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Sunday 23 September 2018

Waterford is a step too far for Wexford

All-Ireland SHC quarter-final Wexford v Waterford Tomorrow, Live RTÉ 2 (4.0)

Kilkenny’s Robert Lennon loses his hurley as he pursues Waterford’s Austin Gleeson during their All-Ireland SHC Round 2 clash at Semple Stadium, Thurles a fortnight ago. Pic: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Kilkenny’s Robert Lennon loses his hurley as he pursues Waterford’s Austin Gleeson during their All-Ireland SHC Round 2 clash at Semple Stadium, Thurles a fortnight ago. Pic: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Derek McGrath probably understated it a little when he said "this will be a very tactical game. Of that there is no doubt".

The Waterford manager has performed this particular tango with Davy Fitzgerald often in the past three years and mostly, they've left enough scars on each other to declare it a draw.

This could settle it though.

True, Wexford have been the most compelling storyline in hurling so far this year so far but it's not inconceivable either that Waterford will finish it all as winners.

Visibly beating Kilkenny lifted something weighty from their shoulders, even if they had to do it twice.

Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald. Pic: Sportsfile
Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald. Pic: Sportsfile

Or maybe because they were forced to do it twice.

Whatever about squandering that late lead in Thurles, the manner in which his team repaired, reshaped and ran directly at Kilkenny will have been a huge source of satisfaction for their manager.

No fear. No tentativeness, despite what had preceded it.

So too will be the influence of his bench.

The decision to take off Pauric Mahony almost haunted McGrath when Maurice Shanahan missed that late free to win it in normal time.

strength

But his extra-time goal and the performances of Brian O'Halloran, Tommy Ryan and Patrick Curran showed a depth to Waterford's strength that hasn't always been evident and that bodes well.

What is certain about Waterford though, is that when Aussie Gleeson thrives, they look irresistible.

Such is the vibrancy of his play though, his team badly miss his spark when he goes out of games.

Gleeson is a force of nature.

And like all forces of nature, he is unpredictable and not always fully in tune with his environment. He has spells when it looks like he is a senior hurler playing against minors, all brashness, directness and audacious stick work.

But he can be neutralised too and occasionally, he either doesn't see or is inclined to ignore some players in more advantageous positions.

How much Wexford will sacrifice to stop him will be interesting to see.

Late on against Kilkenny, Waterford desperately needed to win a puck out yet when Stephen O'Keefe looped one down on top of Gleeson, he was swarmed.

Brian Cody had clearly decided that stopping the reigning Hurler of the Year plucking balls from the sky was worth leaving other men loose.

And naturally, none of this will be alien to Davy Fitzgerald.

He has successfully plotted against players of Gleeson's calibre before.

Think back to the 2013 All-Ireland quarter-final in Thurles against Galway.

Joe Canning's influence was huge on Galway's fortunes that season and so Fitzgerald played with Patrick Donnellan as a sweeper behind Conor Ryan.

And for the most part, Donnellan acted as a shield between Galway's man in possession and Canning, who finished with just a single point from play in what was easily his most peripheral game of that summer. The problem with making a plan to snuff out Gleeson tomorrow is that within Waterford's system, he doesn't usually have a particularly well defined role.

If he finds any particular part of the pitch congested, he can simply move elsewhere.

But Fitzgerald will know that not only does Gleeson have the ability to win puck outs and go on little flourishes of scoring, he will energise the Waterford crowd in Páirc Uí Chaoimh tomorrow with every touch.

The other issue with sacrificing men from attack - a given in every county team Fitzgerald has managed - is the player it leaves spare at the far end.

At present, Waterford have the best sweeper in the country in Tadhg De Burca.

Not only is his reading of the game superb, he is an expert in the art of not getting hooked.His striking is pure too and his deliveries, mostly thoughtful.

And Derek McGrath is unlikely to play with anyone other than Mahony in his inside forward line tomorrow knowing Fitzgerald will keep all that space clogged.

compact

Despite the Leinster final defeat, Fitzgerald is convinced that his tactics are the way to go with a team still in the embryonic stages of their development under him.

Wexford are compact and organised and methodical.

But Galway blew all that to smithereens. Compact and organised and methodical isn't much use against a team who can destroy you in both the air and the tackle.

Galway were direct when they needed to be and had a forward line possessing at least four players who could have been double-marked that day.

Had Conor Cooney or Joseph Cooney copped a little more heat that day, chances are Jason Flynn and Conor Whelan would have taken up extra responsibility.

Wexford tried hard and stayed as true to their methods as possible but with Galway annihilating them in the air, Fitzgerald's men lost their shape badly late.

They yielded 45 shots at the posts to Galway, of which 29 of them were scored.

Waterford won't get as many chances but they should be more economical. The four goals they scored against Kilkenny - albeit two of them were in extra-time - showed a more complete and when necessary, direct Déise team than we've seen in their most recent All-Ireland near misses.

The likelihood is that Fitzgerald will hand Matthew O'Hanlon the task of shadowing Gleeson, just as he did to Canning in the Leinster final and it must be noted that Galway have far more firepower than Waterford.

Shutting down Gleeson will have a much greater consequence on Waterford's potency than quietening Canning would have had on Galway's.

Planning it and doing it are two different things.

It would be a shame to see Wexford's year end here but it would be a much bigger crime if McGrath's tenure in Waterford concluded without them at least making an All-Ireland final.

Both of these teams will be back but one looks better equipped than the other to breath the rarefied air of Croke Park in September.

The Leinster final showed that for all their meteoric rise, Wexford are still something shy of the quality of this year's All-Ireland contenders.

And that's exactly how Waterford are beginning to look.

ODDS: Waterford 1/3, Draw 10/1, Wexford 3/1

VERDICT: Waterford

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