In Waterford this week they could have hooked the grid to the rumour mill and saved us all a lot of yakity-yak about the energy crisis. The hurling team are over-trained. No, actually, the hurling team are under-trained. Two of them were sick as dogs going into the Cork game. They didn’t go on the lash after winning the league and now they’re paying for it.
All the worst old guff, of course. But nothing says crisis like the fact that people are prepared to believe anything now. Waterford have somehow gone from being second favourites for the All-Ireland after their second match of the championship to being all but laid out on the slab after their third. If Cork don’t lose in Thurles, Waterford will be gone regardless of what they do against Clare. The Hindenburg didn’t crash this hard.
"They were so, so flat last week," says Dan Shanahan. "I never bought into the idea that they were second favourites for the All-Ireland. I heard all this talk of how they were the only team that could beat Limerick, and I thought it was nonsense to be honest with you. But they looked tired against Cork and they got bullied all around the pitch.
"I know these lads. I won't be knocking them. They're getting a bit of stick around Waterford, but I've been there as a player and I've been there as a coach. They were outfought in every position bar Aussie Gleeson and Patrick Curran against Cork, but sometimes you have a real bad day at the office at the wrong time. That's why they're where they are."
Context colours everything. Now that their fate is out of their hands Waterford’s championship has been reframed on the go. What was initially considered a welcome show of grit and gumption to come through the opening day against Tipp looks like the first sign of the apocalypse now.
Running Limerick to three points, the closest they've got to them in the John Kiely era? A smoke-and-mirrors job. A trick of the light conjured up by two late goals and four injuries to Limerick All Stars. Losing to Cork has thrown shade on everything that went before. Waterford are in that spot now where you have to wrack your brain to try and remember what it looked like when they were good.
"The big change I see is in their running game," says Fergal Hartley. "That hard, aggressive running style was what made them so dangerous through the league and especially in those games against Wexford and Cork, where they scored all the goals and looked unstoppable at times. I was at that Wexford game and they created eight clear-cut goal chances from that running game and a couple more half-chances.
“And the thing about them is that they were doing it both ways. They were attacking at ferocious pace from half-back when they had the ball but they were also tracking back and chasing and tackling at pace too. That made them so formidable going both ways and it was so hard for teams to counteract.
“Watching them against Cork last week, that aggressive running just wasn’t there. You have to give Cork credit for that – they obviously focused on it and tried to stop it at source.
“But even allowing for that I don’t know if it’s a mental thing or what it is but Waterford just weren’t able to get up to that sort of speed throughout the team. Aussie Gleeson did, in fairness to him – he came sprinting off the shoulder a couple of times at full speed. But there weren’t many to go along with him.”
Liam Cahill’s side have had some bad breaks along the way. Gleeson was their best player last week but was clearly unlucky to be sent off on a second yellow for a tussle in which he wasn’t the aggressor.
Iarlaith Daly's injury couldn't have arrived at a worse time against Limerick, just as he was winning his duel with Aaron Gillane. Gillane went on to polka dance his way to a total of 0-13, including six points from play. Daly's season was over and the Waterford full-back line has creaked ever since.
But championship is championship and nobody has a monopoly on grief. Every team gets injuries, and Waterford were trumpeted before a ball was pucked as having the deepest panel in the competition. If the championship has been an audit of that claim, it’s fair to say some irregularities have been found.
Having a lot of players of intercounty standard isn't quite the same as having a world of squad depth. When Daly went off in the Limerick game, his replacement was Tom Barron, a college kid making his championship debut. He went straight in on Gillane, who took him for four points in seven minutes. Conor Prunty was switched across at half time.
The subs that have made the biggest difference so far were Gleeson and Jamie Barron who came on at half time in the Tipp game. But all other things being equal, both of them are starters. Neil Montgomery has come in to reasonable effect but he's nobody's idea of a game-changer. Pauric Mahony has only seen a couple of minutes of game-time. Ditto Shane Bennett. When the Cork game needed to be turned around, who could Cahill call on?
Part of Waterford’s problem has been the very obvious and rudimentary fact that not enough of their players have carried a scoring threat. Analysis done by the Hurler On The Ditch Twitter account shows that only one Waterford player features on a list of the top 19 scorers from play in this year’s championship. The fact that Galway and Kilkenny have five players each in double figures clearly says as much about the turkey shoots available to the big Leinster teams as anything else. But even so, the numbers for Waterford are pretty stark.
Dessie Hutchinson's 1-9 makes him the only Waterford player to tot up double figures from play across three games. Gleeson has scored six points from play, along with four frees and one sideline ball. Mikey Kiely has two goals. Stephen Bennett has scored just a single point from play so far. Slim pickings all around.
“They’ve stuck to their way of playing,” says Hartley. “The Limerick thing of isolating Gillane inside and spraying a long diagonal ball to him isn’t really in Waterford’s make-up. I hear some people going, ‘Well, they should have a Plan B’ but I think that’s very difficult to do in the middle of a game, to switch away from what has served you well and what you’ve trained and practised. I would think you’re probably better off doubling down and trying to get Plan A right than changing it in the middle of a game.
“You have to wonder has the expectation got to them a bit. All the talk after the Limerick game was of how they’d given them a battle and they’d see them again later in the year and sure Cork in Walsh Park was going to be a doddle. That sort of thing is omnipresent. It can’t help but seep in.”
Whether it did or it didn’t is immaterial now. Waterford go to Ennis in a terrible predicament, unable to affect what is happening in Thurles and very probably doomed regardless of how they fare against Clare.
They even have the indignity of having to listen to talk that Clare might rest some of their big guns, as if a Munster Championship game against Waterford is no skin off their nose. The shame of it.
“I don’t think Clare will rest anyone,” says Shanahan. “Well, put it this way – I don’t think they should. I don’t think Clare can afford to be taking it easy with a Munster final on the horizon. I wouldn’t want to ruin the momentum they’ve built up if I was them.
“But even more than that, they should be going all out to put Waterford out of the championship. That should be in their heads, 100 per cent. Put Waterford out and don’t risk seeing them again down the line. I think that’s how they’ll be approaching it. Whatever happens, if Waterford go out it will be devastating.”
No real say
A season that held such promise, one that began with Cahill turning down his own county, is likely to end with Waterford accompanying Tipp out of Munster in the middle of May. Anything can happen, obviously enough, and it wouldn’t be beyond the beyonds for Waterford to win and Cork to lose. But they have no real say in the matter now.
“I don’t see it happening,” says Hartley. “I just think it would be unforgivable for Cork to go and make a mess of it now and lose to Tipp. I think we’re gone. And if we are it’s a terrible blow.
"This was year three of Liam Cahill and he's obviously still the man for Waterford, no doubt about it. But for this to happen just when they were building something is going to be very hard to take."