Here we go then, the latest instalment of Gaelic games’ longest running freak show. Last year, Liam Hayes scornfully observed that the replayed Dublin – Meath Leinster football semi-final would be a bigger television draw than the Waterford – Cork Munster hurling semi-final, which were being staged at the same time. Hayes’ comments, while crass, seemed to be rooted in reality. Football is, after all, the more popular sport. No one is as popular in terms of pure numbers than the Dubs. The memory of the epic four game clash between Dublin and Meath in 1991 still resonates sixteen years on. And the drawn game of 2007 had been an exciting example of the genre. So everything pointed to the GAA public voting with their thumbs for the big ball game.
Vote they did, in decisive numbers for the hurling match. Even in retrospect it seems strange given that all the above reasons for plumping for the football still hold. That is to ignore the utterly compelling nature of matches between these Waterford and Cork teams. Since Waterford’s win in the 2002 Munster semi-final, the teams have met nine times in knockout matches (including one replay). On seven of those occasions there was only the famed puck-of-the-ball between the teams. With a history like that, it’s no surprise that the punters (spared the trip to Limerick) went for this latest installment, and it was to live up to billing.
Well, it lived up to the billing in the end, because it didn’t look like that for the first fifty minutes. Previous matches had a real winner-takes-all feel to them, even the Munster championship matches (don’t kid yourself that the Munster title means nothing any more; ask the Limerick players who ended last year empty handed whether they’d like to swap their season for ours). But this one was a ‘knockout’ where the winner would play Limerick and the loser would play Tipperary with, presuming both side progress to the semi-finals, no guarantee that they can avoid Kilkenny at that stage of the competition. So there was a relatively bloodless feel to this at the start.
With that in mind, I decided to implement a plan that had been bubbling under in my mind for as long as I’ve been attending GAA matches. You know those men – it’s always men – who make a note of each score and each wide on the match programme? The ability to separate oneself sufficiently from the hostilities for such bureaucratic niceties was always beyond me before. But given the less-than-crucial nature of this fixture, it seemed like a good idea to be one of those men, just for one day. So is it worth it? In a word, no. You generally know how well a player is doing to within a point or two, and knowing that John Mullane has scored five points from play rather than four doesn’t make it worth the hassle of reaching into your pocket after every score. When trying to remember everything for these match reports, I like to attempt to keep events contemporaneous rather than looking at other reports or watching replays. This makes the report a lot less reliable but it does provide a different (i.e. biased) perspective. But keeping the scores hasn’t made the task of remembering the ebb and flow of the match any easier. This report (like all the others) will have its structure determined by goals, which are easy to recall, while points are merely referred to as being scored in batches. The only definitive advantage of being kept informed by making notes is the wide count, and you’d rather scoop out your eyes than read that after Waterford have racked up twice as many as the opposition, so that’s no benefit at all. From now on, I’ll leave the record keeping to the newspapers and the nerds.
On with the match, which saw Waterford hit the ground running, Eoin Kelly bursting on to the first loose ball to score a point after a few seconds, then another bomb dropping in front of the full forward line broke to Dan Shanahan who went clean through on goal. He fluffed an effort to pick the ball up – bend the back, Dan! – and his weak effort was saved by Donal Óg Cusack, but Seamus Prendergast pounced on the loose ball to send a bobbling shot into the far side of the net. Cork hit back with a couple of frees from ‘No 24′ who was not in the programme, or at least I couldn’t find him at the time – perhaps the name was written in invisible ink. I thought he was another one of Cork’s young Turks, and it would worry me at the end that Cork could so effortlessly introduce a hit new talent while Waterford’s league campaign had produced no new talent in the forwards. Happily, it turned out to be Ben O’Connor, hardly a new face. It was our nemesis of two years ago, Cathal Naughton, who scored Cork’s first goal. It was a fine effort, eluding Declan Prendergast on the half back line then bearing down on goal before arrowing a cracking shot past Clinton Hennessy.
This was the cue for Waterford to fire over a string of fine points, with John Mullane and Seamus Prendergast giving their markers a particularly torrid time. There was a distinct lack of urgency to events though, with forwards getting an unusual amount of clean possession allowing them to score with relative ease. Cork were relying heavily on frees, with Pat Horgan knocking over the close range ones and O’Connor the ones further out. The only Cork player who did much from play was Lee Desmond, who would end the day with four points, a splendid total for a novice playing in midfield. But the frees kept coming, which should be a source of some concern to Waterford.
Of greater concern should be the form of Dan Shanahan. He did little enough against Dublin, a game in which he should have filled his boots, but I was happy to discount this as he will come good in the summer, right? Perhaps, but seeing him spurn a chance even more gilt-edged than the earlier effort on goal was enough to make you doubt the evidence of last summer. Waterford forwards ignored successive point scoring opportunities to work the ball into Dan in space but his shot, which had the man beside me leaping to his feet, so sure was he that it was going to wind up in the back of the net, was feeble in the extreme and easily saved by Cusack. In the ensuing scramble Eoin McGrath scored a point so not much harm done – not at that moment anyway.
Half time came with a remarkable 1-14 to 1-12 scoreline, championship quality shooting in March. The second half promised more of the same, except for the clouds ominously gathering overhead. Waterford opened the second half scoring via Seamus Prendergast, and then came the pivotal moment in the match. Waterford failed to adequately clear a high ball and Pat Horgan got through on the left of the goal. His effort was blocked but he managed to knock the ball across the face of the goal where the waiting Fintan O’Leary had the easiest of tasks to stroke the ball across the line. But wait a second, he had clearly been waiting for the ball and was a good two metres inside the small square. Now, I wouldn’t swear on my life that he had not moved towards the ball with the fleet-footedness of Fernando Torres or the space-time continuum shaping abilities of Nightcrawler, but the simplest conclusion was that it was a square ball. The umpires seemed to hesitate, but the referee was quite insistent – the goal was good. Should the referee defer to his umpires in those matters? Is he even obliged to, as a man behind me who was lucid enough throughout the game to spot the frees deservedly given against Waterford and the soft frees given to us, seemed to think in an observation to his young son? Ultimately I think the decision must lie with the ref, although I would be curious to know the basis on which he made his decision which, on the face of it, seemed to assume of Fintan O’Leary was in possession of the agility of a cheetah.
The task now was to avoid being rattled, and credit to Waterford for not moaning too much at the referee. This was not a precursor of things to come though, as Eoin Kelly missed a free, Cork continued to chalk up frees from all points of the field and Lee Desmond invoked the spirit of Mickey O’Connell in the midfield to leave Cork three points ahead where they had been three behind before the goal. Substitutions were made with the strangeness of withdrawing Eoin McGrath and Shane O’Sullivan, who had both scored two points from play, while leaving scoreless Dan Shanahan on the field, being lost amidst the jubilation of the return to the white and blue of Tony Browne. Meanwhile the scoring was generally becoming more difficult as the conditions had deteriorated and the backs who had previously been willing to let forwards away lightly were now putting the shoulder to the wheel. Waterford had oceans of possession, mostly thanks to Michael Walsh’s Herculean efforts, but Cork were proving doughty in the tight exchanges and the forwards were now succumbing to the old shoot-on-sight failings. Still, Cork were relying on frees and when the ref awarded a soft free to Waterford in the kind of range that even Eoin Kelly (who had missed a real doozie during this period of play) could not miss and draw Waterford level, the calculations were being made for extra time.
There was time for more Déise fury at the ref though. Cork were awarded a free right under the stand about 45 metres out. While many got their knickers in a right old twist over it, it seemed plausible that an infringement had taken place in the general melee. The only reason I mention it was seeing Michael Ryan presumably enquire of the linesman what that was all about only for the official to constantly shrug his shoulders. Not a ringing vote of confidence in the ref. Unfortunately for Waterford no such vote was needed for Ben O’Connor who stroked over his sixth free of the day, their tenth in total – hey, this record keeping lark is really neat(!) – to leave Cork in front in injury time. There was time for a Brian Phelan sideline to cause havoc in the Cork backline with Seamus Prendergast almost making an opening for a shot on goal before Cork were able to clear it and give their, ooh, fifty supporters (including the immortal Cyril Kavanagh aka Sombrero Man) something to cheer about.
It really doesn’t matter. Tipperary, Limerick . . . they’re both good and even should Tipp knock us out, it won’t provide firm evidence that we’d have been better off playing Limerick. After the trauma of Croke Park last August, we might be better off giving them a wide berth for the moment. But we’re at the stage where the team picked has to be the best XV, and only the sight of Jack Kennedy going great guns in the half back line is progress on last year. No disrespect to Shanes Casey, Walsh and O’Sullivan, but it’s not hard to see Paul Flynn being sent out in a wheelchair rather than rely on a replacement. The free taking is also an itch we can’t scratch. If hurling had a specials team rule, whereby a player could be brought on just to take the frees, I’d check out the local nursing homes to enquire about Kieran Delahunty’s availability. We’re not in awful shape – only the Cats hammered us sans Michael Walsh, and two one point defeats hardly presages disaster. We’ve gone beyond the point where we can plan for excellence though. As with the aforementioned Mickey O’Connell, we’re relying on something magical to click.
Waterford: Clinton Hennessy, Declan Prendergast, Kevin Moran, Aidan Kearney, Brian Phelan, Ken McGrath, Jack Kennedy, Michal Walsh (capt, 0-2), Eoin McGrath (0-2; Shane Walsh), Eoin Kelly (0-5, 0-4f), Dan Shanahan, Shane O’Sullivan (0-2; Tony Browne), John Mullane (0-5), Seamus Prendergast (1-3), Shane Casey
Cork: Donal Óg Cusack, Shane O’Neill, Brian Murphy, Cian O’Connor, Kevin Hartnett (Shane Murphy), Eoin Cadogan, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, Steven White (0-1), Lee Desmond (0-4), Ben O’Connor (0-8, 0-6f), Tim Kenny, Tadhg McCarthy, Pat Horgan (0-4f), Fintan O’Leary (1-0), Cathal Naughton (1-0; Joe Deane)
HT: Waterford 1-14 (17) Cork 1-12 (15)
Referee: Johnny Ryan (Tipperary)