APART from their die-hard supporters, will anyone else give Waterford a chance against Kilkenny in Sunday’s GAA All-Ireland senior hurling semi-final? Despite their hugely impressive win over Galway two weeks ago, the most loyal supporters of the Déise will travel to Croke Park more in hope than confidence.
It is the perfect set-up for manager, Davy Fitzgerald and his team. Kilkenny will be hot favourites, so we can expect the crafty Clare man to use all his motivating powers to remind his charges that they were also given little chance against Galway.
While I expect Kilkenny to win and reach yet another All-Ireland final, this game against our close neighbours is a tricky assignment. Aside from the trouncing which Kilkenny handed out to the Déise in the 2008 final, games between the two counties have generally been close and mostly exciting contests.
Right now it is hard to know Waterford’s real credentials. There was just a puck of the ball between the Déise and Limerick in their opening round Munster championship tie. The Shannonsiders could just as easily have won that game.
However, having witnessed their loss to Dublin two weeks ago, Limerick are still a team in transition, but genuine progress was made in 2011.
On the plus side for Waterford, their success over Limerick was achieved with many young players tasting championship hurling for the first time. Playing Tipperary in the Munster final, though, was an altogether different proposition, but in many respects that game was surreal for the number of goals scored by the All-Ireland champions.
The Déise’s plight was not helped by a lot of uncertainty with the team selection. From an early stage in the game it was clear that Waterford were in big trouble. Key players struggled to cope with their new roles and the game was lost long before a raft of changes were made by the mentors.
It was a chastening experience for everyone involved with the team.
While Davy Fitzgerald deserves great credit for bringing many new faces on board for this year’s championship, his team needed a bit more experience in its ranks for the Munster final. The result may not have been any different, but the presence of a few battle-hardened warriors would surely have made it a lot more difficult for the Premier County.
What should we make of Waterford’s impressive victory over Galway? By any measurement it was a spectacular return to form by the Déise, but the success has to be seen in the context of a pathetic performance by the Westerners.
Davy and his fellow mentors learned from their mistakes against Tipperary by picking a team that had a good mix of youth and experience. That saw key players back in their best positions and the return of two experienced veterans in Seamus Prendergast and Eoin Kelly.
We should have remembered also that in nine championship outings Galway has failed to overcome the Déise. I said two weeks ago that Waterford had no fear of the Westerners and that confidence, coupled with the desire for redemption after the side’s Munster final collapse, would motivate the Déise like never before.
It is safe to predict that the Waterford line-out will be the same as faced Galway in the quarter-final. If they are to defeat Kilkenny every Déise player must get the better of his immediate opponent.
The Waterford full-back line performed well against Galway, but they face a far stiffer challenge from the Kilkenny full-forward line. This sector (and midfield) could well be the key areas where the game will be won or lost.
Wexford and Dublin obliterated
Kilkenny’s two championship outings saw Wexford and Dublin obliterated with consummate ease, leaving supporters smacking their lips at the prospects of another All-Ireland title. Let’s be honest, the challenge fro Wexford and Dublin fell way short of what we expected.
Both games offered genuine challenges for Kilkenny. The team would naturally have been apprehensive about travelling to Wexford Park, so there was never going to be any complacency from the players.
In addition there was a buzz in Wexford hurling circles. This also had the Kilkenny players on their toes. But ultimately the game was a damp squib, with Kilkenny in control all over the field.
For sure Kilkenny’s display was impressive, but that has to be measured against a paltry challenge from the Model County. We headed to Croke Park for the Leinster final, perhaps not quite as confident as in previous years.
Dublin had amassed an impressive record over the previous months and with two successes (and two trophies) to show for its efforts over Kilkenny, the Metropolitans were in confident mood that a long overdue provincial title could be annexed.
This was the perfect challenge for Kilkenny. Beaten twice by Dublin in 2011 and with doubts emerging about the team’s credentials was enough to raise the tempo in the Cat’s game. For Dublin, it was perhaps the worst possible time to be facing Kilkenny.
While the absence of a few players with injuries was a factor, the Dubs were never able to match the intensity which Kilkenny brought to the Leinster final. Throughout the field Kilkenny players dominated their immediate opponent leading at the finish to a very comfortable win.
There is no doubt that the return of a number of players helped enormously to get Kilkenny back on track. Hurling wise these players bring so much to the team, but more importantly it is their leadership qualities which shine out.
Henry Shefflin and Tommy Walsh are just two in a long line of stars whose return has transformed the Cats once again into serious championship contenders.
A few tough club matches, coupled with many intensive training sessions, will have the players in the best possible shape to meet the Waterford challenge. We will not know the team until Friday night, but bar injury it should be the same as played Dublin in the Leinster final.
A week away from the game, Eoin Larkin is nursing an injury and I expect the medical team will be working hard in the days leading up to the match to have him ready for action. The return of Aidan Fogarty following a serious injury is a boost, but he is a distance from starting a match.
His contribution to Kilkenny hurling over the past few years has been immense and his return gives the selectors a real option in attack.
Kilkenny won’t need any motivation as the desire to get back to Croke Park on the first Sunday in September remains as strong as ever. But they need to be wary of Waterford!
The Déise will come to Croke Park in confident mood. If they can match Kilkenny for the opening half the result could well be in doubt up to the closing moments.
Yes, Kilkenny were superb against Wexford and Dublin. They looked as sharp and focused as ever in those games. But I wonder about the opposition on both occasions.
Admittedly you can only beat what is in front of you, but I would have liked to see a more searching test for Kilkenny in their provincial campaign.
Waterford will deliver a stern test, but Kilkenny’s all-round class, particularly in attack, should see them through to hurling’s biggest day against either champions, Tipperary or Dublin, who contest the second semi-final.