The full-back problem has dogged Waterford hurling for years. Declan Prendergast, Kevin Moran, and now Wayne Hutchinson are just some of the players who have filled the berth to no great success in recent times. It seems that the elusive All-Ireland title will always be beyond our grasp until a solution is found. Kevin Downes' second-half demolition of Hutchinson and then Darragh Fives served only to highlight how far we have yet to go if we are to add to those fabled successes of '48 and '59.
It is no coincidence that today's two hurling giants boast a plethora of quality full-backs. When Kilkenny were shorn of the peerless Noel Hickey due to a serious knee injury in 2009, JJ Delaney was there to take his spot. Current All-Ireland champions Tipperary know that should Paul Curran ever stutter, Pádraic Maher is available to step in. This is a luxury that Waterford can only dream of, as a conveyor belt of full-backs are tested and rejected. Declan Prendergast is perhaps the only player to hold the spot for a prolonged period in the last few years, but his reputation as a full-back was almost irreparably damaged after the All-Ireland semi-final of 2007.
Is consistency the solution? Perhaps if Hutchinson, or even Liam Lawlor, were given an extended run in the side, then we would reap the benefits of their experiences. Unfortunately, knockout format as it is, the Championship is no place to be bedding in players. It is the League, therefore, that presents the best platform for experimenting and developing. But it takes no genius to see the gulf in quality between League hurling and its summertime counterpart. It would appear, though admittedly on the basis of only one game, that Hutchinson's apprenticeship in the League was futile. When Championship day came around, he was comprehensively trumped by Downes. A consistent run in the side does not guarantee good performances by any means.
This is not to say that Hutchinson should be discarded as an afterthought. Clearly he has potential, and given the appropriate application and nurturing, he will have an important part to play in Waterford hurling in the years to come. However, an alternative must be found to secure short-term gain, without sacrificing long-term progress. This much was evidently on Davy Fitzgerald's mind when Michael Walsh was tasked with marking Downes after he had outclassed both Hutchinson and Fives.
Brick is undoubtedly among the finest centre-backs of his generation. His sheer strength is almost unmatched in the game. Truly he is the archetypal centre-back, the dominating figure on which the rest of the team hinges. Yet all signs point to him being deployed as a full-back in the Munster final. Should he line up at number 3, Fitzgerald runs the risk of losing one of the team's most important assets. However, such is Brick's talent and reliability, Fitzgerald can rest easier knowing that Tipperary's (assuming they beat Clare) full-forward line will be quiter than usual.
While I would gently advocate the use of Brick at full-back in the immediate future, Fitzgerald must work on finding a permanent solution as soon as possible. Brick won an All Star at centre-back for a reason, and playing him elsewhere for any more than a couple of matches would be foolish in the extreme. So while Hutchinson lacks that little (but crucial) bit of experience and is perhaps short of confidence, playing Michael Walsh at full-back seems the most viable option. The looming threat of the McGrath-Corbett-Kelly axis would not seem nearly as insurmountable with Brick at full-back (not to mention the highly impressive Noel Connors in the corner).
There are, of course, plenty of causes for optimism. John Mullane showed last Sunday that he is still at the top of his game and the performances of David and Brian O'Sullivan, and Pádraig Mahony in particular, were encouraging to say the least. Once the issue at number 3 is resolved, there is enough quality throughout the rest of the squad to mount yet another All-Ireland challenge. It may be just beyond our grasp just now, but Liam
may be draped in blue and white yet.