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Thursday 24 August 2017

Rebels on the rise ... Deise demise

De Búrca's absence allied to Cork's array of forward match-winners may tilt the balance in their favour

Cork’s Patrick Horgan. Pics: Sportsfile
Cork’s Patrick Horgan. Pics: Sportsfile

Maybe they had feared the worst; or maybe they'd clung to the belief that Tadhg de Búrca would get to play after all.

Either way, Friday started in a bad way for the Déise faithful. The breaking overnight news that Waterford's prince of sweepers had lost his final shot at 'freedom' could prove decisive in what promises to be a battle of inches.

In truth, though, we can't be definitive. On paper, Cork may appear to hold a number of critical advantages ... but they wouldn't be the first Munster champions this decade to fall on their semi-final sword.

Leaving aside the issue that de Búrca could be deemed unlucky, he was always facing an uphill battle once a red card was brandished for his interference with Harry Kehoe's head-guard against Wexford.

Waterford consistently cited a lack of intent, but his three avenues of potential reprieve - before the CHC, CAC and finally the DRA on Thursday night - all came up short.

That leaves Derek McGrath down one of his key men, and his most important defender, against a forward line laced with potential match-winners.

Advantage Cork.

Positives

The Rebels can boast several other positives, namely:

(1) A more consistent form graph. Their scoring returns (2-27, 0-23 and 1-25) allied to an improving defence have ensured a fully deserved first Munster title in three years.

(2) The belief that comes from already beating Waterford - and even more decisively than the five-point margin in June might suggest.

(3) The confidence of youth. Kieran Kingston's introduction of five summer rookies has morphed from a May gamble into something of a minor masterstroke. The stellar wing-back form of Mark Coleman and Darragh Fitzgibbon's midfield energy have been especially pivotal.

All of the above provides a context for Cork's 4/6 favouritism. And yet, when the sides met two months ago, Waterford were priced 8/13. Has so much changed in the interim?

Yes and no.

It doesn't require a huge leap of faith to construct a case for the Déise here - on the proviso that they've absorbed the many lessons of last June.

Then, they were patently off the pace set by an exuberant Cork. Physically, perhaps mentally, even tactically too.

They started with a more orthodox set-up before attempting to revert to sweeper type in the second half. It's arguable that this flip-flopping contributed to Waterford's malaise while Austin Gleeson's roving brief - roaming to the periphery and then the bench - probably did him no favours.

His two points aside (including one John Troy-like moment that was almost worth the admission fee) the Hurler of the Year was something of a passenger. He needs to be central - literally and metaphorically - to Waterford's assault on a final place. Motivation won't be an issue and there's no doubting his ability to bend such a huge contest to his will.

Weakness

That said, shot selection remains both a strength (when they all fly over) and a weakness. Gleeson wasn't alone in that failing against Cork, last day out - cue a confidence-sapping 16 wides in total.

In mitigation, Waterford had faced an 11-week competitive break beforehand and this may have contributed to their rustiness, indiscipline in the tackle, and a general lack of forward penetration - with the notable exception of Maurice Shanahan's third-quarter goal.

This time it is Cork's turn to tackle the five-week break that has scuppered six of the last nine Munster champions. We don't believe it's a valid excuse, though: nine of the last ten Leinster champions have negotiated the same obstacle.

The good news for Waterford is that the 'back door' has facilitated an uplift in form, coupled with a return to the defensive system that seems to best suit this group.

For all their tendency to flood the middle-third, leaving one or two raiders ploughing a lonely furrow closer to goal, their scoring rate hasn't suffered: 1-35 against Offaly, 4-23 after extra-time against Kilkenny, 1-23 against Wexford.

Darragh Fives would appear the obvious sweeper alternative, but Waterford have to be careful how they approach Anthony Nash's puckouts.

Two months ago, his laser deliveries (many to the flanks) provided a steady flow of front-foot possession. Then, in the Munster final, Clare's attempt to stymie his influence led instead to multiple uncontested puckouts, with full-back Damien Cahalane the conduit to try and locate Cork's arsenal of forwards.

And it's here - in the guise of Conor Lehane, Séamus Harnedy, Alan Cadogan and Patrick Horgan closer to goal - that Cork look to have a multi-pronged edge. One that may ultimately inflict more semi-final agony on the Déise.

ODDS: Cork 4/6 Draw 8/1 Waterford 13/8

VERDICT: Cork

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