Walsh Park, Sunday, 2.30. Live on TG4, WLRfm
It is almost six months since Waterford and Kilkenny met in the All-Ireland Hurling Final in Croke Park. What happened that day is best forgotten by most hurling supporters.
It’s a gross understatement to say that the champions were by far the better team that gloomy afternoon at headquarters and many believe Brian Cody’s side would have beaten the best 15 hurlers in Ireland outside of the marble county such was their masterful display. Some would have even go so far as to suggest that those Kilkenny players sitting in the stands last September 7 would have given them a better game.
So, buoyed by a welcome win in Clare last time out, Waterford head into his Sunday’s National Hurling League third-round tie in Walsh Park seeking to set the record a little straighter. However, Davy Fitzgerald and his selectors will still be short the De La Salle players on the panel, plus possibly Tony Browne and Eoin McGrath, while the Cats could have their Ballyhale contingent back in tow after their exit from the All-Ireland club championship at the hands of Portumna, despite a 10-point contribution from Henry Shefflin.
Chances are that Cody may allow the Shamrocks players a short break before they settle down and try and win a fourth All-Ireland hurling title on the trot, and instead experiment a little with personnel and positions.
In the opening round against Tipperary at Walsh Park, a weakened Waterford – who’d gone out of the Crystal Cup competition to the same opposition – were a tad disappointing, and had it not for the brilliance of Clinton Hennessy the Munster champions would have won at a canter.
Their performance in Ennis last Sunday week was a marked improvement, however, with Ken McGrath back in the team and playing a stormer at centre-forward, and several established and new names finding their groove, including Michael Walsh at No 6.
Last year, Davy Fitz’ didn’t have the luxury of a league campaign to test new players and new ideas. This year it’s his team, and, benefiting from the manager’s “patience”, Richie Foley, Noel Connors and the Shanes, Walsh and O’Sullivan, among others are making a real case for first-team inclusion come the championship.
Kilkenny have only played one league game to date, the weather causing their opening clash against Galway to be called off (that game that will now take place on Sunday week) and they had just one point to spare (0-15 to 0-14) against Justin McCarthy’s Limerick on Noreside in round two; substitute Michael Grace scoring the clincher at the death.
Though they’d battled back from five points down to level late on, McCarthy maintained that his young team “should have won by at least four points.” Cody’s main concern was a serious-looking injury suffered by full-back Brian Hogan, who together with Limerick’s David Breen, was stretchered off and taken to hospital amid worries that Hogan had broken his ankle.
Thankfully he got the all-clear that night, and should be okay for Sunday, as will the likes of Jackie Tyrrell, John Tennyson, JJ Delaney, Tommy Walsh, Richie Power (on free-taking duties in Shefflin’s absence) and Eddie Brennan, whose experience held sway last Sunday week.
The Kilkenny boss praised Cork referee Diarmuid Kirwan’s “sensible handling” of the game, in which no yellow cards were shown.
Fitzgerald has said that Waterford are going to have to match Kilkenny physically if they’re to have any hope of catching them up; though they went about things the wrong way in the All-Ireland final, mistaking messing for aggression.
Kilkenny had been accused of bending the old rules. But former Offaly hurler turned pundit Daithí Reagan – who savaged Fitzgerald on several fronts after the rout last autumn – says Cody’s men might be operating on the edge, “but there’s no-one suggesting for a minute that any game Kilkenny have been involved one the referee hasn’t been able to control it.”
However, their “huge physicality” is “something I’ve noticed for the last couple of years… at times it can border on over-the-top…. pulling of the jersey, two players tackling an opponent… holding him up”. Reagan maintains however that “other teams are going to have to look at what Kilkenny are doing through video analysis”, and “are going to have to become a bit more physical.” (There’s that word again.)
New Dublin manager Anthony Daly, who was in Waterford last month for the WLR/Granville Hotel GAA awards, sampled Kilkenny’s killer instinct at first hand when they stuck six goals past the capital in the Walsh Cup early in the new year.
“They are way ahead of us, physically and hurling wise. We wouldn’t be in Kilkenny’s league at the moment, but then nobody is… their hunger and appetite – even so early in the season – was amazing,” he asserts.
The Clareman believes the also-rans’ only hope against hope is that the Cats may have peaked and there could be some slippage. A forlorn wish perhaps, but then people thought the Celtic Tiger would never end either.
For now Kilkenny are odds-on to make it two league wins from two outings, even though the last time the teams met at Keanes Road, the Tom Cheasty memorial challenge last May, the home side – who’d been handily beaten at Nowlan Park in the league during the spring – recorded a rousing victory.
However, the optimism that generated quickly dissipated, with Waterford’s next match, against Clare, proving to be Justin’s last in charge.
If the Decies raise their game, and there’s no doubt they’ll be fired up – though hopefully not too much – the men in white and blue will need to produce something like the performance that saw them beat their neighbours in the 2007 League final. (How long ago that seems.)
If they’re firing the Waterford forward line has the ability to severely test any defence – though the absence through injury of the aforementioned Eoin McGrath and John Mullane’s preoccupation with St Patrick’s Day duties has stripped the attack of pace; though that’s something they should just about cope with in soft going.
Eoin Kelly should start and he’ll need to be at his best if Waterford are to have a fighting chance of securing two points. Anything like a repeat of what was witnessed six months ago and the consequences don’t bear thinking about. But back Waterford to come within a few pucks of winning at worst.
*See Friday’s late edition for team news.