GAA Football

New-found Déise goals threaten Kilkenny's semi-final record

Putting the clampers on TJ Reid will be one of the primary focuses for the Waterford defence, although that has proven easier said than done in recent years. Picture by Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
TJ Reid v Calum Lyons

All-Ireland SHC semi-final: Waterford v Kilkenny (today, 6pm, Croke Park, live on RTÉ2 & Sky Sports Mix)

IT has been 15 years, and 11 semi-finals in that time, since Kilkenny were in the last four and didn't make the last two.

Then it was an epic 5-18 to 4-18 loss against Galway in the days when they were still paddling their own canoe out west and hadn't yet been asked in for tea by Leinster.

Kilkenny have come to find great use in such a reliable foreign challenger. They will have taken far more from their win over the Tribesmen two weeks ago than the many facile provincial final victories of Brian Cody's reign.

It was not a glittering performance, one that badly needed the sparkle of Richie Hogan off the bench to turn events on their head in a game that looked to going beyond them.

But win or lose, the one thing you can be absolutely assured of with Kilkenny is that they will not go away.

Waterford held on in the first 50 minutes of their Munster final defeat by Limerick, but didn't go the distance.

The 2018 All-Ireland champions held the game at arm's length but Liam Cahill's men kept chipping and got their noses in front coming to the second water break.

Their finish to the game indicated that, as Stephen Bennett himself put it earlier this week, they perhaps lacked the absolute steely belief to push on and kill it.

At 0-18 to 0-17 ahead, they let it get just far enough away that they couldn't catch it again.

Such a mindset was their undoing so often against Kilkenny.

When they surrendered a three-point lead in injury-time having been five up with 15 to play, the 2016 semi-final went a replay that the Cats would once more win.

Having waited since 1959 for a championship victory over their neighbours, it seemed like the psychological hurdle was just too high. But they finally got it a year later, needing extra-time when they shouldn't have, but they had enough mental capacity to cope and finally free themselves of the hex.

That was the high point of the Derek McGrath reign, but Waterford hurling tumbled off a cliff after that decider against Galway and it's only now under Liam Cahill that they are climbing their way up again.

It is a very different team with a very different outlook on how the game should be played. Rather than a safety-first approach, they've let the handbrake off.

That has been reflected in the scores they've hit in a first Munster championship win for four-and-a-half years against Cork (1-28), and then 3-27 against Clare, their biggest significant championship tally in the modern era.

They created six half-openings for goal in the first half of that game alone.

The form of Dessie Hutchinson at full-forward, the emergence of Meath native Jack Fagan and the heavy scoring contribution of Stephen Bennett, now on frees, has quickly made us forgetful of the absence of Pauric Mahony.

It has also significantly eased the burden on Austin Gleeson, the sag of whose shoulders was visible during the last long two seasons. There's less focus on his role because others are performing, and that has freed him up.

How they use him could be critical. He played at full-forward last week but dipped out on puckouts and was followed by Conor Cleary.

Waterford might be happy enough if he's a foil that pulls Huw Lawlor out of full-back, leaving Hutchinson and Jack Prendergast in against Conor Delaney and Tommy Walsh, the two relative babes of the Cats' defence.

The same applies at the other end, where the occasional movement of TJ Reid to full-forward signals a different type of intent on Kilkenny's behalf.

They'll have looked at how Aron Shanagher caused trouble in the air against Conor Prunty and co. It was the primary reason why Clare were able to stay competitive for a long time in a game where they were completely outplayed.

Perhaps in Colin Fennelly, though, we might see why Kilkenny have been what they've been. A mainstay of the team over a decade, he sits like a wounded warrior, having spoken openly about his own poor performance in the Leinster final.

In turning that game on its head, Richie Hogan did more than enough to earn a start but the issue is whether he has the full 70 in the tank.

Much has been written and said about how fatigue will catch up on Waterford this evening but if they can apply the right pressure at the right points, there are goals in them that would fend off the effects of being out six weeks running.

The ancient fear of the black and amber was wiped away three years ago and Waterford are bringing something very different to the table.

Kilkenny's long run of winning semi-finals could very well end tonight.

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