Here’s a quick question for starters. In the last 20 years, how many times have Waterford and Kilkenny met in the championship? Ok, it’s 9 times. Now, of those games, how many have the Deise won? We’ll spare you the deliberation, because the answer is easy. They haven’t won a single one.
It’s a peculiar situation, because the last two decades have arguably been the most successful in Waterford’s hurling history. They’ve won 4 Munster finals, 2 National Leagues, reached umpteen All-Ireland semi-finals, but they haven’t snared the biggest prey. Now in the Cody era, Kilkenny have been beaten by Wexford, Galway, Cork, Dublin, Tipperary et al in the championship, but one of their biggest rivals, their neighbours, haven’t defeated them once. Yet they’ve had plenty of opportunities to do it. 9 opportunities. It’s a truly damning statistic. But it may be about to change.
If Waterford are to prove that they have progressed in any way, shape or form from last year, then a victory, at last, over their eternal superiors is a must this weekend. It’s been a rivalry in name for too long. Sure, they came closer than ever last year, but to still come out on the losing side after 2 thrillers was an indictment of this team. And that’s something they need to avenge this weekend.
It’s been an oddity of a summer. The parallels between this year and the last really “open” championship of 2013, are startling. Just like in that year, Kilkenny and Tipperary were knocked out in their opening championship games. Just like that year Kilkenny won their first-round qualifier by 3 points in Nowlan Park. And, just like that year, they squared up to play their second qualifier game against Waterford in Thurles.
That’s where the similarities end though. The Kilkenny side that played in the 2013 was in poor form, having being knocked out of the provincial championship by Dublin, but it still contained the likes of Tommy Walsh, JJ Delaney, Henry Shefflin, Richie Power….that is to say, some of the greatest hurlers the game has ever seen. Of the starting 15 from 4 years ago only 5 (Eoin and Paul Murphy, Walter Walsh, Richie Hogan and Colin Fennelly) remain. TJ Reid and Michael Fennelly were on the panel but injured at the time. But of the 10 other starting positions from that day (http://hoganstand.com/Kilkenny/ArticleForm.aspx?ID=196502), it’s debatable if Kilkenny have improved in any of them.
In contrast, and somewhat surprisingly considering they haven’t won 2 All-Irelands in the interim, Waterford’s turnover has been smaller. The current starting side retains 8 of those who played in 2013. There is a very settled look to their side now, and there has been in recent times, in contrast with the Kilkenny set up. Tadhg De Burca is a hugely influential player, the two Mahonys’ likewise. But their most high profile player still has a bit of convincing to do.
Last year’s semi-final replay between the two sides is held up as one of the great individual performances of recent times on Austin Gleeson’s behalf, but if you were to reassess the video of the game, it’s noticeable how much ball the Mount Sion man wasted. Sure, it was a fantastically eye-catching display, particularly considering his first half goal, and a number of amazing grabs from the sky, but for Waterford’s sake there has to be more end product.
Similarly, in the Cork game a number of weeks ago while Gleeson scored an unbelievable point in the first half, for large portions of the fixture he was marked absent. Although he fared much better against Offaly, it’s been a patchy year for him to say the least. It may seem a tad ridiculous for an incumbent hurler of the year, but for Gleeson to really prove himself as one of the great hurlers of this or other eras, he needs to produce a massive,nay match-winning, performance on Sunday.
On the flip side of the coin, Kilkenny’s attack has been characterized by the headless chicken nature of it. Whereas a decade ago Kilkenny knew that if the likes of Henry Shefflin or Eddie Brennan were held, then Richie Power, Martin Comerford and Eoin Larkin could step in and do the business, nowadays, there’s the feeling that without TJ Reid winning frees, scoring and creating, there’s no one else they can rely on.
Colin Fennelly performed wonders against Wexford but was completely devoid of service in the Limerick clash. Walter Walsh did some great things against Limerick but in general his season has been hit and miss. The most alarming case of all though is Richie Hogan, who has never been so devoid of form in his career. He is currently unrecognizable from the hurler of the year like performances he has been giving in recent years.
And that’s before we get to the travails of the much-maligned supporting cast. Chris Bolger can count himself lucky to have lasted as long as he did on Saturday night considering his failure to convert clear opportunities. Ger Aylward has approached nothing like the form of 2015. Lester Ryan, Kevin Kelly and Liam Blanchfield all played their part when they entered the fray last weekend, but there’s often a sense with Kilkenny forwards now that you wouldn’t know what they were going to do with the ball. In the past, you knew they would take the right option.
When Kilkenny did beat Waterford at the second attempt last season it was Michael Fennelly, the man Michael Duignan hailed as the best midfielder ever this week, who was the real key player. It was the same against Limerick on Saturday. Like so often before, Kilkenny will need the Ballyhale man to be at his peak this weekend. But, considering the expectations and his long standing injury problems, how many times can he go to the well?
What it comes down to therefore is a battle of psychology and wits. Mentally, Kilkenny still have the edge on their neighbours, not losing to them in the championship in 58 years will do that. But this is a game with two teams in decline. Kilkenny’s descent has been the steepest. Funnily enough, it may have been a blessing in disguise for Cody’s men not to play Galway in a Leinster final as, considering their current form, the final result would hardly have been pretty.
Then again Waterford’s season has been anything but impressive either. Even in victory against Offaly last week, it looked like a side that was taking tentative steps back into form, rather than one firing on all cylinders. The flip side of that though is that a victory here could transform their whole season. They already have one win against Kilkenny this year, when they practically bullied them physically in the league, but that happened so early in the season as to be almost rendered an irrelevance. But considering the potential within their ranks, there’s no excuses for not doing something similar at the weekend.
Brian Cody has seen a lot in his tenure as Kilkenny manager but he’s never had a situation where his side were deemed as being outside the top 5 or 6 in the country. But that’s the stage Kilkenny are at now. But even if they do lose and complete his worst ever season as the county’s manager this weekend, he still has more than enough credit in the bank to survive it.
For Derek McGrath however, the stakes are somewhat higher. Suffer a defeat on Saturday and it would be hard to characterize their season as anything less than an unmitigated disaster. After two semi-finals, to not even make a quarter final would be a huge backward step for the county. It’s time for Waterford to lay the ghosts to rest, and finally beat their bogey team. If not, it would be debatable if the team, and especially Derek McGrath, came back from it.