The effect of any sporting result isn’t just measured in the final result itself. The tea-leaf reading that will attach itself to England’s draw with Australia yesterday in the first Ashes test demonstrates this. England can be justifiably euphoric at how they repelled a certain Australian victory with a pair of batting bunnies. On the other hand, once the sickening feeling subsides at not producing the one ball in sixty-nine attempts that was needed to remove either James Anderson or Monty Panesar – and it was really sickening for the convicts when you put it in those terms – Australia will know they are better than England, sufficiently so that they can look forward to the next four matches with a spring in their step.
So what can Waterford take from losing the Munster final to Tipperary? There’s self-evidently no pleasure in the result and, as I will allude to in the next thousand or so rambling words, it wasn’t that great a performance. Only two of the starting forwards scored from play and some of the flubs in the back division were painful to behold. There was pleasure in the way the players held their nerve in the second half when it looked like a dam was about to burst over their heads. It’s a step backwards over recent years when respectable defeats become an end in itself but sitting as I was beside my eldest brother, a veteran of the 1989 Munster final humiliation, it wasn’t difficult to extract some succour from that element of the performance.
And it was with my brother that the maximum amount of entertainment was wrung out of the day, to whit: what would Michael Duignan make of such a display if disrespect by X/Y/Z from Waterford? Hence when the minors ran around Thurles with the cup just as the torch to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the establishment of the Association arrived on the scene, we chortled at imagining Duignan’s outrage, how Michael Cusack would be spinning in his grave at such fist-pumping and playing to the gallery. The fact that Duignan would not have been at a microphone at that point was neither here nor there, it was the creativity in creating his fury that mattered.
Then again, had MD been in the booth he might well have been struck dumb by the performance of the Waterford minors. I carried little hope into the game of anything other than a fearsome beating from the always-formidable Tipperary. We arrived a few minutes after throw-in, none the worse for wear for daring to dress like it was the middle of July then getting caught in a thunderstorm, and were pleased to see that scores were level. We then watched with increasing incredulity as Waterford slowly edged away. There were no purple patches where they rattled over 2-5 to kill the game. Nor were Tipp so toothless that they could be said to have played badly. Twice they bore down on goal only to brilliantly denied by Stephen O’Keeffe. Speaking as we were about performance and result this was perfect, and great credit reflects on everyone involved (including Michael Walsh, no less a figure than the Waterford City Manager; what a splendid way of demonstrating the egalitarian nature of the GAA, to see a person who has flown so high taking on such a lowly position. Some fat cat.)
I’m not plugged in to the pulse of the Déise nation nor ever claim to be, so I don’t see it as a sign of being an inadequate Déisigh to not know how well the Minors are coming along. So a story I overheard in work this time last year that I dismissed at the time as so much straw-clutching now makes sense. A former Waterford senior hurler was relaying to a fellow colleague the details of the minors implosion at the hands of Cork in Walsh Park. He thought there was real talent in the team, but the coach insisted on having a two-hour training session on the afternoon of the game. Duly Waterford kept pace with Cork until the final quarter when they fell apart. Watching the Minors yesterday filled me with hope for the future. I’ve banged the drum online for our future on the basis of the efforts of the likes of De La Salle in colleges hurling and the Tony Forristal team. All along though I was worried that I was engaging in wishful thinking, extrapolating on the basis of something that I hadn’t experienced for myself. Now, I have seen and I believe.
(This is probably more wishful thinking, but it was great to be so uplifted. Whatever happens in the future, I’ll settle for that.)
On to the main event then, fears that the minors may be a source of depression to the seniors well and truly extinguished. The ball was thrown in, it went straight up the field to John Mullane who opted to shoot from a narrow angle when he had plenty of time to create a better chance – and the ball flew straight over the bar. Clearly in the mood then. Points were exchanged with Brendan Cummins pulling off a fantastic save from Eoin Kelly before Waterford managed to score from a free to take away the sour taste of that save / miss. Mullane was then fouled close in and Kelly teed up the free. The two wise men right at the far end of the Old Stand agreed that he should just knock the ball over the bar, and had we had a preview of the daisy-cutter he sent towards goal we’d have been right. Except Brendan the Great let the ball squirm under his hurley and Waterford had leapt four points clear. Great stuff, but it wouldn’t be long before Tipp made it look like a buffer against the inevitable hammering. It might have been the wind but Waterford were soon struggling to cope, Clinton Hennessy having to pull off a fine save from his own, although Waterford failed to take full advantage of that let-off with Tipp scoring from the clearance – an event that would sadly define the day.
Tipperary edged closer then ahead, their dominance illuminated by a splendid catch-run-and-score point from Shane McGrath. Waterford were struggling to get any ball up to the forwards so it was just as well that Mullane had brought his Superman boots, roaring on to a breaking ball and flashing the ball to the net. Incredibly Waterford were ahead despite living off scraps and it was all down to Mullane. His cat-like agility is truly extraordinary. At one point in the second half he went down in a heap trying to catch a Waterford puckout. Surrounded by three Tipp players, you worried how he’d get the ball out of harm’s way. Yet in the time it took to think that thought he was on his feet and galloping in the direction of Cummins’ goal. He scored 1-5 on the day, and it would be an interesting exercise to see how many of Eoin Kelly’s 1-7 from frees were courtesy of fouls on Mullane – we know where the 1-0 came from.
So with the wind favouring Tipp things were ticking along nicely. Statler and Waldorf agreed that as long as we didn’t give away silly goals we had a great chance. The thing about silly goals though is that they are often the result of brilliant play (see: John Mullane) or overwhelming pressure, the chances of a clanger taking place moving towards 1 when the hammer is down. Tipp had been splendidly profligate up front to this point and but Waterford’s defence finally cracked after a well-worked move, Seamus Callanan smartly bouncing the ball into the net. Then Lar Corbett couldn’t gather the ball when he would have been clear through only for Waterford to fail miserably to clear it, allowing Tipp to barge their way back into the danger area and Eoin Kelly to get their second goal.
It was a poor error, but was it any worse than Cummins’ for Waterford’s first goal? Not really, it was just that it exposed how much Waterford had been short of quality possession while Tipp were getting enough chances without us offering them up as gifts. We were praying for half-time which didn’t come early enough to prevent a third Tipp goal, a rapid fire sweep from the deep which culminated in Corbett emphatically ramming the ball past Hennessy. When half-time did arrive the scoreboard was chilling – 3-10 was three points less than Kilkenny had managed in Croke Park last September. The fears of a battering like 1989, and all the attendant concerns about players losing their cool, were prominent in our minds.
Half-time saw a reminder of 1989 in the shape of Bobby Ryan, and all the Munster title wining captains of the last 25 years with one glaring exception – Seán Óg Ó hAilpín. The rights and wrongs of his absence are another day’s work, but credit to the PA who simply ignored his absence, thus avoiding any pompous speechifying about letting down seven generations of Cork Gaels / impassioned cries on behalf of the poor downtrodden GPA.
Waterford got the second half underway like the wind had indeed made a difference, getting two good early chances from Dan Shanahan and John Mullane, both going badly wide before Stephen Molumphy decided to show them how it was done by scoring from way out. Grounds for optimism? It certainly was. There’s always enough potential firepower up front to suggest we could cut loose. The issue was could we hold them to few enough scores given their undoubted firepower – and it should be noted had someone said they’d manage only 1-4, I’d have been spitting on my hands in anticipation og getting them on something shiny at day’s end. But there comes a point when you are so far behind that you feel you are only playing for pride, and that moment came with their fourth goal. It hurts to be whaling on Declan Prendergast, who has never shirked the responsibility of being full-back despite the world and her husband constantly intimating that he is only a place holder until something better comes along. Still, it was a disappointing gaff as under no pressure he left the ball completely behind him, allowing Corbett to score the goal from point blank range. All that effort yet two points worse off than at half-time. It was going to take a Herculean effort to prevent this from turning into a rout.
Thankfully this is exactly what we got from Michael Walsh. It was not as obvious in the first half as we had so few attacks that Brendan Cummins wasn’t dropping puckouts into his part of the field. It was blatant in the second half when his performance was breathtaking. He seemed to win every ball, and he definitely sent every ball that he won back with interest. Allied with Mullane they kept the Tipperary backs honest. It was gratifying to see that Tipp had to keep hurling, and there was a continuous sense of tension among their fans – this probably wasn’t based upon anything we saw on the pitch but memories of previous ambushes; still, nice to see. Some eople did leave early but I’ve seen that at Anfield when the scores are level. In real time, Waterford kept on hacking away, with Maurice Shanahan adding a bit more ball winning power to the forwards but not much in the way of cutting edge. He was a bit unlucky with his goal effort, Conor O’Mahony emerging with the ball despite knowing little about it, but it didn’t exactly fizz off his hurley. A late clutch of points maintained the illusion of drama though in truth it would have been a fall of Devon Loch proportions even when the gap had closed to four points. You felt we could have been there all day and would not have made up the difference.
Cork or Galway are the likely opponents in the next round. Neither would be as formidable as Tipperary so despite this defeat we can look forward to that game with confidence, whoever we play. But having ruminated recently on the desirability of Dublin winning Leinster and putting on us a collision course with Kilkenny should we win Munster, it’s a moot point now. Neither came to pass and Kilkenny stand between us and the All-Ireland final anyway. Nothing we didn’t know already, although it would have been good to let someone else have a pop at them before September. Someone like Tipp.
Waterford: Clinton Hennessy, Eoin Murphy, Declan Prendergast, Noel Connors, Tony Browne, Michael Walsh, Aidan Kearney, Shane O’Sullivan, Kevin Moran (Richie Foley, 0-1), Seamus Prendergast (Maurice Shanahan), Stephen Molumphy (capt, 0-2), Jamie Nagle (Eoin McGrath), John Mullane (1-5), Eoin Kelly (1-7, all frees), Jack Kennedy (Dan Shanahan, 0-1).
Tipperary: Brendan Cummins, Paddy Stapleton, Paul Curran (Brendan Maher), Conor O’Brien, Declan Fanning, Conor O’Mahony (capt, 0-1f), Paul Maher, James Woodlock (Benny Dunne, 0-1), Shane McGrath (0-1), Pat Kerwick (0-1; Hugh Maloney), Seamus Callanan (1-1), John O’Brien (0-1; Michael Webster), Noel McGrath (0-3, 0-1f), Eoin Kelly (1-3, 0-2 f; Willie Ryan), Lar Corbett (2-2)
HT: Tipperary 3-10 (19) Waterford 2-4 (10)
Referee: John Sexton (Cork)