John Allen: Waterford unlikely to pass huge Kilkenny test
Déise will bring workrate and honesty but I can’t see Cody’s champions beaten
Brian Cody: the experience of his Kilkenny side cannot be underestimated. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Two years ago Waterford’s minors won the county’s first minor All-Ireland title since 1948. On that team Austin Gleeson was picked at six, Shane Bennett at seven, Tom Devine at nine, Stephen Bennett at 10 and Patrick Curran at 14. So far this year all of those players have played lesser or greater roles in Waterford’s almost meteoric return into hurling’s top four.
It’s fairly strong proof of the value of having competitive underage teams. That said, it is an unusually high return in such a short space of time.
On Sunday, they and the others in the Waterford panel will have a much better idea where they are in the greater scheme of things (“things” being what chance they have of winning the Liam MacCarthy Cup anytime soon). Kilkenny have been the benchmark since 2006. So far this season Waterford have beaten all of the other contenders in either the league or championship but they have yet to face Brian Cody’s side. Sunday’s game offers them an opportunity to assess exactly where their progress has taken them.
In 2012 Limerick, after a somewhat surprising win against Clare in the qualifiers (after three losses to them already that year) faced Kilkenny in the next game. I immediately thought ‘disaster’. “There’s no chance that Limerick can match the might, power, work rate and killer instinct that has been the hallmark of the Cats for so long.”
Stalwart Niall Moran had been on the phone to many of his team-mates later that morning and was in a very positive mood.
He reckoned this was a chance to see where Limerick were in the pecking order. I was foreseeing the year ending ignominiously. He saw the half full cup and a chance for realistic introspection in the aftermath.
I can’t say I agreed with him before the event but, in hindsight he was right. Limerick played well enough that day and I’m fairly sure every player had a better idea that evening as to where he stood in his own personal journey to be a consistently high-performing intercounty player.
Looking at Sunday’s game from the cup half-empty perspective, the Waterford players will at least know where they stand after the match. That’s a fairly negative view, but maybe it’s also a fairly realistic one. The bookmakers have Kilkenny as hot favourites and for solid commercial reasons. A quick waltz through Leinster. Reigning champions. Used to playing in Croke Park. Vastly experienced. The greatest manager of any generation. A self -belief that is only developed over time and due to the success achieved in that time.
These factors, psychologically, help to turn their sporting potential into superior performance.
So am I just assuming Derek McGrath will be happy with his team making up the numbers on Sunday? Does he really believe his team can overcome the might of Kilkenny? Of course he does and so does Dan Shanahan. In the course of Shanahan’s career, the great Waterford team he was a hugely important part of played in Croke Park many times. They sometimes went in as favourites and lost. They also went in as underdogs and won. But they always fell short of winning the big prize.
How often did we say in that period that they would definitely win an All-Ireland but they didn’t. After the 2013 final, reports of Clare dominating the future hurling landscape filled the media. That hasn’t happened.
Yes, there is always next year but now is where it’s at for all of those players. There is no guarantee that they will reach the semi-final next year. Derek McGrath knows that. The players know that. This is knockout and it’s the time to play the game of your life. Will that be enough to cause a surprise result on Sunday? Hardly. But, as we know, every game is different and underdogs win sometimes.
Both teams have a very high workrate and we know how important that aspect of the game has become. It might be an oversimplification to say that Waterford’s success this year is down to a really high work ethic. But it has played a major part in their journey to Croke Park. It’s a staple with Kilkenny. Brian Cody recently described their championship so far as decent. A bit of an understatement but we understand what it means.
The key, for me, is Waterford limiting TJ Reid and Richie Hogan. Hogan, last year’s player of the year, is currently in second place behind Reid in the bookies’ current ratings for this year’s award.
Waterford did a fairly impressive job in limiting Séamus Callinan in the Munster final but John O Dwyer did a bit of damage. On Sunday if both Hogan and Reid are limited then Waterford have a realistic chance of victory.
Kilkenny’s experience can’t be underestimated. Waterford’s limited experience is a definite disadvantage. But Kilkenny’s panel doesn’t have the strength in depth it had in recent years. Jackie Tyrrell and Richie Power are seasoned championship players who will be missed. Likewise Michael Fennelly, if he’s out.
In last year’s semi-final, Limerick showed what can be achieved with high workrate and honesty. They were short a bit of luck. Waterford will bring the workrate and the honesty. There mightn’t be as much between them at the end as is generally expected. However, I can’t see Kilkenny beaten.