception of them as a team. They went for it. They attacked Kilkenny and engaged them in a shootout. They should have won the drawn semi-final. They narrowly lost the replay in another brilliant match.
Waterford played a more attacking and adventurous style last August but they didn’t fully abandon their system either for both Kilkenny games; they just tweaked it, worked harder, especially in the drawn game, and pushed some of their forwards higher up the pitch.
It nearly got them over the line but it was still crazy to believe that Waterford were going to ditch the system they are most comfortable with for 2017. During the league, they often operated with a sweeper in a more fluid, and less obvious form but there were some games, especially in the quarter-final against Galway, when Tadgh de Burca was sitting deeper than ever. And Waterford almost won that game by starting a second-string team.
If Waterford had any doubts about their system, Wexford’s performance last weekend will have merely copper-fastened their approach now, and even more so when facing a team like Cork who crave an open game.
On Sunday, Waterford will more than likely play seven defenders, three across the middle and four nominal forwards up front. The four up top will probably be Maurice Shanahan, Stephen and Shane Bennett and Austin Gleeson. Jamie Barron, Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh and Pauric Mahony will have a fluid role between midfield and the forward line while Darragh Fives and Kevin Moran will probably set up alongside Philip Mahony in the half-back line, which will allow de Burca to operate as a sweeper.
Waterford may be diluting their scoring power by playing with just four forwards but all are quick, pacy and strong, with Shanahan, Gleeson and Stephen Bennett all capable ball winners. Adding Pauric Mahony, Barron and ‘Brick’ Walsh to that division underlines how this is one of the most potent attacks under McGrath.
Having so many ball-winners up top allows Waterford to lamp the ball long and direct when under pressure but they are also well set up to run the ball, especially on the counter-attack. Waterford are always hard to break down but if they can work the ball out of defence and run it from the middle of the field before popping it short to Gleeson, Shanahan and the Bennetts, they will be even harder to beat.
Waterford will want to drag Cork into a game completely alien to the conditions they faced against Tipperary. What’s more, they will target Cork’s younger players, who Waterford will feel have not been fully introduced to the savagery of the Munster championship yet. Mark Coleman is solid in the air. He showed that in the opening round of the league against Clare’s John Conlon.
Yet Waterford will probably target Coleman early on through Gleeson under an aerial bombardment of puck-outs.
Cork are confident. They will trust in their huge capacity to rack up a big score but they will still understand the tactical importance of how to set up against Waterford.
Cork will need to play as wide as possible, to play down the sideline channels, and keep the ball away from de Burca. Cork will also need to engage Waterford more in their half-back line by bringing a player out from their inside line. Ideally, Cork would probably like Seamus Harnedy as a target man full-forward but Harnedy would be physically more suited to the battling required in that sector than Patrick Horgan or Alan Cadogan.
Cadogan and Horgan were brilliant against Tipp but Cork have found out to their cost against Waterford in the past that basing their gameplan around deliveries into an orthodox full-forward line can be fruitless. They will need Cadogan and Horgan to be effective from the possession they do win but Cork will also need to have deep lying shooters to get past Waterford’s defensive screen.
Lehane is their primary assassin but Cork may need points from range from Harnedy, Shane Kingston, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Mark Coleman, Bill Cooper and Luke Meade. That isn’t really Cooper’s game but he nailed three points from play against Waterford in the league and that is the kind of scoring return Cork may require from Cooper again on Sunday.
Anthony Nash may need to go shorter on his puckouts at times because the same space he hit, with runners moving onto the ball, won’t be there on Sunday. Lehane was brilliant on the Cork puckout that day but his recent injury is also a big concern now. He was in a protective boot and didn’t train for almost two weeks. Lehane was also injured before the Tipperary game, where the break may have made him fresher, but an ankle injury is far more restrictive.
Cork will fancy their chances on Sunday. They will believe that they have the firepower to gun down Waterford. But they also know that this will be a totally different game from the Tipperary match.
And that Cork will have to play even better again, especially with the intensity and heat Waterford will bring, to win the match.