Shane Stapleton: Kilkenny's strength may render Waterford's tinkering useless

Shane Stapleton looks ahead to the All-Ireland hurling Championship semi-final and asks whether there is any way to stop Kilkenny

Kilkenny, Waterford

Image: ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

It's hard to make a case for Waterford darkening September’s door.

That’s because the arguments presented for anything other than another Kilkenny win are thin on the ground, and seemingly as mortal as a papercut.

There were six points between the teams at this stage last year but in reality the dam was repeatedly threatening to burst on Derek McGrath, as it did recently against Tipp.

Let’s deal with what we know: that the Cats are going to produce a performance of routinely insatiable intensity. That much, on the vast majority of occasions, is a given.

Next thing: Richie Hogan will make the sliotar talk as they pass through the two posts or, if he doesn’t, then TJ Reid will. The two most recent Hurlers of the Year scored 1-14 between them 12 months ago, and Hogan also posted a couple of goals this time five years ago.

Factor in the midfield dependability of Michael Fennelly and Conor Fogarty, Wally Walsh’s and Colin Fennelly’s appetite for taking their man on, and the continued ability of the entire team to protect the supposed weakness of the full-back line — and it all smells foul for Waterford.

Like the ticking of time, there’s a superb regularity to what Brian Cody’s teams do. The counterpoint to this is the suggestion that the Deise must now change the system that made them competitive; the biggest flaw of this being that their Tipp failure came about due to change.

Richie Hogan produced a fantastic performance during the second half Glaway in the Leinster final. Image: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Pundits talk about letting this shackled team off the leash, having a go. All well and good until you realise that playing 15-on-15 is actually unmuzzling Kilkenny's rabid dogs moreso than your own.

Doubtless Waterford will have to tweak what didn’t work this time last year against the Marble County, but that old script is better rehearsed than the 6-2-6 formation just now. Fine, it can be excruciatingly boring to watch them some days — against Clare in Munster, for example — and frustrating too, but it’s the reason they’ve lost just five games of their last 24.

Find a player who cares what sort of a spectacle he plays in and you’ve found yourself a liar. Players just want to win and, given the sacrifices involved, they’ll usually do it by all necessary means. Ah umpire, that ball was wide; he hit me first; dive, ref; the ball was there; and so on. Whatever it takes.

So back to the tweaks that Waterford must make to turn last year’s convincing six-point defeat into a shock victory. The most obvious one is a worrying one: moving Austin Gleeson to centre-back. The suggestion being that the one part of Waterford that is supposed to be reliable isn’t so: the defence.

The truth is that their attack is a much bigger issue and moving the one man who frequently gets into scoring positions — however often he Hail Marys the ball wide — is a big risk. But of course, there’s huge merit to playing him back there. Namely, he’s tremendous in the air, and we’d argue more dominant than Tadhg de Burca who is no slouch. Should Gleeson use the ball well and not just pump it towards the posts in hope time after time, then he has the ability to quarterback from deep.

He’s on form too, making 35 plays against Tipp in the Munster Under-21, claiming eight contested catches, assisting for seven scores, and making five interceptions in a man-of-the-match display. McGrath likes to stick with squad numbers and the six that has adorned Gleeson’s back for two seasons suggests longer-term plans.

As with Michael Murphy and (previously) Joe Canning with 14, every day they do not play in their prescribed position and the team loses, you are bringing questions and criticisms on yourself. So for Waterford and the maverick who would have fitted in so well with the Mullane-Ken-Flynn generation, the future is now.

But here’s the thing about this switch being talked about ahead of the semi-final: it's to bring their joint-top scorer from play in the championship into defence. You wouldn’t envy manager McGrath this conundrum, but wherever Gleeson plays, he will surely be better for longer this year after his feet blistered badly mid-game one year ago.

Austin Gleeson could be swapped into the backline for this weekend's clash. Image: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne 

The Deise badly need searing pace in their forward line so perhaps it’s time that Colin Dunford was brought back in from the cold, especially considering he scored 0-4 from play on the big open field of Croke Park on their last visit against Kilkenny. Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh will forage and flick ball to team-mates but in a game where every forward needs to be a threat, and where Padraig Walsh and Cillian Buckley will run trains down the wings, the veteran could be bypassed. Where in the wall does the Brick fit? Another headache for McGrath.

Shane Bennett, if 100% fit, Patrick Curran, Jamie Barron, Gleeson, Kevin Moran, Pauric Mahony and Maurice Shanahan have to be brave enough to take on their men from the get-go. More than anything else, the men delivering the ball need courage under the inevitable fire of pressurised tackling. If it’s the usual dose of balls aimlessly up in the clouds, Paul Murphy will cement a fifth All Star in six years with another big performance against Na Deise, and the game will peter out to its inevitable conclusion.

So does McGrath have a bold plan, a fresh tactic, a variable that Cody hasn’t thought of? Look at 2011 when Tipperary pounded them by 21 points and they went on to contest a semi-final against Kilkenny. John Mullane had scarcely pucked a ball — save for a single score and winning a couple of frees — in the Munster final so manager Davy Fitzgerald moved him to centre-forward for the final-four clash. The De La Salle man blew a hole in the Cats defence to return an exceptional haul of 1-6, albeit in defeat.

What failed last year will fail again on Sunday. Why not try Shanahan further out the field; leave the pace of Shane Bennett and maybe his knacky brother Stephen beside him, and let the ball hit grass in front of them; man-mark Hogan and Reid throughout; instruct every man to take on their man; and fight like dogs. Then hope.

Leave it all on the field. What will be will be. Most likely, Kilkenny’s shadow will remain.