Nicky English: Waterford can find enough to deny rising Cork
Questions surrounding Conor Lehane’s fitness can tilt the balance towards Déise
Waterford’s Shane Bennett with Mark Ellis and Colm Spillane of Cork. Waterford will need more from the two Bennetts and Patrick Curran to reach another level this year. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
This has become really interesting with the early sense that this would be a very open championship borne out in the matches so far. Waterford are the only team left to show their hand.
They also happen to be one of the top four teams of the past two years – two of whom have already been beaten – and have the potential to join Galway in the front rank of contenders this year.
That’s not dismissing what we’ve seen from Cork and Clare and Wexford or ruling out that by the end of the summer that they could be contenders because it’s becoming increasingly likely that we’re going to see an outlier pushing forward like in 2013.
For instance we don’t know how Galway will react after this weekend’s match against Offaly when they will presumably reach the Leinster final and have to play not Kilkenny, who they probably expected, but Wexford in front of about 40,000 of their own supporters. It’s still a final Galway have to win to maintain their momentum and that won’t be easy.
But in recent weeks we’ve seen Kilkenny and Tipperary look flat against Wexford and Cork, opponents with real energy and dynamism. How Waterford hit the pitch on Sunday will be very instructive. If they’re hopping and win impressively, they’re contenders but they’re up against a team with rising confidence, who will have no fears about playing them.
The problem with Waterford is that we don’t have a clear idea of where they stand after showing a fair level of form last year in reaching an All-Ireland semi-final for the second year running, which shows consistency. They also convincingly won the under-21 – albeit without producing any obvious newcomers besides those already on the panel.
So you are looking for improvement or at least maintained form from last season if they are to make an impact. If you were looking for signs in the league you’d have been disappointed. Cork went down to Walsh Park and beat them; I saw them playing Tipp there as well and they were very poor and they more or less checked out in the league quarter-final against Galway – looking like they’d changed plans midway through the second half in Salthill.
The possibility is that Derek McGrath decided, “we’ve won the league and got hammered in the Munster final” and that their target this year is the provincial championship. I honestly think this is risky business.
I accept they have more Fitzgibbon players than any other county – Cork’s third-level contingent includes a number of Freshers – so I understand the case for holding back a little bit but I believe that being prominent in the league is still the best barometer of how a team is going. If you’re depending on flicking switches half way through June, the lights won’t always come on.
For a player nothing beats what Cork have at the moment; a match under their belt, a level of form and increased confidence.
Waterford’s big problem up until now was the limitation on their scoring power, probably because of the sweeper system, but even with a more attack-oriented set-up they will need significant development in the threat from younger forwards, Patrick Curran and the two Bennetts.
Ultimately, given their talents and the impact they made in 2015, they were a little disappointing at senior level last year even if they were outstanding with the under-21s. I probably set the bar too high for them then but I really believe that need to get up to that level now and score goals.
The evidence so far, apart from Wexford last weekend, is that this is shaping up as a high-scoring championship with matches so far setting that trend. I believe two goals will be necessary to win matches in Munster and not having seen much sign of this from Waterford, I still have reservations about their ability to break out of established parameters.
I don’t think they’ll go as defensively this year and expect them to stick with the evolution from sweeper seen in the All-Ireland semi-finals against Kilkenny last year. They’ll most likely have a front-eight formation of three-three-two, which is a standard third-level line-up and try to transition quickly through a packed midfield into attack.
The Cork defence looked imperious against Tipperary and the supply of ball going into the forwards was facilitated by a lack of work rate from Tipp and if Waterford produce that effort in their forwards and around midfield, they’ll greatly reduce Cork’s scoring possibilities.
Although they looked like a scoring machine against Tipp, Cork’s attack got loads of good ball and to be fair to them, Luke Meade, Darragh Fitzgibbon and Shane Kingston have brought more pace and a bit of magic back to Cork and although they could be shut down, they could also take off.
Waterford are more proven but only up to a certain level where they have stalled the past two years. Cork aren’t proven at all yet but they aren’t disproven either.
It’s extremely hard to call but the injury question about Conor Lehane can have a huge impact on this. He emerged as a real leader against Tipperary and even if he plays we have to bear in mind what happened Kilkenny a week ago after gambling on players recovering.
So it’s Waterford for me – but with reservations.