Shane Stapleton looks ahead to this weekend's Munster semi-final
It would be natural for Waterford to view Kilkenny’s and Tipp’s struggles as opening a path to All-Ireland glory.
The front door has been cleared — temporarily, at least — of the biggest obstacles of the past decade. Surely now is the time to end the All-Ireland famine, not won since beating the Cats on a day when a certain Eddie Keher made his championship debut.
The Rower-Inistioge man was just ten days shy of his 19th birthday back then in 1959 and now, age 75, he hasn’t since had to suffer his neighbours reclaiming Liam MacCarthy.
One step at a time though. The Deise cannot afford to have eyes bigger than their stomach. Derek McGrath needs his a Munster title to build on a 2015 league crown, all to imbue his side with the belief that they can win an All-Ireland semi and final.
In truth, when Austin Gleeson stood 45 yards from goal heading into injury time with the posts at this mercy, and missed, he opened the door for Kilkenny to earn a semi-final replay through a Wally Walsh goal. This year, in what many expect to be McGrath’s swansong, they need to take another step.
We haven’t seen the Deise in action for two and a half months, not since a fledgling outfit raced into a lead against Galway, before a late collapse that could not be offset by experienced substitutes.
In fact, McGrath has since admitted that he might have been better off sticking with the young lads. See what they’re made of. That the likes of Noel Connors, Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh and Co couldn't turn the tide has opened Waterford to criticism.
Waterford's Austin Gleeson, goalkeeper Stephen O'Keeffe and Shane O’Sullivan face a penalty from Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan
That too has been a pervasive element of Kieran Kingston’s world, up until the thrilling Munster win over Tipperary. Now all is well on Leeside. The seeds for that exciting win were sown in the league clash between Cork and Waterford on March 12.
The Rebels packed the midfield and created space inside for Alan Cadogan and Seamus Harnedy, and for Conor Lehane to run into. The Deise half-back line was dragged about, and Cork deep-lying workhorses protected Anthony Nash’s goal. Panic was absent after Shane Bennett’s early goal as Cork went on to score 13 of the next 16 points leading into the break. Kingston seems to have found the right blend.
Can McGrath respond? Where will the goals come from? Perhaps the Bennetts; Maurice Shanahan, maybe. Pauric Mahony is likely to be roaming outfield while the Brick isn’t the type to rattle the onion bag.
So it could fall to the Lee Chin of the Waterford team: Austin Gleeson. He grew up in the generation of Ken McGrath, John Mullane, Paul Flynn, Tony Browne and Dan the Man — that noughties’ maverick side. For a current team that plays to a system, Gleeson is the one player truly of that glorious era a decade ago. He announced himself to the wider hurling public against the Rebels in 2014 with a glorious solo goal, and so is a marked man now.
The Deise are fortunate to have a generational player that has the capacity to bring them to glory. But they need others to step up if he is man-marked to any degree of success. Jamie Barron, who came off early in the league clash, is the most likely to make them tick.
As Chin was targeted after Kilkenny’s third goal last Saturday, so too will Gleeson be if Waterford find the heat turned up. That’s where the importance of keepers comes in, and the two on show are only just behind Eoin Murphy in the pecking order.
Which brings us to the 2014 All-Ireland title in which Murphy had a decisive say, but so too did Stephen O’Keeffe and Anthony Nash, even though neither played in the final. Given that it was Kilkenny versus Tipperary, why would they?
Simply because O’Keeffe charging down a Nash penalty — pre-planned, he admitted afterwards — led to a change in how these shots were taken on safety grounds. Since then, players, have not been allowed to bring it inside the 21 yard line, and that season you could have three men under the black spot.
The pace in Tipp’s attack led to three penalties across two All-Ireland finals: two saved (one by Murphy) and another put over the bar. It was within that short window where penalties were all but impossible to score from, whereas now TJ Reid converts them in a one-on-one scenario with ease.
The influence of Nash and O’Keeffe may not be felt as widely this Sunday, yet they have the capacity to dictate the outcome of this Munster semi-final. As O’Keeffe told this column in 2015, the role of a goalkeeper has changed and there is a lot more talking and organising involved.
Cork's Luke Meade. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy
“Any time when a match is on, I’d say I spend half my time not even looking at the ball. I’m looking at the far side of the pitch to see what movement is going on. So maybe that’s something that’s changed.”
Nash’s puckouts in the Munster quarter-final wore down the Tipperary defence. Quickfire deliveries into open country that denied the opposition back-line time to settle and attack the ball. A keeper will often have 40-plus chances to start an attack, so he arguably is the most important creator on the field.
“Absolutely,” O’Keeffe said. “It’s not a case of hitting the ball as hard as you can anymore. I’d say 80% of the puckouts I hit aren’t full-strength at all. Puckouts have become hugely important, you have to win primary possession off them.”
When it comes to it, that could be the difference. Yet while Tipp didn’t see Cork’s evolution of tactics coming in Thurles, the Deise have been burned once already in March. What else does Kingston have up his sleeve?
When it comes to a close call, it’s often wise to ask which team has more of the very best players on the field, allied with big-game experience. Gleeson, Lehane (an injury doubt), Barron, Tadhg de Burca, Pat Horgan, Alan Cadogan, Brick, Kevin Moran, Connors, Mahony.
Waterford, by a nose.