All Ireland SHC Final Preview: Waterford

Can Waterford bridge the 58 year gap to win Liam McCarthy?

In the second part of the All Ireland SHC preview this week, Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule over Waterford. Do Waterford have the leadership, skill and composure to bridge the fifty-eight year gap since their last All Ireland SHC triumph?

Road to the Final

This season has had plenty twists and turns for Waterford both on and off the pitch. The NHL was a mixed bag truth be told. A morale boosting win over Kilkenny was the highlight but there were also reversals at home to both Dublin and Cork. The inconsistent form was captured perfectly in the NHL quarter final away to Sunday’s opponents Galway. Waterford were imperious for the opening forty minutes of the contest; an experimental side had Galway on the ropes and leading by eight points with fourteen minutes to go. Galway finished the game incredibly strong aided by Joe Canning and ran out winners by 2-22 to 2-19. Galway may have won but Waterford showed the Galway public of their prowess and something that Galway hurling supporters that I have met have eluded to; there is a nervousness in the air here in Galway given the performance produced by Waterford on that day.

Plenty was expected of Waterford in the Munster SHC this season, a year to right the wrongs of a devastating Munster SHC final in 2016 where Tipperary exposed defensive and work rate issues to hammer the Deise in double quick time. Waterford’s preparation in the league was honed into the Munster Semi-Final but Cork were far superior on the day. The ten plus week break did little for Waterford as their lack of game time was exposed by a pacy Cork outfit who exposed Waterford’s middle third with an emphatic victory. Pundits start to hound on Waterford management and players; the argument to ditch their sweeper system was touted but Derek McGrath stood firm and the results after this provincial loss have spoken volumes.

A confidence building win over a limited Offaly was the first step to redemption. The trip to Tullamore showed flashes of brilliance from Waterford in both the back and forward line before their significant fixture of their campaign; a duel against local arch rivals Kilkenny in Semple Stadium. This was an exhilarating contest. Waterford held sway for long periods in this contest but their tendency to drop back late to defend the lead back fired as Kilkenny responded with two quick fire goals to put the game into extra time. Waterford with a seven point lead with eight minutes to go had surrendered the lead, another Waterford team would have wilted and surrendered but the likes of Jamie Barron were not to be denied. The midfielder was superb in that extra time; scoring a quick 1-1 and with superb cameos from the usual suspects Gleeson, Walsh and Moran; Waterford avenged their loss to Kilkenny with an excellent victory. The hoodoo jinx was rid and the team moved forward with confidence.

Next up was an El Classico derby tussle with rejuvenated Wexford in the newly revamped Pairc Ui Chaoimh. The All Ireland Quarter Final highlighted Waterford’s renewed confidence. Brick Walsh was outstanding early doors; scoring a great point and winning several frees which Mahony slotted over with the minimum of fuss. Austin Gleeson, Kevin Moran again to the fore and the cameos off the bench of Maurice Shanahan, Thomas Ryan and Brian O’Halloran ensured that Waterford had plenty in reserve, winning the contest by 1-23 to 1-19. A superb day was soured by the dismissal of Tadhg De Burca for a straight red card; a helmet infringement which was then appealed to the CCCC to no avail. Helmet pulls were a theme for Waterford this season. Bennett fell foul of the ruling after the CCCC found him guilty of the offense on video analysis immediately after their Cork Munster SHC loss serving a one game ban. The same punishment befell De Burca but Darragh Fives was outstanding in the sweeper role against Cork in the All Ireland SHC semi-final. The helmet pull offense reared its head again with replays of Austin Gleeson appearing to pull Luke Meade’s helmet off but no action was taken. However, further disciplinary pain ensued as Conor Gleeson saw red for striking with the hurl; a moment of madness from the player and will be a loss for the final this weekend.

The win against Cork in the All Ireland Semi-Final showed everyone what Waterford are capable of when provided with space. The Damien Cahalane red card was a decisive moment in the contest but Waterford tactically got the fixture spot on. They nullified Cork’s youngsters. Coleman was given a torrid opening by Brick Walsh whose physicality under the dropping ball gave Waterford an early attacking platform. Fitzgibbon in midfield was nullified by smart game management from Barron, Moran and Gleeson. Fives commanded the sweeper role with efficiency; his game reading was on point and the Cork inside full forward had to work hard to even hold off the ball. The Cahalane card exposed Cork defensively and Waterford took full advantage thanks to the mercurial Gleeson who provided sublime skill for the first two goals and then produced a Roy of the Rovers moment soloing through the Cork rearguard to score a pivotal third. Barron was marauding in the final quarter and capped a superb display with a smart goal finish; well worked and rewarded his running from deep which Cork on the day could not handle. Waterford were battle hardened. Waterford had match sharpness. Waterford had game composure to close out the contest.

Why are the ingredients to Waterford’s Liam McCarthy success?

The tactics from Waterford will be to be defensively cohesive, nullify the threat of Joe Canning from open play and hope that their conditioning and speed in the last quarter will see them over the line. Given the weather conditions forecast, long range shooting looks problematic. Wet underfoot conditions meaning that long range shooting will be inconsistent at best. It will be interesting to see how Waterford deal with the Canning threat; will they assign a man marker or will they go zonal? Canning likes to move around the pitch in order to gain time and space. Darragh Fives may be assigned the role of stemming the flow of Canning, leave De Burca to mop up any aimless distribution to the Galway inside full forward line from half-back and midfield areas.

For Waterford to win this weekend, the key quartet need to be on top form. Austin Gleeson needs to provide leadership and set the tone early with some early scores. Gleeson’s talent is undoubted but the disciplinary side of his play needs to be on point given his escape from disciplinary censure last time out. Brick Walsh has become a pivotal figure for Waterford this season as in previous seasons; his experience and ability to identify half-back line mismatches resulting in free rewards has setup Waterford’s attacking and scoring platform. A repeat on Sunday will be a plus for Waterford, expect Walsh to target the likes of Harte early in the puck-out duels. Kevin Moran’s work rate is sublime; after a slow start to the season, the DLS man has shone brightly. His flexibility to fill multiple positions in the middle third coupled with his ability to take a score from distance has set the tone which colleagues have followed. Barron’s threat from midfield is a real plus. Galway need to delegate a man marker on Barron who has the ability to win this contest on his own given his running threat from deep and goal-scoring prowess. Any lapses in concentration and these four players will punish Galway decisively.

The midfield area also throws up an interesting scenario for Derek McGrath to solve. With the suspension of Conor Gleeson, reinforcements are required to complement Barron in the middle of the park. Several options spring to mind but Conor Gleeson’s relationship with Barron was excellent, a definitive loss for Waterford particularly in work rate and defensive ability to breakdown opposition attacks. What McGrath does will dictate the Waterford setup for this contest?

The full back line has being solid this season; a potent Galway inside full forward line awaits this weekend so it will be interesting to see how the unit react if Galway’s distribution unlocks the sweeper system at times during the final. Galway have massive goal scoring threat with the likes of Cooney, Whelan, Flynn in the ranks. Noel Connors will look to command his unit with efficiency; goal scoring chances need to be cut down by Waterford similar to their win against Cork where they kept the Rebels scoreless.

Squad depth off the bench will be a pivotal component to the final this weekend. Waterford have several attacking options who can come on, win possession and produce vital scores in the final moments. Shanahan, Devine, O’Halloran and Ryan have all provided notable cameos off the bench and it is an asset for Waterford that they hit four goals in their previous fixture to send out the statement to Galway that any defensive lapses will be punished.

There is an air of confidence around Waterford ahead of this final, not over confident but the locals point to the bookies and are resolute in their opinion that the odds are incorrect (Galway are 2/5 on). I would be in agreement with them on the odds, this is closer than those odds suggest. Given the wet conditions forecast, the game looks like a tight affair on paper; defensive setups on top and this all points to a Waterford win. The final quarter will see squad depth tested. Waterford for me have the edge in the attacking options. Defensive options have being tested too, something that Galway cannot say. Greg Lally the only player to see any significant game minutes in the Galway back line.

The stars of Gleeson, Moran, Walsh, De Burca are aligning, hitting top form at the time of year. It is time to put up or shut up. Waterford will be underdogs for many pundits but they are going to run this Galway side extremely close on Sunday.  They were my tip at the start of the year albeit thought they would come through the front door as Munster SHC champions. This is a side who have smashed the Kilkenny championship hoodoo jinx and their performance over Cork was full of work rate, endeavor and game management when faced with fourteen Cork men on the field. Provided discipline is on point, no reason why the Deise cannot win this final and the sight of John Mullane’s equestrian skills down the Quays on Monday night! It promises to be a fantastic spectacle, let the best team win on the day.

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