the long road back

Waterford can still emerge as All-Ireland hurling contenders - but only if these things happen

Derek McGrath’s charges suffered a damaging defeat to Cork on Sunday – but remain in the hunt for All-Ireland glory.

HAVING CONTESTED THE last two Munster senior hurling finals against Tipperary, Waterford were denied a third successive appearance in the provincial showpiece by Cork last Sunday.

Derek McGrath’s charges looked flat and dysfunctional as the Rebels claimed a five-point victory at Semple Stadium.

Waterford remain in the hunt for an All-Ireland title, but must now go through the back door as they aim to end a 58-year Liam MacCarthy Cup famine.

Manager Derek McGrath is famed for his attention to detail and he won’t have been happy with aspects of his side’s performance on Sunday.

But there are some tweaks that can be made and reasons why Waterford can be competitive in the qualifiers and beyond.

Here, we take a look at five….

1. Play Austin Gleeson at centre forward

Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

It’s becoming increasingly evident that Austin Gleeson needs to be more centrally involved in any game to flourish.

He was deployed in a roving corner forward role against Cork but cut a peripheral figure throughout, despite scoring classy points in each half.

When Waterford were taking the fight to Kilkenny in last year’s drawn All-Ireland semi-final, Gleeson set the tone from the centre forward position.

It was arguably his finest display in a Waterford shirt but the debate still rages as to whether he’d be better suited at centre back or centre forward.

Either way, a central role appears to suit Gleeson better and given his penchant to shoot, often aimlessly, from long-range, the centre forward position could in that regard, with the Mount Sion man well within the scoring zone while in possession.

He’s excellent under the dropping ball and handing Gleeson that kind of responsibility could help him rediscover his mojo.

2. Pull Kilkenny from the qualifier hat

Donall Farmer / INPHO Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

If Waterford are feeling down and sorry for themselves this week, imagine how they’d react next Monday morning if they were pitted with Kilkenny in a first-round All-Ireland qualifier?

That would be the game to get the juices flowing again and the do-or-die nature of the tie would surely bring the best out of the Déise.

Waterford certainly wouldn’t be lacking in motivation, having suffered that heartbreaking loss against the Cats in the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final replay.

It would be just the lift that Derek McGrath and his players require to arrest them from the slumber and lethargy that engulfed their display against Cork in Thurles.

Draw Kilkenny, and win, would get Waterford right up and running again, but they’d still face more formidable opposition in round 2, before you even consider what lies in store should they make the All-Ireland quarter-final stage.

3. Revert to the sweeper system, or completely abandon it

Tadhg de Burca Tadhg de Búrca has been used successfully in the sweeper role for Waterford. Donall Farmer / INPHO Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

This is one that McGrath will give plenty of thought to.

Were Waterford too conscious of public opinion when they decided to go man-on-man with Cork from the start on Sunday?

With the obvious benefit of hindsight, surely this was a game tailor-made for the sweeper system, with the extra covering defender?

Our hurling analyst Tommy Dunne has outlined how badly Cork hurt Waterford with diagonal ball into the forward division. 

A sweeper could have moved over and back across the 45m line and helped to cut off some of those troublesome deliveries, and helped to provide an extra layer of protection.

McGrath will decide upon his set-up once the draw is made and Waterford are pitted with perceived weaker opposition, the style employed must be the template to take them through the remainder of the campaign.

It’s a tricky one for McGrath because Waterford have proven that they can play good hurling in a more conventional manner, but many of their players are more accustomed to operating with the sweeper in recent years.

And with the feeling that Waterford are lacking pace in defence, which Cork exposed, he may be in favour of reverting to type and providing that extra body back there.

4. Win ‘dirty ball’

Oisin Keniry / INPHO Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

Cork’s strong defence was one of the more eye-catching facets of their play in victory over Waterford.

But their opponents didn’t help their cause by not competing hard enough under aerial ball and rucks.

With Tom Devine no longer on the Waterford panel, manager McGrath has been deprived of a bona-fide ball-winner in a starting role or off the bench.

Maurice Shanahan won one great ball over Damien Cahalane in the first half but the Cork man won the overall battle hands down.

That was in marked contrast to two years ago, when Shanahan destroyed Cahalane and scored a magnificent goal into the bargain.

Shanahan can be the outlet when Waterford need to mix it up but they need a lot more from the former All-Star.

Failing that, Waterford will need to devise a strategy that favours smaller and nippier forwards, or at the very least ensure that seasoned campaigners Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh and Kevin Moran are both deployed in the half-forward line to contest puck-outs and long deliveries.

On Sunday, there was no obvious shape or pattern to Waterford’s play as neither approach, long or short, worked for a team that managed just 1-5 in the second half.

5. Get key individuals performing again

Jamie Barron Jamie Barron was one of the few Waterford players who performed up to scratch against Cork. Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

Austin Gleeson is an obvious case in point but he wasn’t the only one below par on Sunday.

Jamie Barron was a tower of strength and midfield and goalkeeper Stephen O’Keeffe performed heroics but not too many other Waterford players left Thurles knowing that they played anywhere up to scratch.

Pauric Mahony started well but faded out of the game while the Bennett brothers contributed three points between them but were both called ashore early.

To be competitive, Waterford need their big outfield players winning their individual battles and taking the game to their direct opponents.

Curiously, one of the stars of last year’s U-21 campaign, Patrick Curran, didn’t get a run until four minutes from time.

Curran has pace and possesses a genuine scoring touch which was sadly lacking as Waterford managed just 1-9 from play from their six starting forwards against Cork.

When Waterford get on a roll, they’re difficult to stop but there was a distinct lack of urgency and overall competitiveness in Sunday’s display, big problems for McGrath to address ahead of the qualifiers.

For Waterford to be in the shake-up, they’ll need the likes of Gleeson, Barron, Kevin Moran, Pauric Mahony, Tadhg de Búrca and Noel Connors firing on all cylinders, with the others pitching in around them.

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