Shane Stapleton: Waterford's young guns have nothing to fear from replay

Kilkenny almost always win when they get a second chance, but Waterford might just have their number this time

Waterford, Kilkenny, hurling,

Image: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Until last Sunday, there was a cut of the Olympics about the All-Ireland hurling championship: it was hard to care.

Seventy minutes of emotional pinball restored our faith, reminded us why we persist with a sport that has tried our patience recently, while again proving that the best way to play remains the traditional approach. The underdog and the old dog, brawling in the open.

Kilkenny once more exhibited the most obdurate fingernails in the game, what you’d expect from back-to-back champions. But let’s be honest: this isn’t a side comparable with the greatest they’ve ever produced circa 2006-09. Waterford can win this replay; they should already be through. Unfortunately, no place cashes in ‘should’.

Initially, the temptation is to conclude that Brian Cody doesn’t lose replays — Dublin 2013 being the exception —but then this argument alone ignores what Derek McGrath got so right last Sunday. It also suggests that the Cats can, inside a week, remedy what ailed them so badly. There are a number of concerns for Cody, all of which might be paraphrased as hunger from his point of view, though consequently ignoring the striking intelligence of Waterford.

Image: ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

At no stage did the Cats’ defence cleanly catch a puckout from Stephen O’Keeffe, and it wasn’t by accident. This facet of play is usually a source of energy for Kilkenny fans and of course for their players; it’s certainly what Kieran Joyce does best and ultimately the centre-back was taken off.

So how did that white blackbird appear? We wondered what Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh’s role would be in such a pacy environment but that ignored his experience, best displayed in how he used the hurley to flick restarts down to his teammates. Then there was the amazing fielding of Trojan Kevin Moran, who was targeted, with both he and Pauric Mahony notably snapping ball over powerhouse Michael Fennelly. Which brings us to the notion of hammering the hammer.

Fennelly’s fitness might be an ongoing concern in recent seasons but he’s still key and was man of the match in last year’s All-Ireland final. While Jamie Barron and Moran were running the show at midfield, the Ballyhale man looked as though he was wading through mud rather than sailing across the turf and bouncing players off with trademark power. He gained possession just seven times, and twice gave it away. Now either you’ll decide that won’t happen again, or you ask if the oft-injured star who rarely trains can physically pick it up inside six days after such a trying contest.

TJ Reid also produced the sort of performance that makes you check your notes a couple of times, then check again. He gripped leather just four times during open play, two being puckout catches, one which led to a successful free and the other where he was dispossessed by Brick to assist a Mahony point. Reid neither scored nor set anyone up from general play, struggling to add to an alarmingly low tally of 0-4 from play this summer.

Image: Waterford's Barry Coughlan and TJ Reid of Kilkenny. ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

This replay is one of those infrequent occasions in inter-county championship where we know as much about form as the managers. They will have had no meaningful training session this week, so the drawn game alone informs their thinking. It’s hard to imagine any hurler who did not play some part last week coming into the fray, barring injury or a return to fitness, because there was no room for keeping cards up sleeves.

Kilkenny have tended to win their replays on the back of player promotions, most obviously Wally Walsh in 2012 against Galway and Joyce in 2014 versus Tipp. Even when Cody lost that one replay in 2013, he was able to bring in Reid, Jackie Tyrrell and Aidan Fogarty. That same depth is no longer there, though Eoin Larkin did make four important plays after appearing with 25 minutes to go.

Do the Deise make changes? Galway made none in 2012 and likewise Tipp in 2014, both to their cost, while Dublin promoted David ‘Dotsy’ O’Callaghan in 2013 when they also replayed inside a week. McGrath needs to trust his gut on this one.

Waterford did their best to keep Paul Murphy out of the game but occasionally their clearances landed at the door of the Danesfort battler, and just once in 14 plays did he not clean up in his usual fashion. For such an in-form player, it’s hard to believe that he was the one to let the Deise off the hook with that injury-time wide. He was one of the few to retain their usual level, along with Richie Hogan in that first half before being marooned for a time at full-forward.

The Deise plan will again be to subdue these clubmates, with Cody planning for the opposite. When Hogan was at 11, he found space and scores in between the watching eyes of Tadhg De Burca and Barron, so expect him out there once more.

Image: Kilkenny's Richie Hogan and Barry Coughlan of Waterford. ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

To be fair, Waterford didn’t simply go back to a defensive system late on, it’s just that their composure was tested because they’re human. That’s what most teams do when they’re ahead against a fancied team: sit back and try to hang on. Needs must, which is why Hogan eventually moved inside his own ’65 for Kilkenny late on, and Joe Canning within his own ’21 against Clare. Hurling a la carte can be smart.

While a player must play with their head and fight with their heart, it’s a constant battle between the two. Galway gifted the Cats 0-7 through unforced errors in the Leinster final, and while McGrath’s side weren’t as generous, they did keep their neighbours in the game in other ways. Colin Dunford miscontrolled a ball after 17 minutes, with Hogan scoring moments later. Shane Bennett — thanks to a smart tug-back from Joey Holden — couldn’t goal in the first half, allowing Hogan to… well, you know.

After the half hour, Dunford — who apparently had not been feeling well — again spilled a simple ball and it led to Power winning a converted free. De Burca then gifted Larkin a point on 52 minutes with a terrible pass. Finally, Moran missed a simple score to go four points clear late on, with Wally Walsh getting the equalising goal from the puckout, all of which added up to a costly 1-5 for the Cats.

This time, will Fennelly and Reid be as quiet, can Austin Gleeson be as ostentatious? Moran seemed to tire, so will the 29-year-old be influential for as long, and 33-year-old Brick the same? The replay doesn’t want for variables and permutations, not least that it’s now in Thurles rather than in Dublin 3. The Deise enjoy Thurles, have the younger team, pace across the field, and nothing to fear but their own self-doubts.

This week, it’s hard to not care about hurling.