It may sound a tad downbeat in the aftermath of another game which saw Waterford go toe-to-toe with one of the Great Powers of the GAA and live to fight another day – and, ultimately, that’s all you can ask of any Waterford team – but the big winners in this year’s Munster final were Kilkenny. One can argue about the quality of the game, and while I don’t agree with those who think this game was a clunker I can see where they are coming from. But we can surely all agree that unless both teams have soared to previously uncharted heights that neither team will threaten Kilkenny. In addition, any team that loses the replay is going to be in pretty shabby shape by the time they get to meet Kilkenny in the semi-final. As if Kilkenny didn’t have enough going for them already.
But that’s for the future. For the moment let’s start in the past, indeed what is fast becoming the distant past. Suggesting that any loser in the Munster final replay might be in a bad way is a none-too-subtle plea that it is tiredness that scuppered Waterford’s chances against Clare in the Minor final. Having seen them cruise past the Banner in the first round it was hard to credit the anaemic performance that Waterford produced in the final. Two point up early in the second half I was confident that Waterford were going to go through the gears like they had done in last year’s final and Clare would be left floundering.
Instead it was Clare who upped the ante, scoring a cracking goal and shrugging off the inconvenience of a response from Eamonn Murphy. At the time I consoled myself with that thought. Finding out afterwards that Longford had turned a 22-point drubbing from Offaly in the first round to win the Leinster title has demonstrated that that opinion might be wishful thinking. Clare have improved from that defeat. Whether Waterford can take enough from this defeat to topple their next opponents – presumably, having played them last year as Munster winners, it’ll be Galway this time around ; good luck trying to find out online – remains to be seen.
So let’s slightly callously draw a veil over the Minors – it’s my blog and I’ll cry if I want to – and look to the Seniors. Before that, kudos to the good folk of Durlas Óg, who went over and above the usual parking-for-a-fiver facilities by offering free tea and coffee and toilet facilities. A lovely touch. At the game, Waterford enjoyed the rather predictable pre-game boost of Eoin Kelly being passed fit and after an initially niggly start where it seemed everyone was determined to shoulder-charge everyone else it seemed to be settling into the usual point-for-point pattern, Shane O’Sullivan particularly impressing with the opening score and an always-impressive score from a sideline cut and John Mullane getting a trademark over-the-shoulder effort. Cork kept the scoreboard ticking over themselves, so ten minutes or so in you’d have had no incline of what was about to happen. It’s not an exaggeration to say it would be one of the oddest halves you’ll ever see.
Put simply, the defences were totally on top. Christy O’Connor wrote in the match programme that modern hurling is defined by free-scoring teams, most obviously Kilkenny. So to see two defences on top was a novelty. Part of that was down to a certain Cork arrogance that made them think they only had to get the ball into the full forward line to get goals. At one stage Ben O’Connor, who oddly eschewed the policy of getting it into the mix with his sideline cuts and was rewarded with a hat-trick of wides, raced past the 45 and rather than taking an easy point instead batted it in towards Aisake Ó hAilpín who was immediately smothered by the Waterford backs. On two occasions they felt the need to go for goals from quite ludicrous angles which were easily dealt with by Clinton Hennessy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to exploit a perceived weakness in a team but it was nice to see it come so unstuck, in the first half at least.
Of course, perhaps I’m wrong about said policy but something was going on to reduce the game to a tennis-style back and forth between the 21m lines. It would have been dour stuff on the telly but in the flesh it was compelling. Waterford seemed to be winning most of the challenges but there was rarely space to manoeuvre. Scores only came from frees with Ben O’Connor benefitting from a int from a free which seemed to go wide and Eoin Kelly have a free waved wide when none of the Cork fans behind the goal were celebrating – usually a good barometer. Now that i think about it, that might have been the real story: a referee who wasn’t awarding frees and / or back lines that weren’t determined not to give them. A one point lead at half time felt like a goal, so high a premium was there on scores.
And it got even better in the second half with Mullane scoring after about 20 seconds and Kelly knocking over a couple of frees to extend the lead to a handsome four. Unfortunately this wasn’t a sign of one team throwing off the shackles. Cork soon trimmed the lead back to one, helped in a small way when the ref missed Shane Walsh being taken out right in front of the posts and Cork secured a point from a free on the next attack. It was almost as if Cork had ghosted back into the game. In fact, I was shocked to look up and see we were level at 12 points apiece. How did that happen?
It was around this time that the moment occurred that would leave Waterford chasing the draw rather than the win. There’s no point in pretending that sometimes you engage in professional fouling – the Dutch would demonstrate how it was done later on in the evening to upset superior opponents. Aisake Ó hAilpín was being being well marshalled by Liam Lawlor but if you throw enough bombs in one is bound to hit the target, even by accident. Ó hAilpín duly managed to evade Lawlor, leading to the two going down in a heap and a deserved yellow for Lawlor. Could Waterford afford to have him sent off? Davy Fitz clearly decided that the answer was no and Lawlor was hauled ashore to be replaced at full back by Declan Prendergast. It looked like a good idea at the time but no sooner than it happened than Ó hAilpín got free. Whether it was a mistake by Prendergast, confusion over who was doing what in the revamped back division, or dumb luck, I don’t know. I’m inclined towards the latter, as the lumbering full forward looked so ungainly as he bore down on goal that I was convinced he’d miss.
He didn’t and Cork were lifted accordingly. Moments later Tom Gardner got clear on the right and you just knew he wasn’t going to miss as he thundered the ball past Clinton Hennessy. Disaster. Waterford had competed brilliantly and now we were about to see how competitive they really were. The thought of having to go through the back door and meet Kilkenny at the semi-final stage again didn’t bear thinking about. As it happened, Waterford hunkered down well and had already forced an outstanding bit of sweeping from Donal Óg before we got the goal we needed. Michael Walsh won the ball out on the left, lofted the ball into the box where it was caught by Eoin Kelly. He shrugged off his marker and struck an absolute snorter to the net. Inspirational stuff, and his soccer-style slide towards the Killinan End will no doubt antagonise the purists. Good.
Unfortunately now it was Cork’s turn to stop the rot. Waterford missed a couple of chances to level matters and Cork edged three points clear once again. A rather fortunate 65 gave Eoin Kelly a chance to drop it in but he opted for the point, only for Cork to come right back down and restore the three point gap. A goal it would have to be, and when Ken McGrath’s ball into the mix drifted wide it looked like curtains for Waterford. But what’s this? The ref had spotted some infringement and we had a clear shot on goal. I was convinced Eoin Kelly would burst the net with his shot. What I should have been even more certain of was that if it didn’t go in the oldest man on the pitch would be the fastest man to the loose ball, and Tony Browne relived that fluke into the same goal eight years ago to level matters.
People were going mental around me which was fair enough, but there was still time for a winner. The wisdom of showing the minimum amount of minutes remaining was demonstrated as Johnny Ryan could neither be accused of ending the game early to assure a draw or of somehow letting a team down by playing too much injury time. Time seemed to elongate from Cusack’s puckout and Michael Cussen emerged from the scrum with the ball and what seemed like acres of room. I had already exhaled the sigh of defeat and you could see the Cork fans bracing for the victory cheer when, scarcely believably, the shot tailed harmlessly wide. Looking at it later, Noel Connors did just enough to put off his stroke, but there was such a fat margin for error that it has to be put down as a blunder by Cussen, the kind that if a Waterford player had served up would have led to accusations of bottling it for the rest of eternity.
Another draw then, the second in a row with Cork. It was a tremendously entertaining game, far better than the neutrals have being saying. But there’s no doubt that the freewheeling Waterford of yore are with O’Leary in the grave. This is a tougher, less spontaneous team and one with Davy Fitzgerald’s fingerprints all over it. We couldn’t beat Kilkenny the way things were so something definitely had to change. We won’t beat Kilkenny on the basis of that performance but at least we can go twelve rounds with Cork. Plus ça change . . .
Waterford: Clinton Hennessy, Eoin Murphy, Liam Lawlor (Jamie Nagle), Noel Connors, Tony Browne (1-0), Michael Walsh, Declan Prendergast, Shane O’Sullivan (0-2, 0-1 sideline), Richie Foley (Ken McGrath), Shane Walsh (Maurice Shanahan), Kevin Moran (0-1; Dan Shanahan), Eoin Kelly (1-8, 0-6f, 0-1 65), Stephen Molumphy, John Mullane (0-4), Eoin McGrath (Seamus Prendergast)
Cork: Donal Óg Cusack, Shane O’Neill, Eoin Cadogan, Brian Murphy (0-1), John Gardiner (0-3, 0-1f, 0-1 65), Ronan Curran, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín (0-1; Reamonn Ryan), Tom Kenny (0-1), Cathal Naughton (0-2), Ben O’Connor (1-5, 0-4f), Jerry O’Connor (Michael Cussen, 0-1), Niall McCarthy (0-1), Kieran Murphy (Paudie O’Sullivan), Aisake Ó hAilpín (1-0), Patrick Horgan (Pa Cronin)
HT: Waterford 0-7 Cork 0-6
Referee: Johnny Ryan (Tipperary)