Jackie Tyrrell: Waterford have a free pass but Cody just doesn't lose semi-finals
You have to go back to 2005 to find the last time he had to walk down the sideline and shake the opposing manager’s hand as a beaten man
Brian Cody is looking to extend his long run of All-Ireland semi-final wins on Saturday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
The All-Ireland semi-final, August 2009. I remember standing there, waiting in my left-corner-back position where Hill 16 meets the Cusack Stand. I had a perfect line of sight to John Mullane as he walked from the Waterford huddle to my corner. He walked vigorously down towards me. He was like a man on a mission.
I always tried to get to the patch of the field I was going to defend first. It meant I could stare down my opponent as he walked down towards me. I always felt the first person there had the psychological advantage in that your opponent is walking into your warzone. You are dictating the rules to him, not the other way around. It’s a game within a game. I was on a mission too.
The first thing that jumped out as John came down towards me was these two big bulging red marks glowing out of his pale, white, muscley thighs. They stood out a mile against the white Waterford jersey. I began to think that John had been away on warm-weather training last week and forgot to put the sun lotion on these two specific patches of his legs.
But as soon as he got down to me, I knew different. He was buzzing, absolutely fit to be tied to the Croke Park roof. He was right up in my face straight away. I came to the conclusion that he had been slapping the hurl off his thighs in a bid to get hyped up for the match. I said to myself, ‘It’s Valium this lad needs.’
We greeted each other with a familiar shoulder-to-shoulder collision. And then another one. And another. And before we knew it, we were square on, stuck in each other, head-to-head, shadowboxing and verbals flying between us. The umpires tried to police it like a referee in a boxing match but they were only interfering. We hardly noticed them.
Suddenly, without any warning, John swung his head and buried it full-force into my helmet. This was 2009, remember. You were still allowed to play without a helmet on and John was one of the last lads to hold out. So when I say he buried the head in me, I mean it literally. I can still see the imprint of my helmet guard down the bridge of his nose! It was the last thing I saw because with that, he took off springing across the field as the ball broke into our patch.
They needed energy. They lived on it
That was that Waterford team in a nutshell. Totally free-spirited. Unorthodox. Their own men, always. At times their hurling was so good it wasn’t even on this planet. They played this amazing off-the-cuff brand of hurling that resembled nothing that anyone else was doing. You would find it hard to work out their game-plan or pinpoint what their structure was.
They needed energy. They lived on it. Whether it was from Eoin Kelly hitting a bouncing ball over the bar for a point from midfield without taking it into his hand or Mullane welcoming you to the game with a De La Salle kiss, they had their own way of getting themselves into things. They had a direct electricity feed from the crowd too, like they were hooked up to their people like plugging into the mains. The higher the electricity from the crowd, the higher their level of hurling went.
The current Waterford team could not be further from that one. They are a team with a well-honed and defined game plan. They bring an awesome level of consistent work-rate and don’t need to go looking for outside energy sources. While they don’t have the same once in a lifetime hurlers like Mullane, Ken McGrath, Tony Browne and Big Dan at their disposal, they have an unbelievable workrate and an obvious sense of unity throughout the panel.
They have a really effective style of play. Tadhg De Burca plays as a dual-purpose centre-back. Half his job is to anchor the defence. The other half is to use his excellent striking to carry and deliver balls from the heart of the defence into attack.
It isn’t aimless striking either - their forward line is organised in a way to create space inside. They flood the midfield so there are always options short like Jake Dillon and Jamie Barron but the main purpose of their set-up is to leave Dessie Hutchinson alone inside.
They are a really admirable team, full of players you would love to surround yourself with
There is a difference between alone and isolated - Waterford make sure that when the ball is sent his way, they are getting runners up from that midfield area in support. They give him an option and they distract defenders. Hutchinson has been their break-out star in this championship and his form has been a real trump card for Liam Cahill.
They are extremely fit and well-conditioned for 70 minutes-plus. Even so, my worry for them would be that there has to be a certain amount of fatigue kicking in at some stage. They turn out more or less the same team each week and have a core of 13 players who have carried the load in just about every game.
This is their fourth weekend out of five and while the weather was decent last weekend, this is still winter hurling we’re talking about. There is a physical strain and a psychological strain on each player. I wouldn’t be surprised if it started to tell on Waterford eventually.
This team is built around the industry of players like Kieran Bennett, Jack Fagan and Jake Dillon, guys working until the 60-minute mark and then being replaced with similar models. They spend more time running back to their goal than away from it, which sums up their roles and their effort levels. They are a really admirable team, full of players you would love to surround yourself with.
Things will be spicy and saucy down around the south Kilkenny border and along the bridge which divides Kilkenny and Waterford. I did a coaching session a few years back in Ferrybank, which is technically Waterford, but with a huge and vocal Kilkenny tribe down there. It is a great club with such a unique dynamic, where the pitch is exactly on the border and divided in two. Local knowledge would have it that the scoring end is the end in Kilkenny.
Over the years, Kilkenny have had a brilliant record in All-Ireland semi-finals. You have to go back to 2005 to find the last time Brian Cody had to walk down the sideline and shake the opposing manager’s hand as a beaten man. Since then, Kilkenny have been in 11 semi-finals and come through them all - although they needed a replay against Waterford in 2016. By contrast, Waterford have been in six semi-finals since 2005 and only won two. Different teams, different times. But it does show that Kilkenny are used to getting to finals.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that if you go through those 11 semi-finals, there was Munster opposition on 10 occasions. They were generally coming to Dublin for the first time that season. For some of them, it was probably their first game in Croke Park. A huge occasion, probably with 60-70,000 people there. Probably an overnight stay involved, definitely a change in routine one way or the other.
Rhythm of the day
By the time All-Ireland semi-finals came around, we had already played at least a Leinster final in Croke Park. Some years, we would have played a semi-final there. We were used to the routine. We knew the rhythm of the day, where we had to be at what time, where we’d be eating our pre-match meal, what time we’d be getting the bus to the ground, all that stuff. None of it was ever new to us. Even if you were a young lad in his first year, you got the newness out of the way in the Leinster final.
I’m not saying that’s why we won, obviously. But it must have been worth a point or two here or there. All-Ireland semi-finals aren’t just any other game but to a certain extent we were able to train them that way. We nearly always had a good month or so to get ready for them and Cody would send us back to the clubs for the first week of it and then we’d have a solid three weeks to get ready.
The thing you hear a lot about semi-finals is that they’re for winning, regardless of the performance. But that’s never a good way to look at any game. Semi-finals are about doing the work that leads to the win.
The best way I can describe it is that semi-finals are like asking your girlfriend’s Dad for his daughter’s hand in marriage. They’re awkward as anything, you just want them to be over quickly so you can start planning for the big day. But you have to put the work in first before you get there.
With the retail sector reopening up next week (fingers crossed), I do expect to see Kilkenny shopping around to buy a ring for the big day. But I don’t think that’s any disgrace from Waterford’s point of view if it happens. To a certain extent, I feel Waterford have a free pass here, considering the low ebb they have come from in 2020.
Waterford are averaging 29 points per game in this championship. Considering they scored 10 points against Limerick in the Munster round robin last year, that’s some improvement. One way or another, Liam Cahill’s report card this year will have a few gold stars on it. That gives Waterford a bit of freedom here.
The flipside is that it puts most of the pressure on Kilkenny’s shoulders. But very often that pressure brings the best out of Kilkenny teams. I foresee Cody’s semi-final record surviving intact.