Back in the mid 90’s, the Phoenix magazine had a cartoon strip about the Rainbow Coalition predicated on the abrupt manner in which they came to power. It was titled A Bit Of A Shock, and it came to mind as Waterford crashed and burned against Clare last Sunday. The great truism of Waterford hurling over the last decade has been that they never hammer teams out the gate but never get hammered out the gate either, which explains the interest nationwide about each and every one of our matches. So to see them beaten barely minutes into the second half was, to say the least, a bit of a shock.
So what accounted for the enormous gap between earlier predictions of being beaten in the Munster final and being beaten in the Munster first round – discounting the fact that said predictor wouldn’t know his arse from his elbow? On a positive note, or at least a non-negative one, Clare were surprisingly good. Admittedly their forwards didn’t encounter much resistance from the Waterford backs but in previous years Clare’s forwards would struggle to put the ball over the bar if they were playing fifteen dustbins. Midway through the first half, Mike Finnerty waxed lyrical about Clare’s policy of shooting on sight. This is A Bad Thing in hurling terms and not a good reflection on TV3 going forward if this is the kind of insight we can look forward to. Still, his garbled terminology reflected that Clare were shooting and they were scoring. Post-match we had Marty Morrissey giving the usual guff about all the talk in Clare being about going well in training and being quietly confident – so quiet that not a dicky bird of it was reported by the media. Clare had no idea whether they were going well in training, but there would have been the usual sense of entitlement when playing Waterford, something they won’t be able to tap into during the rest of the Munster championship. But their hurling was several notches above the rough ‘n’ tumble stuff we have come to expect from Clare which suggested the Mike McNamara has a few good ‘uns in their team, something they couldn’t have known until they entered the field of championship play. It was a small comfort to see Waterford lose to a team not playing on the adrenalin of perceived slights.
(Incidentally, what was it with Marty Morrissey’s hair? Fading memories of an era when soccer players were all going peroxide tell me that if a bleach job goes wrong it turns out tangerine, much like Marty’s barnet. Was he trying to go yellow and call it saffron? I think we should be told.)
Part of the gap between expectation and reality can be accounted by the excellence of Clare. The bigger part of the gap can be laid at the feet of a wretched Waterford performance. For years we’ve been aware of Ken McGrath’s monumental presence in the Waterford team. Bunged in at full-forward in 2000 against Tipperary, his early departure through injury when he was leading Philip Maher a merry dance cost Waterford the game and earned Tipp the All-Ireland. Then he effortlessly filled the dauntingly large boots of Fergal Hartley to such an extent that he wasn’t missed. Yet it wasn’t until Sunday that Ken’s roll in Waterford’s recent success was so chillingly revealed. Does anyone think Clare would have had so much space had Ken McGrath been roving around like an extra man in the midfield and half forward line? If this is a foreshadow of what we can expect from life sans Ken McGrath, then it’s going to be a long and hard middle age.
It can’t be all down to Ken’s absence. Enough players had a stinker that he can’t have been carrying all of them all these years. No, really, he can’t have been. The bracingly candid comments of one of the few players who did perform, John Mullane, to the effect that some players gave up have led to the suggestion that Waterford threw the match. Certainly there was an alarming lack of vigour in the third quarter when Clare began to move away, although the way the rot was stopped in the last quarter when a 20 point beating looked on the cards would indicate that there was enough pride left for the game to matter. In my opinion, teams rarely throw matches, and then only for money. Before England played Croatia in the last match of the Euro 2008 qualifiers, people assumed that England, needing a win as they were at the time, would walk all over Croatia who had already qualified. Yet Croatia gave it their all, and you can be sure they were not motivated by a desire to let Russia qualify. Even a professional sports person has an awareness of the history of a particular club and a collective sense of belonging with his / her team colleagues. For a team who to a man share an identity from the day each of them were born to give up would be an appalling vista and, like Tom Denning, it’s one that can’t be countenanced.
There might have been a shared belief that the Munster championship is something they can’t get fired up about and once it became clear that Clare were not the team that has flattered to deceive for several years now, they eased off the throttle. This would be understandable. Understandable, but not smart. They may have stopped the rot during the course of the match, but the rot has well and truly set in to the 2008 season. Seven matches against top order counties this year have yielded two wins. Every match where there is an expectation that we might lose, i.e. not against Antrim and Dublin, we’ve lost. And it’s not as if the backdoor is a soft option. We’ll probably get past Antrim, but we have no idea what awaits us in the round after that. What we do know is it won’t be a soft option. We couldn’t be confident of beating any of them. Imagine, a county with pretensions to wining the All-Ireland yet it can’t be certain of beating Offaly. How bipolar is that?
Shot through all considerations of Waterford’s circumstances is the thought that we have peaked and are on the way down. The full back line remains a problem. We miss Ken in the half back line. Michael Walsh can’t do it all by himself in the midfield. Any team that has a big mullocker in both the half forward and the full forward line is asking for trouble. The management – yes, Liam Dunne, take a bow – is getting stale, offering the same solution to problems and expecting a different result. Watching Dan Shanahan shuffle around the pitch has been traumatic, especially when you consider the excellence he produced last year. Grim stuff all round.
One could take a contrary line. The full back line has always been a problem and we’ve gone far despite it. Ken will be back for the rest of the season and we have no shortage of wing backs. Michael Walsh doesn’t need to carry the midfield, Dave Bennett is a capable hurler and a free taker who would be worth his weight in gold if he weighed ten tonnes. Seamus Prendergast is no mullocker these days and introducing one new player in the forwards is hardly a gamble of JP McManus proportions. Management may be stale against Munster teams but our last ten knockout matches dating back to Kilkenny in 2004 have been against Munster teams so even the chance of avoiding those teams in the qualifiers is a hope that we can avoid the familiarity that has bred such contempt. Dan has been injured and is certainly not match fit, so we can anticipate a recovery from him. There’s still life, and where’s there’s life there’s hope.
It’s easier to make a more convincing case for the former than the latter though.