Do teams learn more from defeat than from victory? Should Clare come back from last night’s game to nobble Waterford in the Munster Minor semi-final it will probably be wheeled out as a classic of the genre because if they do beat Waterford having overcome Kerry and Tipperary in the playoffs then they will have learned an awful lot. Put less cryptically, Waterford beat Clare more comfortably than even the eight point margin of victory suggests. Yes, there were a few if-but-maybe’s near the end but overall Jimmy Meaney and co will be very pleased at the evening’s efforts.
The crowd will have been pleased too, and what a crowd it was. Arriving way before everyone else I took up a position unusually close to the halfway line and settled down expecting to have the stand to myself in a game of Spot the Retired Ballygunner Slaphead (you know to whom we refer). Flicking through the match programme, not exactly a time sink, I noted a crowd of a couple of thousand attended the semi-final in Cusack Park last year and wondered whether they were more committed to underage hurling in the Banner County. I’m not sure exactly where such a low opinion of my fellow county men and women came from – stand up who said ‘projection’! – but by the time the game started there must have been close to two thousand in the stand. What an attendance for a game involving men and boys who don’t unduly trouble the blue strip on their Gillette Fusion, and definitely the kind of crowd that they can only dream about in the RSC.
It was all even enough to begin with, Paudric (sp? The programme had some wacky spellings throughout) Mahony and Niall Arthur swapping points, Arthur opening the scoring with decent point on the run. Clare seemed to be having the better of it, Darragh Fives at centre-back having to come to Waterford’s rescue on a couple of occasions. But as the match wore on, Waterford took control. Low cross balls into feet were a recurring theme and goodness, it was effective. It’ll be worth watching the highlights on TG4 next Monday but in real-time it looked like Waterford players were making a habit of gathering those low balls cleanly and notching scores.
The goal was an absolute peach, Prendergast galloping though the middle and playing a low ball to Colm Curran who whipped on it first time into the path of Cormac Heffernan who followed up with a thunderous pull through the exposed goalkeeper. Marvellous stuff, and Waterford were scoring from all angles. By the 20th minutes, everyone bar Paudric Mahony from the forwards had scored from play and he was doing his bit with the frees – one aborted effort at a quick free when he should have just being sticking it over the bar didn’t inspire confidence, but he did the needful in the end and all was right with the world. It’s part of the mythology of Waterford hurling that the legends of ’59 were the greatest of ground hurling stylists – like watching a soccer team playing pass-and-move according to my uncle – and this was evocative of that kind of hurling.
More prosaically it was reminiscent of last year’s Munster final, Waterford edging further away with some cool, focussed hurling. There was one other thrilling moment in the first half, Prendergast setting off on another gallop into the Clare half where he was met with a shuddering shoulder charge, but he simply leaned back with the momentum and popped the ball over the bar from the 45m line. Another great score which had the crowd warming their hands for several seconds. It was a first half performance that was everything that a manager could have hoped for.
Could they maintain that level of elan in the second half? In a word, no. A couple of early points suggested Waterford could run riot but Clare battened down the hatches and a few wild pulls, one from Eoin Madigan in particular, allowed Arthur to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Step up Eamonn Murphy, who produced a few moments of pure magic that really give you hope for the future – yes, when watching Minor you can never entirely shake the underlying thoughts about whether such-and-such is going to make the step up to the majors. He didn’t even score in one incident, getting the head down and speeding away from his marker with embarrassing ease, a move that had the young fellas behind me, who were clearly familiar with the players, chuckling like wise old men – seen that one before, eh? His run ended abruptly as he was clobbered by a Clare back but the ball fell to Stephen Roche who swept it over the bar.
It looked like Waterford had a few more gears if necessary, the economy of effort typified by the wide count – four over the sixty and just one in the second half. But on the flip side you’d wonder whether they showed a lack of killer instinct. When a free from Mahony was unwisely prevented from going over the bar by Clare keeper Ronan Taaffe it should have been buried past a wrong-footed defence but instead Clare were given the time and space to clear. With Arthur keeping Clare in the game with his frees there was always a danger that a goal would put the cat amongst the pigeons and twice Clare had shots flash across the goal, the second one where they really should have done better. But – and I say this as one of nature’s great worriers – you did sense that Waterford had more in the tank should it be required and they finished with a flourish, knocking over the last two points including another gem from Murphy over his shoulder.
After last year’s Munster final, you could say with a straight face that it was more important that we won the Minor than the Senior match. This wasn’t just because we’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt at Senior level. It was because the ice-cold manner in which the Minors downed Tipperary was so exhilarating, seeing a Waterford team behaving as if victory is something that comes easy rather than having to be dragged kicking and screaming into the world. The stakes were a lot lower last night, but you could see flashes of that confidence throughout the game, a sense of a plan put into place and achieved with the minimum of fuss. When you’ve come from where we’ve come, and working on the results archive has made me acutely aware of just where we’ve come from, you’ll more than settle for that.
Waterford: Darren Duggan, Jamie Barron, Stephen O’Keeffe, Luke Egan, Martin O’Neill (Seán Ryan), Darragh Fives, Eoin Madigan (0-1), Paudric Prendergast (0-3), Gavin O’Brien, Paudric Mahony (capt, 0-7f), Eamonn Murphy (0-3), Colm Curran (0-1), Jake Dillon (0-2), Cormac Heffernan (1-0; Cein Chester), Stephen Roche (0-4)
Clare: Ronan Taaffe, Haulie Vaughan (Enda Boyce), Noel Purcell, Seadna Morey, Paul Flanagan (capt, 0-1), Kevin Lynch, Stephen O’Halloran, Podge Collin (0-1), Tony Kelly, David O’Halloran (0-1), Daire Keane (David McInerney, 0-1), Arron Cunningham (0-1; Jamie Shanahan, 0-1), Alan Mulready (Tots O’Connell), Niall Arthur (0-10, 0-8f), Colm Gavin
HT: Waterford 1-10 (13) Clare 0-6 (6)
Referee: Colm Lyons (Cork)