First things first: an apology to Dave Bennett. The moment I expressed my pleasure at his return to the starting lineup was the moment I put my hex on the man. Flicking through the glossy-yet-insubstantial match programme, he was definitely listed at midfield. When the teams were read out though, he wasn’t there. I waited to see if he turned up in the forwards, but no joy there. Did he succumb to a last minute injury? Was his presence a shot across the bows of Eoin Kelly? You’d believe anything about Justin McCarthy’s silly buggers lineups.
How do you solve a problem like Dublin? On the one hand, they are a coming county, victories in the Leinster U-21 and Minor championships suggesting a bright future. They’ve also had a relatively decent record against Waterford in recent years, winning three on the bounce in the League between 2002 and 2004. On the other hand, that’s a load of patronising twaddle. Underage victories don’t amount to much at the highest level – if they did, Waterford’s goose would be well and truly cooked – and their last two matches against Waterford have been grim affairs, the Championship clash in 2006 noteworthy for the Dubs scoring in the first minute and the last minute and not raising a single flag in the 68 minutes in-between. It’s been galling in recent years to be routinely accused of lacking bottle, but it’s better than being patted on the head for giving it a go, the little county that could. Dublin are going to have to win games like this regularly before they can contemplate toppling Kilkenny from their perch on the top of the Leinster crow’s nest.
For Waterford, we have to hope that the newly open-nostrilled John Mullane will be like a new player, and the early signs were very good indeed. Gathering the ball ahead of his man and turning on a sixpence in (at his best) trademark fashion, he raced towards the goal and arrowed an unstoppable shot between Gary Maguire in the Dublin goal and the near post. A perfect start, and one which Waterford built on in blustery conditions that didn’t seem to favour either side. The pleasing thing for Waterford was they didn’t seem to be working particularly hard for their scores while Dublin were labouring terribly to even get openings, let alone score. Eoin Kelly did miss a relatively soft free, but he made up for it with a splendid effort on his weak side from under the stand, which showed how top hurlers should be proficient on both sides. With Clinton Hennessy routinely proving reliable under dropping balls and Brian Phelan and Michael Walsh playing a stormer in providing good ball into the forwards, Waterford looked like they were about to run away from Dublin, a sight that was confirmed when Mullane did run away from his marker to score what looked like a carbon copy of his first goal and put Waterford 2-11 to 0-3 ahead.
It would have been easy for Dublin to give up at this stage, and the manner in which Patrick Bergin reacted to Mullane’s second goal, a despairing pounding of the ground with his hurley, suggested that was about to happen. But he was substituted immediately after the goal – surely a coincidence as he had not been marking Mullane and the mentors could hardly have predicted his reaction, but a prescient one – and Waterford promptly went asleep. Dublin scored a point, then David O’Callaghan managed to elude Richie Foley, cut in along the endline and get in a shot. In the ensuing scramble Dublin got the ball over the line, to their evident delight and that of the decent Dublin contingent in the crowd. They then added on two more points before half time, thus scoring 1-3 in four minutes, effectively cancelling out John Mullane’s quicksilver efforts.
The early part of the second half was such a mirror image of the first half that you’d swear Walsh Park was tilted in a 45º angle towards the country end of the ground (some cynics about the quality of Walsh Park would say that this is the case anyway), so easy were Dublin finding it now while Waterford were huffing and puffing. It didn’t seem to be the wind that was causing problems as both goalies were getting similar distance on the puckouts. Whatever it was, Dublin were chipping away at Waterford’s lead, and if it weren’t for some solid freetaking from Eoin Kelly, we’d have been in real trouble. Yes, you read that right, Eoin Kelly banged over the frees as if he were, uh, Eoin Kelly, even sending a 65 over the black spot of the crossbar. Perhaps it was an illusion seen only in victory, but it seemed like he were striking the ball through a lower trajectory. Whether this was the case or not, he deserves a lot of credit for the manner in which he answered the knockers (ahem), and it kept Waterford’s retreat orderly.
It was still a retreat though, and it would have turned into a rout had Dublin scored a goal from the best opening they had. A fluffed clearance allowed Kevin Flynn to gather the ball with the entire Waterford back line around him, giving Paul Ryan space when the pass found him. What happened next could only be judged accurately from replays, and I’ve seen none. My best guess is that either a) Clinton Hennessy blocked the effort right down at the point of the strike, or b) Ryan missed the ball altogether. Either way, the ball looped up into the air and was probably drifting wide / out for a 65 when Hennessy lunged across to make sure no one was going to pounce on it. Dublin scored from the 65, but it was a massive let-off which kept Dublin hunting for the goal they probably felt they needed, especially with Eoin Kelly looking cool with the frees.
Although my sister was correct to point out post match that a goal for Dublin there and then would have changed this view, I was never truly worried as I might have been had it been one of the real hurling heavyweights. There was always a threat from the Waterford forwards as shown when we had a goal chalked off for a square ball – a correct decision which raised barely a murmur from the crowd when the flags were crossed by the umpire. This threat was rammed home when they did land a third goal, Ken McGrath linking up with Dan Shanahan to pour through a gap in the Dublin defence. I yelled for him to take his point but he spotted John Mullane over his shoulder and put him through to rifle the ball to the middle of the net from point blank range. It was a well deserved hat-trick, and hopefully a sign of things to come from him.
“Rain in Waterford! In March!”
The impetus now oozed out of the game like a balloon with a slow puncture. Points were exchanged but there was no way Dublin were going to close that gap. It was an entertaining enough afternoon, and a tonic for the debacle taking place concurrently at Old Trafford. John Mullane’s effervescent performance would brighten the darkest day, and Michael Walsh’s imperious display showed just what we missed in the second half against Kilkenny last weekend. The true value of the overall performance will only become clear when Dublin put on their Championship face. Until then, file under workmanlike.
Waterford: Clinton Hennessy, Richie Foley (Denis Coffey), Kevin Moran, Aidan Kearney, Brian Phelan, Ken McGrath, Jack Kennedy, Michael Walsh (capt, 0-1), Eoin McGrath (0-1), Dan Shanahan (0-1), Eoin Kelly (0-9, 0-6f, 0-1 65), Shane Walsh (Stephen Molumphy), John Mullane (3-4), Seamus Prendergast (0-2), Shane Casey (Pa Kearney)
Dublin: Gary Maguire, Philip Brennan, Stephen Hiney (capt), Patrick Bergin (P Kelly, 0-1), Michael Carton, Tomás Brady (Ronan Fallon), Joey Boland, John McCaffrey (0-2), Simon Lambert (0-1), Stuart Mullen (0-1; Ross O’Carroll), James Burke (0-1), Declan O’Dwyer (1-1; P Carton), Paul Ryan (0-1), Kevin Flynn (0-1), David O’Callaghan (0-8, 0-6f, 0-1 65)
HT: Waterford 2-11 (17) Dublin 1-6 (9)
Referee: Sean McMahon (Clare)