WILL the real Waterford please stand up? Contrasting performances of near unbelievable levels have left the hurling fraternity wondering what team will turn up in Croke Park on Sunday when the Deise bid to halt a four match losing run in recent times against Kilkenny in the All-Ireland championship.
While Kilkenny’s two match run in the championship to date has been marked by sure and steady progress, culminating in a record seventh win on-the-trot in the Leinster final, Waterford’s progress has been striking because of its inconsistency.
In the Munster final, fire breathing All-Ireland champions, Tipperary, burned Waterford to the tune of 21-points (7-19 to 0-19) in Pairc Ui Chaoimh.
A mere 14 days later new Waterford, freshly tuned, all eager and brimming with ambition, did a like job on highly fancied Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final when scoring a run away 2-23 to 2-13 victory.
One thing is sure about Waterford. They can score, as returns of 19 and 23 points would suggest. Their defending, or rather their defending during an awful six minute spell before the break against Tipperary when they leaked goals like a ruptured bucket would lose water, has left fans and commentators alike wondering where exactly is Waterford’s true line of form.
Kilkenny, to be honest, are not thinking all that much about the conundrum. They are preparing for a dogfight, to face a team capable of destruction.
Waterford never easy
“They have what every team wanting to be winners needs – great resilience, character and mental toughness,” was the summary of Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody on a team that could destroy his ambition of leading the county to an eight All-Ireland success during his tenure.
“We have never found Waterford an easy team to cope with. Sunday will be no different, we know that,” he added.
Suirside boss, Davy Fitzgerald and his selectors pulled off a fair feat when putting all the pieces back together again after the Tipp thrashing. Unity within the camp was the reason Waterford were able to pull themselves up by the boot laces, according to selector Paraic Fanning, who knows the Kilkenny scene very well after spending two seasons as manager with James Stephens.
“We decided that we would work out together what went wrong,” Mr Fanning said when explaining how Waterford got back on the hurling horse after the Munster final. “The one thing that helped us was our togetherness.
“The worst thing that could have happened was if everything was fractured after that game. There was no blame game. Players weren’t blaming management. Management weren’t blaming players.
“The responsibility was taken collectively for what happened. The strong showing against Galway reflected the unity and togetherness in the camp.”
And so Waterford marched on Semple Stadium intent on making a strong new beginning. While some suggested Galway probably played poorly, no one was in any doubt but Waterford’s hurling was intelligent, their attitude top class, their approach determined in the extreme.
Whereas they trooped heavy footed out of Pairc Ui Chaoimh a fortnight earlier, they bounded out of Thurles, fired by a day’s work that restored the feel good factor to the players and by extension Waterford hurling.
Centre-back Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh was superb, commanding in the area, strong on the ground and deadly in his use of the ball. He has been playing to an All-Star standard much of the way this season.
Work hard to win ball
His wing men, Tony Browne and David O’Sullivan were very good too, so Kilkenny will have to work hard to win ball in this sector. Young Pauric Mahony, Shane Walsh, Eoin Kelly, John Mullane and that midfielder with the boundless energy, Kevin Moran, helped generate a storm that simply blew away the Westerners.
The question remains then, which Waterford can people expect in Croke Park? Tipperary were rattled and beaten by Cork in the opening round of the Munster championship 12 months ago.
That experience didn’t do them any harm in the long run. They regrouped, got a rhythm going again and ended up winning a truly magnificent All-Ireland final against Kilkenny. The losing experience could yet turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Suirsiders! Time will tell.
Improving Kilkenny will, as ever, work almost exclusively on their game and plan. They have never worried too much about the opposition, concentrating instead on getting all the components of their game right for the day.
While they did well in the National League and qualified for the final – losing heavily to Dublin – they have upped the level of performance since the championship began. The training since the beginning of the season was geared towards the summer and the championship.
The players might have looked tired, heavy legged at times in the League, but they have been flying in the championship. There is a greater edge to things too, an edge that was born to some degree out of the defeat in the All-Ireland last year.
The return to action of Henry Shefflin following surgery to repair a second cruciate injury and Richie Power, following surgery to repair a hip problem, has given Kilkenny more penetration up front. Michael Rice has enjoyed an extended run free of injury, and the benefits to his game, and by extension to the team effort, have been huge. Tommy Walsh is flying again too.
Mr Cody and selectors, Martin Fogarty and Michael Dempsey have employed Rice as a wing-forward with T.J. Reid operating at midfield. Both could move in the opposition direction at any time and you couldn’t imagine the fluency of the team suffering to any great extent.
Strong, mobile, versatile
That is Kilkenny now, strong, mobile, versatile and driven as much as at any time during the All-Ireland four in-a-row charge between 2006 and 2010.
Midfielder Michael Fennelly, he of the long stride and driving runs, epitomises Kilkenny of the moment. He has taken his game to a whole new level, be it as ball winner, attack launcher or score getter.
Right now he is in pole position in the rankings for the player of the season title.
The inject of fresh blood along the way, via the release of goalie David Herity, Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly, has in its own way added to the new found zest.
What will be the make-up of the Kilkenny team? Don’t expect the line-up to stray too far from the Leinster final side. Authoritative performances like the one that turned over good League champions, Dublin, don’t often go unrewarded.
And All-Ireland semi-final or final times are not junctures for chance taking or experimenting.
Kilkenny have turned over Waterford in the championship in recent times in 1998 (Kevin Fennelly was the manager), 2004 (3-12 to 0-18), 2008 (final: 3-30 to 1-13) and 2009 (2-23 to 3-15).
Apart from 2008, the other wins had to be dug out, earned with hard work and sweat, plus a bit of luck. Don’t expect anything to change.
We should be looking towards another All-Ireland final late on Sunday evening!