As alluded to previously, getting a handle on the first match of the National Hurling League campaign can be tricky. What happened in the game to make it memorable? It certainly wasn’t the weather. Matches have been played in far worse conditions in the past. The allure of playing the defending champions isn’t there – sure haven’t we been in that position in the not too distant past, and I doubt anyone was setting off fireworks for us. Goalkeepers scoring goals? Meh, it’s been done to death. No, what made this match ‘special’ was the clownish performance of the two umpires at the City End of the ground. Assuming it was the same duo in both halves, the ref had to over rule them no fewer than four times. Whatever motivated them – and curiously enough, all four initial decisions were to Waterford’s detriment – credit to Barry Kelly for facing them down and making them look like the fools they were. Aren’t umpires usually friends of the referee? It must have been a long trip back to Westmeath.
Other than that, it was a typical early League encounter between teams who will be rivals in the later stages of the season, teams eager to face up to each other while not giving too much away. Except I fear that Waterford have already given something away. Not that it’s a revelation, but the thinness of our squad has not been resolved if this teamsheet is anything to go by. It’s true that we were missing some real heavyweights, but none of the players called up to replace them have not been tried before. In other words, we’re ‘experimenting’ with players who we tried in the past and who didn’t make the grade then, and persisting with players who are not Flynn or Browne beaters. On this evidence, Mullane, McGrath et al can’t come back soon enough.
Still, the second half performance was encouraging enough to suggest that those missing players might drag this team up to where eagles fly. An early positive sign was the free taking of Seamus Prendergast. Presumably he does it for Ardmore, but I make no apologies for being surprised that a) he was the one doing it in the absence of Eoin Kelly, and b) that he did it so well. The first score of the day was a slightly tricky free that was struck over by Prendergast with the minimum of fuss.
Not that there were many frees on the day as the heavy pitch reduced most confrontations to throw-ins. It might sound like an excuse given the scoreline, and it’s true that both teams were playing on the same pitch. But it’s equally true to say that many events on the day, particularly in the first half, were reduced to pure randomness. Getting to the ball first, which is normally a good thing, was a recipe for disaster here as momentum carried you headfirst into the mud. The first quarter was as turgid a period of hurling as I’ve ever seen, with only one good moment (a quality point on the turn by James Woodcock) and one ugly moment (Shane Walsh having to go off after a bone-juddering accidental collision) being visible in the gloom of bad moments.
It couldn’t last and it didn’t, with Tipp putting in a second quarter that would ultimately prove decisive. Using the platform of a dominant performance from Benny Dunne in the half back line, they began to get on top. Three times Clinton Hennessy had to come to Waterford’s rescue, the first a flying save that went out ofr a 65, the second a point blank save which looped up for a point and the third having to pick the ball out of the mud with most of Tipperary bearing down on him. Such odds-defying couldn’t last and it didn’t, Pat Kerwick finally putting the finishing touches to another slick Tipp move, or as slick as it could be given the conditions. Dan Shanahan finally produced some magic to score a fine point late on, but the only positive thought was that it had taken them less time to score from play today than it had in the All-Ireland final.
I feared for Waterford at half time. Only Hennessy, Michael Walsh and Eoin Murphy had excelled, although Noel Connors had shown some nice touches in the other corner. Up front we were utterly toothless, and the sight of the newly-hirsute Big Dan being two steps behind every clash was profoundly depressing. No better team than Tipp for beating up on a team when they are down, so Waterford had better get up quickly. And in fairness, they did. Playing with a modest breeze seemed to help, Michael Walsh’s dominance in the half back line beginning to translate into more clean possession for the forwards. Stephen Molumphy seemed to be getting on top of his man weighing in with two points from play and Seamus Prendergast was lifting spirits by knocking over two 65’s – I always knew he had it in him! We were only matching Tipp point for pint, but with the ref ensuring that the umpires were not going to rob Waterford it was looking much healthier by the time we got a penalty in the last ten minutes. Up trotted Clinton Hennessy, who curiously elected to strike the ball on his ostensibly weak side. Maybe he’s more accurate on his left side, although is there really any increased accuracy when you’re only twenty-odd metres from the target? Either way, the ball found the back of the net and the stage was set for a grandstand finish.
As the ball came back up the field, my first thought was of the matter of seconds between Waterford’s goal in the All-Ireland semi-final and Tipp’s goal. Well it was deja vu all over again as Paul Kelly skipped through the Waterford defence and rattled in their second goal. It all happened so fast that TG4 missed the build up, only cutting back as Kelly moved to strike. You had to laugh. We were in this game of all of, oooh, twenty seconds. There was little chance that in such a low scoring affair that Waterford would close the gap but they kept at it and we had a couple of pleasing cameos from Maurice Shanahan, the latest great white hope of Waterford hurling.
In the end, the balance sheet was negative. The attack was supine, with Big Dan continuing to look a shadow of his 2007 self, no matter how much shadow he puts on his chin. There were some good performances in the backs, and they seemed to act as a unit to repel much of Tipp’s efforts. That didn’t stop them getting more than their fair share of golden chances which Clinton Hennessy had to perform miracles to prevent. Still, his performance was a plus point when you consider the grief we’ve had in the square over the years. And the manner in which they kept going in the face of a potential second half collapse was encouraging. Nothing will be decided by the first match of the season. We need to keep telling ourselves that. We really do . . .
Waterford: Clinton Hennessy (1-0, pen), Eoin Murphy, Declan Prendergast, Noel Connors, Richie Foley, Michael Walsh, James Murray, Shane O’Sullivan, Jamie Nagle (0-1; Thomas Connors), Jack Kennedy (0-1), Gary Hurney (Patrick Hurney, 0-1), Seamus Prendergast (0-5, 0-2f, 0-2 65), Shane Walsh (Shane Casey; Maurice Shanahan, 0-1), Dan Shanahan (0-1), Stephen Molumphy (capt, 0-2)
Tipperary: Brendan Cummins, Conor O’Brien, Declan Fanning, Paul Curran, Benny Dunne (0-1), Conor O’Mahony (0-1, 65), Diarmaid Fitzgerald, Shane Maher (Seamus Callanan), Tomas Stapleton (Shane McGrath), Pat Kerwick (1-1; John Devane, 0-2), Patrick Maher (0-1), James Woodlock (0-2), Paul Kelly (1-1), John O’Brien, Willie Ryan (0-4, 0-3f; Pa Bourke)
HT: Waterford 0-3 (3) Tipperary 1-6 (9)
Referee: Barry Kelly (Westmeath)