Nicky English: Waterford and Galway's task made harder by third week syndrome
Hutchinson and Bennett give Waterford real hope; Galway’s fluctuation in performance a concern
Waterford’s Dessie Hutchinson celebrates scoring his second goal against Clare during the All-Ireland quarter-final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Going into the All-Ireland semi-finals weekend, it’s possible to identify a hierarchy of form, which has been more convincing on the Limerick-Waterford side through Munster.
Kilkenny were fortunate to get past Galway, who were fortunate to beat Tipp who in my view weren’t hugely improved on the side that Limerick annihilated before nearly having to hit the panic button against Waterford in the second water break.
Now those connections may be in bits by Monday but at the moment they look plausible.
In the first semi-final I have been really impressed with Waterford so far but here are three reservations: one, the psychological because they have such a poor record in the fixture; two, they leaked goal chances against a Clare team that didn’t have the firepower Kilkenny will bring; and three, my biggest issue – the ‘third week syndrome’.
I’ve mentioned this a few times, probably because I’ve been up close when counties playing for a third successive weekend have lost, but it has added relevance given that recent semi-finals have been outstanding games, which by their nature require plenty of energy and frequently go the wire, with a good chance of extra-time.
So Waterford have a few hurdles to jump but they have been superb this championship and for me, have got better as it has progressed. Liam Cahill’s management and Michael Bevans’s coaching have had a startling impact.
Last week against Clare they were formidable, attacking from the throw-in and looking for goals at every opportunity. Stephen Bennett and Dessie Hutchinson were marauding from the early stages. The latter is really growing into the intercounty game.
I still remember his goal in a club match last summer when he controlled and finished in one movement during an evening game in Dungarvan. Stunning and as good a goal as I’ve ever seen.
He was also excellent last week. If the same space opens up for him and Bennett as it did when Galway penetrated in the Leinster final – even though they didn’t turn that into goals – Kilkenny will be in trouble.
Another tribute to Bennett is how there’s been little talk about the injured Pauric Mahony. Of course he’s been missed but were Bennett not doing such a good job with the frees that absence would be on show every week. He’s not flawless but has acquired the priceless ability to not let that faze him.
They’re both well-equipped in the middle third and I don’t think Waterford will be easily knocked off their stride there as Limerick were in last year’s semi-final by Conor Browne and John Donnelly. Another factor will be how much more comfortable Kilkenny now are playing ball through the lines with a shorter, possession-based game.
Key to this will be how defences cope.
Tadhg de Búrca has been phenomenal for Waterford this year but Clare succeeded in dragging him out of the centre to facilitate Calum Lyons man-marking Tony Kelly. Cahill and Bevans will have worked all week to stop that happening again with the likes of TJ Reid, Richie Hogan and Eoin Cody on the prowl.
Waterford in my view can make their own inroads into Kilkenny’s defence and after all the agonising I won’t be surprised if they reach the final.
This Sunday’s semi-final: I’ve mentioned that Galway disappointed me a bit in the Leinster final because to me they were the biggest threat to Limerick because of their size, the depth of their panel and the dynamic of new management.
Losing to Kilkenny raised question marks and reminded me that there had been one or two in the otherwise impressive win over Wexford and they weren’t altogether answered in the win over Tipperary last week.
They mainly concern the mysterious fluctuation in their performance levels during matches. For some reason they are prone to making mistakes – turning over ball and conceding easy frees – even though the opposition haven’t lifted the tempo or done anything obvious to intensify the pressure.
Now comes the biggest test of the year. Galway have cards to play. They have the physical attributes to take on Limerick and a manager in Shane O’Neill, who knows the opposition inside out. They also have the players.
Daithí Burke dominant at the back, Joseph Cooney playing well, Joe Canning leading the troops with Concannon and Whelan inside – that axis is very dangerous but I’ve seen too much fall-off. The goals conceded against Kilkenny were well taken but essentially came from a comedy of errors.
That tendency wasn’t eradicated in the quarter-final. Everyone said it was a great game but I felt that Tipperary were still in control when they were down to 14.
To be fair Galway used the space to create opportunities and the Aidan Harte goal was well engineered but it should have moved them up a gear and on the road out of sight. Instead they were still arm-wrestling understrength opponents in the 75th minute in order to survive.
Limerick are unlikely to be caught out as happened in last year’s semi-final against Kilkenny when they shot wide after wide. They have players in form around the middle. Diarmuid Byrnes was excellent in the Munster final, Gearóid Hegarty is a potential Hurler of the Year and the peerless Cian Lynch has been running the orchestra.
If I have an issue it’s that the full-forward line was a little underwhelming against Waterford. Maybe that’s hindsight after seeing what Clare managed to do last week but I think Aaron Gillane does better if he has Séamus Flanagan to play off.
I couldn’t see Limerick being beaten last year and we know how that turned out. But I can’t see Limerick being beaten.