Davy Fitzgerald expecting nothing easy from Waterford

Clare boss a a big admirer of the Déise’s transformation under Derek McGrath’s

Davy Fitzgerald: “It will be hard enough to get scores because of the way they are in that middle third. It will be tough.” Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Davy Fitzgerald: “It will be hard enough to get scores because of the way they are in that middle third. It will be tough.” Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

“I don’t think you can force them to play another way. I don’t think you can.”

Davy Fitzgerald sits back and a small smile creeps across his face as he considers the team that has become the toughest nugget in hurling. The Waterford model is new and unique. It has drawn criticism, veiled and otherwise. The general complaint is that its ‘no good’ for hurling.

Against that, it has transformed the fortunes of Waterford, the defending league champions. Fitzgerald knows where he stands on the Waterford revolution and on its instigator, Derek McGrath.

“It will be hard enough to get scores because of the way they are in that middle third. It will be tough,” he predicts.

This is before Clare’s penultimate training session and it isn’t difficult to see that Fitzgerald is happy with where his team are at. Promotion secured; an emphatic semi-final win over Kilkenny and now an opportunity to take on the most intriguing young team in hurling for a national title.

“And make no mistake about it: I love it. I love what he has done,” he says of McGrath.

“He is a very smart guy, he has really worked hard at this and trust me, there is no point in listening to: ‘you’re favourites, they’re favourites’. I think it is tight. I think it is going to be interesting how we cope with them and, if we break them down, how they counteract it.”

Fitzgerald has been in McGrath’s shoes. In the years he spent coaching Waterford, he came to understand the enthusiasm for the game in the county. He took Waterford to the 2008 All-Ireland final.

It was the county’s first September appearance in 45 years so it was just unfortunate timing that they came up against Kilkenny in full-on Ayrton Senna mode; nobody could have lived with Brian Cody’s team that day. He can understand why McGrath decided it was time for a new departure and is delighted it is working so well.

“I’ll tell you why. He took a lot of stick in 2014. I remember doing an interview on WLR saying: ‘give this fella a break’. They were giving him a hard time. I said trust me, this fella is smart...he will get it right. I believed that. You should never judge a guy straight away.

“I believed he would figure it out. He is a smart guy. This fella would be up to everything . . . he is like the rest of us. Anything he can get an edge on; trust me, he is deadly.

Best system

“Ask the people of Waterford would they rather play big open style hurling and get hammered or play the style they are doing now...I can tell you what they would rather do. It doesn’t kill hurling. I’ve seen their hurling and they are getting some phenomenal scores. Are they getting as many goals? They’re not. But they are scoring a lot of scores between midfield and the fifty. That takes a fair talent to be able to throw the ball over from that distance.”

This might sound like the kind of flattery managers are given to prior to big matches. But McGrath and Fitzgerald have good time for one another. Fitzgerald is enigmatic as to the extent of their friendship.

He admits they haven’t been in contact since their counties were drawn against each other in the Munster championship on June 5th. But prior to that?

“I’ll let Derek answer that. There would have been a bit more than texts, you know.”

Sunday could mark the renewal of a Munster rivalry that turned memorably spiky in the summer of 1998. Fitzgerald’s Clare team has not met Waterford since McGrath patented the hard-working, defensively oriented sweeper system with which they have rocketed up national rankings. He knows what to expect in theory but concedes that his players haven’t encountered it before.

Serious team

It makes for a spectacular clash of styles: Clare are as freewheeling and expressive as hurling teams come but finding the space to do their thing will become the critical task on Sunday. Fitzgerald has been studying Waterford from afar and isn’t convinced that there is much that opposition teams can do to disrupt their system.

Very congested

“It mightn’t be the prettiest game ever on Sunday because the middle third will be very congested I think. It won’t be a massive open game, that’s what I would think.”

What he is certain of is that both teams will be keen to win it. Waterford are chasing a back-to-back title but Clare left no imprint on the league annals since 1978. Only three Clare hurling teams have ever won the league. This may a heavily decorated young Clare team but a league final is nothing to be scoffed at.

“I’m chuckling that we are there. I’m delighted that we are there. I dunno if we will win it or not. People are saying will ye not hold back for the championship. No: if we can try and win it we will. Don’t be fooled; Derek McGrath is saying the exact same thing if I know him – which I do. And fair play to him. I’d love to find something bad to say about him. But I can’t ! Maybe after Sunday . . . ”

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