Players’ meeting anyone? I jest. Or at least I think I do, because Sunday’s hugely disappointing display in Semple Stadium has left Waterford searching for some serious answers.
There are all sorts of theories vying to explain the team’s lack of cohesion and zip. “They just don’t seem to be firing,” observes Nicky English, adding that that it’s hard to rediscover your form in less than a week.
Are they over-trained? Justin McCarthy set great store in having his players “hurling fresh” as opposed to simply fit. Davy Fitzgerald has banked on making Waterford a match physically for Kilkenny. The training they’ve done has been savage, apparently. Ken McGrath looked a shadow of his former self – something explained in large part by a recurrence of a knee injury that’s set to sideline him for six weeks. But too many others’ edge was missing for it to be a coincidence.
Paul Flynn feels they’re showing symptoms of a team that’s “over-drilled”, sacrificing the touch and feel gained from practice matches in exchange for endless sequences; simulated training techniques that don’t suit the spontaneous, unpredictable nature of the game.
In truth it’s possibly a combination of causes and effects, but there are similarities in body language to the Irish rugby team at the last World Cup, after which Eddie O’Sullivan admitted preparations had been botched, with too much physical/drill work and not enough emphasis on ball time.
Hindsight is perfect vision of course and we all thought provisions were as they should be prior to the weekend. Despite 7/11 and a disjointed League campaign, there was renewed optimism and green shoots glimpsed in the home win over Kilkenny were fertilised by reports that the players were fitter than ever and chomping at the bit.
Fitzgerald insisted his Waterford team wouldn’t be found wanting in the last 10 minutes of any match. But they were wilting badly long before Diarmuid Kirwan put everyone out of their rain-soaked misery.
Waterford appeared drained and devoid of inspiration. He had his critics, this column included, but it’s worth remembering that under McCarthy Waterford usually ended games on the up. Take 2007 for instance: they outlasted Kilkenny in the League final; had too much pace and fluency for Cork and Limerick in Munster; came from behind to force a draw with Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final; had the legs on them in the replay, and even in the All-Ireland semi-final, though fatigued, they finished the stronger of the two sides and almost reeled Limerick in.
Much was made of the managers in the build-up and the more experienced man had reason to be happier on any number of counts on a day when both defences were dominant and the error-rate was awfully high.
That said, while pleased they were able to come back from a six-point half-time deficit, Justin will regret the fact that their finishing denied them an unlikely, and personally-sweet, victory. As Flynn says, “if Limerick had a free taker they’d have been home and hosed.”
But the Corkman must quietly fancy their chances of finishing the job, and with Ken missing the odds have tipped in their favour.
Giving his views on ‘Newstalk’ from Cork the next night, Flynn was “not quite sure” (enough said) if the players would be happy with Fitzgerald’s diversionary approach afterwards.
What could and should have been done to counteract what was/wasn’t happening? The manager maintains it’s hard to reverse momentum, but better judges than I insist that what seemed like obvious switches weren’t made, or at least delayed, as Waterford lost what shape they had (much like last September).
When you see Tony Browne being brought on in midfield with 10 minutes to go “you’d wonder,” surmised Flynn, who was asked what Fitzgerald was like to play under. He wouldn’t know, he said pointedly, “having got seven minutes under him [when] we were 21 points behind” (and briefly as a blood sub against Antrim, his last scoring appearance).
A “spectator” on Sunday, Eoin Kelly was devastatingly effective at full-forward last year, but he’s too good a hurler to have standing in there waiting for ball that’s not coming. On the right wing or midfield – where his size would be a help – his influence would be much greater, surely.
Mullane was on fire in the first half, threatening to win the game on his own until his supply line was shut off. If Limerick were profligate, failing to score from play from the 33rd minute with the calibre of forwards Waterford have, whatever the weather (which was the same for both sides), is deeply worrying.
While there’s a sense the Déise got out of jail, confidence must be squat, though one impressive win could change attitudes utterly. Right now, though, individually and collectively things are clearly awry. The talk beforehand was about having a few tricks up their sleeves to counteract Justin’s inside-knowledge, yet, other than finding Mullane, which seems to be plan A-Z (and Damien Reale will doubtless be detailed to mark him on Saturday), do Waterford actually have a system of play? Or is the overall set-up too systematic?
Some would suggest that in upping the ante ‘professionalism’-wise the basics have been lost sight of. Waterford were at their best when they kept it simple. Simplicity enables spontaneity, which has been the main missing ingredient since last summer. It’s almost as if preparations are now choreographed to such an extent that there’s no space for the unexpected. Sometimes less is more.
And did that much need fixing? As Daithí Regan says (see elsewhere), “their brand of hurling was absolutely outstanding” under Justin; albeit motivation-wise matters had gone stale. They just needed someone to re-focus their minds.
They players will probably meet for a clear-the-air this week, if they haven’t already. Whatever conclusions they come to one objective should be paramount. They need to get back to what they did best – cut loose if they still can.
Waterford were box office long before Bernard Dunne.