Those reversals led the De La Salle clubman to reconfigure the team tactically, much to the ire of those who advocate free-flowing, man on man play, something which not even Brian Cody has fully embraced since Kilkenny’s 2005 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Galway.
And in Sunday last’s blazing heat, Waterford could hardly have been described as parking a bus other than the one they travelled to and from Semple Stadium in.
From my perspective, this was probably as conventional as Waterford have played in Championship hurling under McGrath’s watch, and in truth the five-point margin of defeat to Cork could well have been greater.
So quite what drawing board the Waterford manager shall return or revert to now ahead of the Qualifiers remains to be seen. And this is as intriguing as it is, let’s face it, unexpected.
“The disappointing thing from our point of view is that everything we talked about and planned to do, we just didn’t do,” McGrath commented in the wake of Sunday’s reversal.
“We were actually fairly conventional and it didn’t suit us. With the breeze, we wanted a situation where Cork would be coming into bodies but the way it worked, and we ended up basically chasing the game in terms of everyone going for the ball when we had the long puck-out strategy in the first half. We didn’t play our game, which is the disappointing thing and Cork actually played a kind of a mini version of our game, in terms of the end of the game with 13 or 14 bodies behind the ball, and they had the skill to manipulate the ball. But no complaints, absolutely no complaints; I’ve been championing how good Cork have been and I’m not trying to prove myself right on that, but they were the better team all round. The disappointing thing for us is that any hint of intensity we wanted to bring to the Championship, it looks like we left it in Fota, during the camp, so that’s the disappointing thing from our point of view.”
With ‘The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee’ funnelling through the public address, the Deise boss wasn’t placing too much stead in the 16 scoring opportunities his men failed to make hay with.
“I’d be a bit more pragmatic about it,” he continued. “I thought we were chasing it, being straight up with you. Yeah, we were creating chances, but they were kinda ‘bitty’ chances and the chances we were creating when Cork had all those bodies back, they’d break at pace and we looked a bit more open than we would normally and that probably came from Tadhg (de Búrca) picking Conor Lehane on the opposing puck-outs – we were being dragged. We put a huge amount of emphasis in the last four weeks on Anthony Nash’s puck-outs and I think Mark Coleman picked three of those in the first half – we got picked on those and we didn’t do what we were supposed to do and the management is probably culpable there. I felt we were chasing the game.”
Derek McGrath added: “When we were in there at half-time, we said to the lads that we were lucky to be in the game and before we knew it, after 42 minutes, Cork had opened up a three-point lead and I just felt they were full value for it.”
When asked about Waterford’s capability of turning it around come the Qualifiers, the Deise boss replied: “Let’s not be hypocritical. Before the game, people had alluded to the fact that we approached the League in a manner, I suppose, that maybe we shouldn’t have. But we approached the League to try and win the League and win every game. I think there was a lazy analysis that would suggest that when we were 10 points up against Galway and brought on some regulars that we were trying to lose the game, almost. But we did put all our eggs into the one basket. We put the eggs into this basket. And while we wanted to progress in the League, we very much focused in on a different approach to the Championship; the 11-week run-in, three weeks with the clubs and eight weeks of preparation for this game and to be so flat on the back of those eight weeks’ preparation, to underperform in key areas, to have underperformances from key men, that’s sport, I suppose, and that’s what happens. I can’t explain it, only to say that it’s not what we meant to do.”
Perhaps the most disappointing element of Waterford’s effort on Sunday last was the team’s failure to control even an eight to 10-minute period of the match; that purple patch most top rated teams tend to enjoy in most games simply never materialised.
Said Derek McGrath: “Even when Maurice got the goal, and even when we went ten-all and Pauric had a (missed) free just before half-time, there were just little signs there that…there were some very obvious tactical moves on Cork’s behalf. Seamie Harnedy went into the full-forward line, and he came out 50 to 65 yards from goal. Our plan was that he was to be met with a Waterford body at that stage, so that we could hold the fort. It looked like, for the first time over the last three years, that we were just exposed at the back with the fact that Cork were coming so deep and then breaking at pace which is what we had planned to do and there’s no secret to it, every team is doing it – it’s a different narrative, depending on what county you are.”
The sight of Waterford backs regularly facing their own uprights and chasing down red shirts wasn’t in the playbook either, the manager admitted. “I think I read somewhere about the unconventionality of approach and now you’re stepping forward to that conventional six forward approach but I think somewhere in between we got lost today in terms of going back to route one and what actually has stood us steadfastly and solidified the whole thing for the last couple of years…
“Particularly in the first half, not alone had we six forwards, but we had Kevin (Moran) and Jamie (Barron), we had eight forwards and we were all in one half of the field then, under the high puck-out, and the ball was just breaking then to Darragh Fitzgibbon, Bill Cooper, Meade, Lehane, coming deep into the area…I’d like to get a heat map of where he picked up most of his possessions, a lot of them were inside his own half, but we found that hard to deal with. The disappointing thing about it is that we knew it would happen and we’d planned for it, but we just didn’t execute the plan for it.”
Was there an argument for throwing Austin Gleeson in at full-forward, rather than benching him?
“Definite argument,” McGrath admitted. “There’s always an argument for leaving the Player of the Year on; a bit of magic as against fatigue. We felt he was a bit fatigued and that’s all. That was the argument we had: is he someone that’s capable of doing something special towards the end of a game? Of course he is, but you talk about the day that was in it, you talk about the conditions and you kind of err on the side of going with fresh legs as opposed to a guy that’s trying hard but not quite flowing, and that’s the reality of it.
“No different to what we’ve done with Austin in the last few years, we gave him a free role; we hoped Colm Spillane would follow him – Colm Spillane did follow him – we were hoping the space would open up, but that’s sport, that’s the reality of what can happen on any given day. Austin will bounce back, he’s 21 years of age and he’ll have good days yet in the Waterford jersey. But I was more delighted with his conduct when he came off the pitch in terns of how he encouraged the lads, etc, realising that maybe there were other guys who struggled, a lot of our key performers struggled, without naming names…Austin worked hard on the field for the duration he was on the field without it absolutely flowing for him; we’d be hopeful that Austin will regroup like all of us and come good for the qualifiers.”
When put to him that Sunday was more a case of Waterford being outhurled as opposed to a systems failure, Derek McGrath stated: “Without a doubt. The better players today won the match. We lost the match today because Cork were better than us. It’s a very simple analogy but it’s the truth. They were more up to the Championship pace, they were more clued-in, just all round I felt they were slicker and were more dangerous. Analyse the first half closely; I’m not sure how many saves SOK (Stephen O’Keeffe) made, I’m not sure how many times we threatened the Cork goal – Shane Bennett had one just after half-time which might have changed things – but to perfectly honest, I think we were clinging a bit to those half chances even if you could argue that was probably a good chance. I didn’t see any flow to our game at all but we’ll take it on the chin and digest it and wait for the draw.”
As for Barry Kelly’s refereeing performance, and the Deise penalty appeals which were waved away, he added: “I didn’t really see them. Given the nature of the game, I think Barry was allowing…it was erring on the side of the defender kind of being blown for over-carrying or surrounding guys. I wouldn’t really have a problem with the way the game was refereed and I want to be consistent from last year: I think the day is gone where Waterford people can start, on the way home, blaming referees, etc. I think we’ve only ourselves for the blame for the fact that we didn’t play well enough and that Cork were just that bit better than us.”