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24th Jul 2016

Nobody will have enjoyed Waterford’s win over Wexford more than Brian Cody

Licking his lips

Mikey Stafford

Derek McGrath insists he is not bothered by Waterford’s high number of wides. Brian Cody won’t be losing any sleep over them either.

The Kilkenny manager was in Semple Stadium on Sunday to run the rule over his semi-final opponents, as Waterford defeated Wexford by 0-21 to 0-11.

It was not a display that will have spoiled Cody’s 50-kilometre drive home. The Déise scored only three points more against an outclassed Wexford than they managed when they were beaten by Kilkenny in the 2015 last four.

Maurice Shanahan’s goal against Clare remains the only time Waterford managed to raise a green flag in three Championship matches and their wayward forwards are treating the country’s umpires to free callisthenics with the amount of wides they are signalling.

Not even the referee could believe how many wides Waterford were hitting against a Division 1B side who looked like they had exceeded expectation by reaching this stage.

Why did Waterford not put them to the sword? Why did they persevere in ignoring their inside forwards in favour of low percentage shots from distance?

You could also ask why they stuck with Tadhg De Burca at sweeper, except they didn’t. For the third quarter they went man for man and Wexford reeled off five points on the spin to come within five of Waterford.

Waterford know exactly how to defend, they know how they defend, but they do not seem to know another way. De Burca was reinstated on the edge of the D and Wexford managed one more point in the last 15 minutes  – a Conor McManus free at the death.

That Waterford are weaker defensively when they abandon their excellently drilled and well thought-out sweeper system is hardly a shock. It works.

McGrath began to experiment with the new defensive structure after Waterford conceded 3-15 to Wexford in 2014.

Since then they have contested two Munster finals, reached two All-Ireland semi-finals and won an Allianz League title, losing the final of the other. Wexford are wallowing in Division 1B still and could have no complaints on Sunday as they scored just 11 points while finding themselves dominated.

McGrath saw a gulf between Waterford and Wexford and in the space of two years he has completely reversed the relationship. Plus the gap is widening.

However can you say they are closing in on hurling’s big two of Tipperary and Kilkenny? A terrible outing in the Munster final saw them battered by the former and now they head to Croke Park next month to take on the latter.

GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Semple Stadium, Tipperary 24/7/2016 Clare vs Galway Kllkenny manager Brian Cody in the stand Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

What will Brian Cody have learned in Thurles?

That Austin Gleeson is capable of scoring wonderful points while also hitting seven wides (five in one half)?

That Shanahan and Patrick Curran together make up one of the most isolated forward lines in all of Christendom?

That long, raking diagonal balls towards a target man like Lee Chin (or Colin Fennelly) is a promising way of circumventing the deep De Burca and sweeping Kevin Moran and Brick Walsh?

That Stephen O’Keeffe is prone to the odd wobble?

That Waterford will employ a running game that will have Michael Fennelly and Conor Fogarty licking their lips. As we watched Gleeson make a lung-busting 60-yard run deep into the Wexford defence former Clare forward Jamesie O’Connor remarked, “the Kilkenny midfielders would bury him”.

It is hard to disagree.

GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Semple Stadium, Tipperary 24/7/2016 Waterford vs Wexford Waterford and Wexford Manager's Liam Dunne and Derek McGrath at the end of game Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

This is not an issue of taste or aesthetics. McGrath has built a defensively sound team, but the recent evidence suggests that solidity comes at a cost.

Waterford’s attackers could not have asked for better opponents against whom to fill their boots and recharge their confidence. Liam Dunne’s team seemed perplexed by Waterford’s defence – pucking ball after ball down the throats of Moran, Walsh and De Burca, who between them were swallowing up Chin.

Waterford had all the possession they could hope for, facing a Wexford defence that has been weakened by illness and injury, yet their go-to tactic seemed to be shots from distance, low-percentage shots from distance.

Wexford goalkeeper Mark Fanning had a good game but that was down to his confidence under the high ball. A fumble by the Glynn Barntown man seemed the only way Waterford were going to score a goal.

Cork, in 2013, are the last team to beat Kilkenny in the Championship, and they did it without scoring a goal, as they limited the Cats to just 14 points in an All-Ireland quarter-final.

Cody teams however, tend to rack up good totals and providing some sort of a goal threat is considered key to beating them – think of all those battles with Tipperary in the last seven years.

GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Semple Stadium, Tipperary 24/7/2016 Waterford vs Wexford Waterford's Tadgh De Burca with Lee Chin of Wexford Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Waterford did not have that against Wexford. Curran ran tirelessly inside but was time and again a spectator as balls flew over his head and (often) wide. At one point in the second half he made a superb run away from his marker only to be ignored by Jamie Barron.

Jake Dillon left the crowded dugout for the isolation of the Waterford full-forward line. Replacing Shanahan with 20 minutes to go, he should have been able to cut loose, but any time he received the ball he was 40 yards from a team-mate with Matthew O’Hanlon breathing down his neck.

Waterford’s blunt attacking edge kept Wexford hoping deep into the second half. Kilkenny would have obliterated that hope by half-time, as they have too many times before.

That is the difference and that is why Brian Cody was most likely smiling as he made his way back to his car on Sunday evening.

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