Thursday, 14th December 2017
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Dreaming

All roads lead to Croke Park on Sunday next as Waterford and Cork lay their respective championship aspirations on the line in the second of this year's Senior Hurling All-Ireland semi-finals. The exodus from both counties will see some sixty thousand plus fans converge on Headquarters for what is expected to be another terrific encounter between two great Munster rivals. Both Waterford and Cork have a rich tradition of producing "classics" and I would be of the mind that this may well be another.

There is no hiding place in semi-finals. A game which can help make your year but with one fell swoop can destroy all the planning and work of the previous eight months. The euphoria of victory. The heartbreak of defeat. The talk of what might, or might not happen. As we wend our way to the Capital the air of anticipation increases. The moaning about the traffic. Who will play or what system will both teams adopt. The parking and the cup of tea/sandwich before the game. The crowd milling around Jones's Road. The atmosphere. The aftermath. These are the days. To borrow from Van "somebody told me there'd be days like this".

Both teams go into Sunday's game from different paths. Cork as Provincial champions have had a lengthy break since that defeat of Clare in the Provincial Final while Waterford on the other hand have been busy with a number of confidence boosting qualifier rounds ending with wins over Offaly, Kilkenny and Wexford. However make no mistake, whatever the buildup to this game both Waterford Bainisteoir Derek McGrath and his counterpart Kieran Kingston from Cork will ensure that their charges are primed for this winner takes all encounter.

With the Tadhg de Burca suspension still "in the air" there could well be a slight deviation in focus from both camps. Remember the Clashmore/Kinsalebeg clubman was dismissed at the end of the Wexford game for what appeared an innocuous and unintentional interference of the headguard of Harry Kehoe. That "red card" could well see de Burca sitting out this game and out of the defensive role he operates so well. It could also perhaps see Derek McGrath and the management team operating a different strategy. As the game closes in I'm pretty sure the Waterford management have all the contingency plans laid and with a little luck this time next week we will be celebrating an All-Ireland appearance.

That said the Cork management would also have been planning how to limit the influence of the regular Deise centre back so their plans may well also be disrupted. Hopefully before the week is over Tadhg de Burca will see his suspension lifted so that he can once again show all and sundry why he is held in such a lofty place among modern day centre backs.

Under the guidance of Tracton clubman Kieran Kingston and his backroom team the Rebels have been improving throughout 2017. This was very evident in their Allianz National Hurling league clash with Waterford in Walsh Park when the Leesiders came out on top 1-21 to 1-13 in March. The team from the Rebel County were also on the right end of the scoreboard in the Munster Senior Hurling semi-final when they won 0-23 to 1-15 in mid June. Since that semi-final win the Rebels have secured the Provincial crown courtesy of a 1-25 to 1-20 win over Clare. The Banner subsequently came ever so close to defeating reigning All-Ireland champions Tipperary in Pairc ui Chaoimh on quarter final weekend.

Waterford on the other hand have been unbeaten with three fine wins under their belt in the qualifiers. they gave a workmanlike display in the defeat of Wexford in the quarter final but we expect there was a lot more in the tank. No doubt there is a great expectancy that the winning run will continue for the Deise.

With the exception of the afforementioned Tadhg de Burca of Waterford and Cork player Luke Meade who suffered a finger injury recently, both managers have close to a clean bill of health. The Rebels will have the excellent Anthony Nash in goal. Here Waterford will have to be extra vigilant as time and again the Kanturk clubman has been the catalyst of attack with his pin point deliveries.

The full back line of captain Stephen McDonnell and Colm Spillane along with full back Damien Cahalane will prove a formidable last line of defence but the Deise with their power running and big Maurice Shanahan on the edge of the square could well make this a torrid afternoon for the Cork full back line. The pivotal centre back position has been held down well by Mark Ellis in recent times with Christopher Joyce and Mark Coleman on the wings. All three, if allowed, can be launchpads for attacking moves with both midfielders Bill Cooper and Darragh Fitzgibbon manning the engine room.

Up front the biggest threat may still prove to be Conor Lehane. Given a free role by Kieran Kingston and the management, the Middleton clubman is having a terrific season and along with Patrick Horgan of Glen Rovers has been to the forefront of the scoring stakes. Both will need special attention. Douglas clubman Shane Kingston will see action from the number twelve spot while in the event of Meade not making it I would expect to see Luke O'Farrell, a clubmate of Lehane, on the wing. Both full forward Seamus Harnedy and corner man Alan Cagogan can be scoring executioners if given space and a good supply. The Waterford defence will be very much aware of their capabilities and some tight marking will be the priority.

I'm leaning very much towards Waterford to win this game and so face Galway in the final on the 3rd September and for a very good reason. They will surely have learned from both previous games with Cork this year and with a run of positive results behind them they have a winning look about them.

The superb Stephen O'Keeffe will lock down the goal. Both the Ballygunner man and substitute keeper Ian O'Regan from Mount Sion are two of the most accomplished net minders in the game. O'Keeffe's clubmate Barry Coughlan will police the edge of the square with Shane Fives and Noel Connors keeping a tight rein on the Cork corner forwards.

With goals at a premium in the current championship this line of defence is well capable of putting a cap on the Rebel's goalscoring chances.

In the event of de Burca not making the start it is expected that Darragh Fives will take over the centre back spot and operate as a sweeper behind the outer line of defence. Here we may also see the very versatile Fourmilewater clubman Conor Gleeson switch back from midfield.

He gave a confident display against Kilkenny from that position last year. On the other wing the ever dependable Philip Mahony will curb scoring threats from the right wing and the Ballygunner man has a habit of regularly breaking down the opposition attacking moves. That would leave a midfield pairing of Jamie Barron and captain Kevin Moran. No doubt on recent displays both are right at the top of their game and will surely give an edge to the Deise from the centre of the field.

The Waterford attack will again look to the workrate of the evergreen Michael Walsh, what a game against Wexford, and De La Salle's Jake Dillon. Both will leave it all on the field. Hurler of the year Austin Gleeson can be the "go to" man and his explosive runs from midfield/centre forward can open any defence in the country. Pauric

Mahony is the man with the "ice cool" temperament. His freetaking is exemplary and any tend ency to foul by Cork in their own half will be punished by the Ballygunner sharpshooter.

Starting Maurice Shanahan would probably make life easier for Shane Bennett. At times the Ballysaggart man has ploughed a lone furrow but with Maurice as a target man there is every reason to believe that Bennett will find more space to run at the Cork defence.

Derek McGrath would appear to have the stronger bench. Having had an opportunity of playing a number of those players held in reserve I feel that the impact subs for the Deise might just be more meaningful. Then again the Waterford manager might well decide to go a different route and start one or two players outside the expected starting fifteen. Keep us all guessing. Attackers Stephen Bennett, Brian O'Haloran, Tommy Ryan, Colin Dunford will all be keeping a close look at the teamsheet as will defenders Stephen Daniels and Shane McNulty if de Burca is unavailable and the manager makes a direct change. So much to look forward to and discuss.

PS: I expect that having played two important games against the Rebels the win is now on the cards for Waterford and it will be lucky number three.

Let the game begin

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