After two lost years, Waterford performed well in defeating Cork and Clare, and also put up a credible performance in the Munster final. They look comfortable in themselves, relaxed, and have a spread of new players who have provided a jolt of energy to the show. Liam Cahill is evidently a capable intercounty manager who has stitched together a constructive campaign—one that could well get better.
Against Clare, Waterford were on top throughout, carried the expectation of favourites easily, and were bold in attacking for goals. The team overall looks balanced, has that nice infusion of energy from the new players, and contains a few gems who can hurt the opposition. The revelation is Dessie Hutchinson, whose deft feet are problematic for corner-backs. Clare's Rory Hogan is pacey, but there were instances of Hutchison turning and losing him that will surely see hurling coaches looking into soccer training techniques to see which footwork drills can be transferred across.
Meanwhile, in the stripy corner, Cody's Kilkenny looked beaten after 50 minutes against Galway, then they came back, only for Galway to rally to a two-point lead, but yet again Kilkenny came back and held out to win. Cody's previous (golden) generation were characterized by incessant winning, his current (modest) team by being stubbornly hard to beat. This Kilkenny team was thrilled to pick off a Leinster championship. By the childlike smiles on the faces of Cody and TJ Reid – who one would have thought were tired of hefting the Bob O'Keefe cup – it was clear that this group are aware of their limitations, and were plainly excited to win the province.
In terms of personnel, Kilkenny have one of the best goalkeepers of all time in Eoin Murphy. He plays with full enthusiasm every day, and his technical goalkeeping is devoid of any complexes. Kilkenny are taking shape in defense: Pádraig Walsh is a class act all around, Cillian Buckley is a supreme athlete, and Huw Lawlor is looking like a good, traditional full-back. Filling in around them, the likes of Tommy Walsh and Conor Delaney are keen as mustard and keep it simple. Overall, they are somewhat modest but hard to break down.
In midfield, Conor Fogarty is able and athletic, but Kilkenny have yet to settle on a consistent partner. In the forwards, TJ Reid is best-in-class and John Donnelly, while lacking pace, has excellent hands and a good hurling brain. Colin Fennelly is usually menacing, and Walter Walsh can be hard to handle, but both looked out of form against Galway. Then there's Richie Hogan: a master hurler-magician for the ages. Hogan's interventions against Galway showed how it should be done, surgically intervening to slice Galway apart. Following his sending-off in last year's All-Ireland final, Hogan's resurrection and restoration was psychically right and proper.
Jamie Barron scything through on a famous night in 2017.
Waterford are nicely balanced. Stephen O'Keeffe is a class act in goal. His save against Clare from Aaron Cunningham, a cold-blooded finisher, was supreme. Conor Prunty, not dissimilar to Huw Lawlor, looks traditional, very committed and solid. In the corners, Ian Kenny and Shane McNulty were watertight against Clare. In the half-back line, Calum Lyons is wiry, quick and has the instinct to attack, Kevin Moran is ever dependable and sensible, while Tadhg de Búrca is the everywhere man (who is adept at drawing frees).
In midfield, Jamie Barron is the consummate dynamo; the beating heart of the team. From there up, Kieran Bennett is skillful and can score—it seems the Bennetts have it in the genes to go for the posts. Stephen Bennett is in the form of his life and his free taking has been foot-perfect. Dessie Hutchinson is arriving to the point where he is so quick and elusive that Cody may have to think about man-marking him. Austin Gleeson, ever enigmatic, is a danger at full-forward and I'm interested to see that experiment afforded more time.
Prediction: Kilkenny have had a two-week break but I don't think it will give them an edge as all of the teams are fresh this year, and none have appeared leggy thus far. This Waterford team overall looks nicely poised (in terms of their upward progression) to take on Kilkenny; and some of their forwards look ready for a big day out. Waterford by three points.
Wednesday, 25 November 2020, 20.45