TIME TO LET THE KIDS PLAY

By Brian Flannery

Waterford will not be over-confident in facing Cork. But they more than possess the werewithal to advance to another Munster Final.				| Photo: Maurice Hennebry

Waterford will not be over-confident in facing Cork. But they more than possess the werewithal to advance to another Munster Final. | Photo: Maurice Hennebry

The truncated nature of the inter-county season means it’s 11 weeks since Waterford exited the League up in Salthill when an experimental XV fell at the Quarter-Final stage to eventual winners Galway.
Since then our senior hurlers have completed a couple of official challenge games against Limerick and Offaly and with further ‘behind closed doors’ games more recently against Clare and Limerick.
A training week at Fota Island Hotel was also undertook to ‘sharpen the saw’ for next Sunday’s Munster semi-final against Cork at Semple Stadium this Sunday.
With both of last year’s All-Ireland finalists, Tipperary and Kilkenny falling in their opening games Waterford are now third favourites to win a first title since 1959.
There is little doubt that Déise bainnisteoir Derek McGrath will be viewing this season as a huge opportunity with the heretofore dominant counties like Kilkenny and Tipperary looking like this may be a down year for the recent superpowers.
The more significant point on the Waterford management’s minds will likely be the preference to avoid the increasingly difficult route through the qualifiers for Sunday’s defeated side.
Victory against Cork next Sunday will propel Waterford to another provincial decider against Clare and guarantees at least an All-Ireland Quarter-Final place.
My sources on Leeside confirm that Cork boss Kieran Kingston, while somewhat surprised with the result against the All-Ireland champions, was not a bit surprised with their performance.
Cork gave a performance filled with pace energy and commitment that was severely missing last season.
The injection of youth and quality from the likes of Luke Meade, Shane Kingston, Mark Coleman and Darragh Fitzgibbon has rejuvenated the Rebel County.
Players like Conor Lehane, Patrick Horgan, Seamus Harnedy and Mark Ellis still occupy pivotal positions but now have a stronger and more talented supporting cast. Cork is not without weaknesses though.
Tipperary spurned early goal chances when midfielders Brendan Maher and Sean Curran were allowed to run unchecked though the heart of the Cork defence. Despite the improvements and adjustments made by Kieran Kingston any team defence dependant on Damien Cahalane manning the square would worry me.
Cahalane, to give him his due, gave a commanding and combative performance against Tipperary but has more often than not been found wanting at the very highest level.
Goalkeeper Anthony Nash played an important role in instigating much of Cork’s good play with accurate and precise distribution but Waterford have a far more mobile defence and centre-field than their accommodating hosts last time out.
It was the movement and pace of the Cork team that Tipperary struggled most with. Nash frequently found Conor Lehane in stride and space on the wing but is likely to find space in the Waterford defence more difficult to identify this Sunday.
The national (but not necessarily accurate) perception is that Waterford are three or four years ahead of Cork regarding team development and are likely to strangle the life out of Kieran Kingston’s young and inexperienced rebels.
Tadhg de Búrca is likely to sit deep once more with Jamie Barron and Kevin Moran augmenting the Déise defence to squeeze the space available to Cork runners.
There are likely to be few surprises in the Waterford line-up to be announced this Friday night at 9pm.
I watched Billy Nolan give an outstanding performance on goal for the Waterford Under-21s recently but has yet to feature between the sticks for a Derek McGrath managed side.
The De La Sale clubman when faced with a choice for championship has always plumbed for Stephen O’Keeffe to wear number one jersey despite a strong case for the inclusion of the ever-reliable Ian O’Regan.
Expect the defence to have a familiar look with Shane Fives, Barry Coughlan, Noel Connors the most consistent line in recent years.
If declared fit, Darragh Fives is likely to join Tadhg de Búrca and Philip Mahony in the half-back line with Conor Gleeson and Seamus Keating also in contention.
Captain Kevin Moran and All-Star Jamie Barron are sure to be selected too with Michael Walsh, Austin Gleeson and Pauric Mahony on the forty. There is genuine competition inside, with Maurice Shanahan likely to be flanked by the Bennett brothers Shane and Stephen.
Patrick Curran, Thomas Ryan, Jake Dillon, Brian O’Halloran and Colin Dunford are others in contention for a starting berth.
Favouritism has rarely rested easily on Waterford shoulders but despite being young in years this is an experienced Waterford side ready to take the next step in their development.
Players such as Austin Gleeson and Stephen Bennett are already into their fourth season at senior level with All-Ireland titles at minor and Under-21 levels in their pocket are unlikely to be fazed by a heightened level of expectation.
There are leaders and winners all over the field for Waterford so I have no fear of over confidence going into this game.
Derek McGrath will have studied the Rebel victory over the champions and should have all the correct answers to the questions this Cork side will likely pose.
Now is precisely the right time to exude confidence and unleash a sextet of attacking quality that few if any teams have the ability to repel. Waterford have the players to win this Sunday and on any given Sunday. It’s time to let the kids play.

My Waterford pick: Stephen O’Keeffe (Ballygunner); Shane Fives (Tourin), Barry Coughlan (Ballygunner), Noel Connors (Passage); Darragh Fives (Tourin), Tadhg de Búrca (Clashmore Kinsalebeg), Philip Mahony (Ballygunner); Jamie Barron (Fourmilewater), Kevin Moran (De La Salle, captain); Michael Walsh (Stradbally), Austin Gleeson (Mount Sion), Pauric Mahony (Ballygunner); Shane Bennett (Ballysaggart), Maurice Shanahan (Lismore), Stephen Bennett (Ballysaggart).

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