Jackie Tyrrell: Kilkenny face a massive test against Waterford

Semple Stadium clash will show which team is on the right track for the All-Ireland series

Kilkenny’s Pádraig Walsh under pressure from David Dempsey of Limerick in their All-Ireland senior hurling championship match at Nowlan Park. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Kilkenny’s Pádraig Walsh under pressure from David Dempsey of Limerick in their All-Ireland senior hurling championship match at Nowlan Park. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

I have a big dilemma this weekend. Coldplay are coming to Croke Park and I’d love to go. But I’m fairly sure I’ll end up going to Semple Stadium. If I went to the gig, I know I’d just be there checking my phone the whole time. So I’ll probably have to get them again some other time.

They will probably play one of my favourite songs - Fix You. It’s the perfect song for summing up the qualifiers. It’s all a process of fixing what went wrong in the provincial championships.

There’s a line at the start that goes: “When you get what you want but not what you need.” That’s the first game in the qualifiers in a nutshell.

Get through, and you get what you want. You will eventually need a performance, but the first game is only about staying alive.

Qualifiers aren’t pretty. They are nerve-racking because you know that all it takes from this point on is one bad performance, one slip, one poor decision, one stupid foul, one lapse in concentration, and it’s over.

The price for any of the teams is huge. Year over. No Croke Park. End of the road for a few lads who will retire or be moved on. In some cases, the end of the manager. Long winter ahead. No game for six months. A waste of a year.

I was in Nowlan Park on Saturday night for Kilkenny’s match against Limerick and that cloud hung over everything.

It was reflected in a nervy, edgy game that never took off completely during the 70 minutes. It stuttered at times, both teams going from second to fourth gear – and then back to first when the Limerick wides totalled up in the first-half.

But that’s understandable. It’s what happens when your year is on the line. People in the stands expect teams to just go out and express themselves, but they’re judging these teams by the standards of different games.

If it’s the first round of the championship, you can go out and express yourself because you’re starting out on a road you hope will lead to an All-Ireland. If it’s a Leinster final or an All-Ireland semi-final, you can go out and express yourself because you have the confidence of having won games to carry you.

But in the first round of the qualifiers, you’re backed into a corner. Your confidence is low; you’re not sure of yourself. You didn’t just lose the last day, you lost badly. You don’t know yet if you’ve fixed the things that cost you. And worst of all, you know what happens if you don’t get a result.

It’s very hard in those circumstances to risk something that you want so badly, to try something bold, something different.

Your mind and body are telling you to play it safe. Don’t get out in front. Play the simple ball. Don’t take the extra touch. You can worry about expressing yourself the next day.

The next day is here now, though. This is where teams have to start feeling like they’re getting somewhere.

In the football qualifiers, good teams generally have two or three games to start getting into a flow before they reach Croke Park.

But because there’s so few teams in hurling, D-Day comes a lot quicker. So there’s an urgency about the round two games that isn’t solely bound up in the result, like it was last weekend.

Waterford and Kilkenny both know they have to get through this Saturday’s game first and foremost. But they also know that they have to be hitting their stride a little bit too. They want to see a progression. They want to see the team settling, with no more than two or three spots up in the air.

Basically, they want to be coming out of the game with some sort of reassurance that they’re on the right track for the All-Ireland series. To be safe in the knowledge that they’re going to attack the rest of this championship now and not stumble from game to game, just getting over the line.

There are three things you don’t want going into an All-Ireland semi-final. One, to be searching for form – you’re a couple of months behind schedule if you’re doing that. Two, to be hoping you’ve got enough done – you need more certainty than that. Three, thinking you’re in a better place than you actually are.

That’s why the game is massive for both Kilkenny and Waterford. The losers are done. The winners have a concrete idea of where they stand.

The big thing for Kilkenny is that they look to have addressed their two biggest problem areas this year, the full-back and centre-back positions. They’ve found key men for those spots and formed a great axis in defence to stop the opposition and launch their own attacks.

Pádraig Walsh was a rock on Saturday night. He was simplistic in his approach and effective because of that. People might take for granted some of the things he did because he made them look so easy. But if you look at something like his positional sense, that takes serious knowledge and confidence to pull off correctly.

His body positioning under the high ball was particularly impressive because he was playing against Gearóid Hegarty, who has at least five inches on him in height.

He was immense against the bigger man, playing to his strengths under the dropping ball by just shielding it through to Eoin Murphy and averting the danger that way.

The worst thing he could have done was go after those balls with an ego, looking for the big catch and to rise the crowd with a big clearance.

Instead, he remembered what his job was – to protect the square and take away the chance of a goal. He did it efficiently, bringing calmness and security to the defence, which gave confidence to everyone else.

Watching him on Saturday, it was obvious that he just wasn’t fit enough after his injury for Brian Cody to risk him at full-back in their match against Wexford. By playing him in the forwards, Cody was taking a chance that he wasn’t prepared to take at full-back.

The thinking was obviously that he’d get away with a poor game at half-forward, but a bad game at full-back would potentially cost the team a few goals.

But Walsh is in the full-back position now and I’d say he could be there for a few years.

Buckley’s brilliance

Meanwhile, Cillian Buckley was everything you’d want in a centre-back. Brilliant under the high ball, he commanded the centre, protecting the full-back line and giving an option to all around him.

His athleticism offers him great options in defence and his pace gives him and his defence a security blanket, if needed.

Cody deserves great credit for getting these two lads into position so Kilkenny can build a foundation for the rest of the team.

But the big addition on Saturday was Mick Fennelly. They said after the game that he’d only had two training sessions prior to the match, so I presume Brian’s hand was forced by it being the last-chance saloon. But Fennelly was brilliant. His possession count was up about 20 and his presence alone offered cover to the half-back line.

He was especially vital in the rucks. They’re such a big part of the game now, especially in a nervy encounter like this game was. At the top level, everyone is a strong boy. But they’re not Mick Fennelly-strong. He gets in there and dominates that exchange, knocking lads out of the way and getting the ball up into his hand more times than not.

Some lads go into those rucks as a token effort – out on their feet, they’re just a body in there. They go in not wanting to get the ball up into their hands at all, because they know that if they do, they have to go and break a tackle.

Some go in playing for time. They get their body over the ball and hunker down, waiting on the referee’s whistle. Those are the guys Fennelly knocks out of the way.

He swats them away at will. He goes in there with the attitude that it’s his domain. That’s his bread and butter. If he’s not winning those rucks, then he’s not in the game. For such a big man, he’s lightning quick about getting the ball up into his hand.

When you’re in the middle of all that, you have less than half a second to snap the ball up. You have no room. There’s hurleys flying everywhere and you’re getting hit from all sides. You have one bite at the cherry. That’s why Fennelly is the man in that situation.

I think Kilkenny are in a good place from one to nine. But they need so much more from their forwards. Walter Walsh and TJ Reid played their part last weekend, but they need a much greater contribution from Richie Hogan, Ger Aylward, Colin Fennelly and co.

They need one of them to start scoring heavily. Richie is probably more of a creator but Ger is there for one thing only – to put scores on the board. They need to step it up a bit more.

Waterford look to me to be in a similar dilemma to where they were after their drawn All-Ireland semi-final last year against Kilkenny. What’s their game plan going to be? Do they stick or twist? Sweeper or 15-on-15? Above all, what do they do with Austin Gleeson?

If it was me, I’d have him playing as a centre-forward and tell him to stay in the opposition half of the pitch.

Look at the goal he scored against Kilkenny after five minutes of the replay last year – he ran on to the ball, collected it from Brick Walsh, a tap on the hurley as he beat the cover and, bang, low into the bottom corner of the net. That’s what he’s capable of. Why wouldn’t they keep him in position to let him do it more often?

Keep him at 11, keep Maurice Shanahan at 14 and fit the rest of the team in around them. If they do that and play with some boldness, they have a big chance here.

Gleeson needs support, in the form of decoy runners either side of him when he’s on the ball and the option of Maurice, Patrick Curran and Shane Bennett inside. That’s the basis for an attack that can hurt Kilkenny.

I make Waterford slight favourites on the basis that their problem against Cork was that they underperformed. In general, Kilkenny have more issues than Waterford.

If Waterford fix their performance, they should have a slight advantage.

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