Waterford 1-18 (21) Tipperary 3-19 (28)

Let me start with a story.  Before the match I was told the desire of an inter-county hurling manager whose county was travelling through the backdoor on whom they would like to get should his team end up playing the losing Munster finalists. It is not necessary to name said manager because it is a third-hand story (he said that he said that he said) but the spirit is revealing – even if it is made up, someone had to make it up and putting it in the mouth of a noteworthy figure doesn’t make it any less instructive about attitudes. Mr Manager wanted Waterford, because his county would have hang-ups about playing Cork that they wouldn’t have playing the Déise. It’s exasperating after all these years that we still give off a smell of fear, one that can be picked up by horses and hurlers alike.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. Before the game I was slightly bemused by the consensus that Tipperary were a sure thing. They had pushed Kilkenny so close last year, but their record against serious competition since then was one thumping defeat from Cork and one supermodel-thin margin of victory over Galway. And while we may not be the team we once were a new sense of purpose had infused the Waterford team. What were the punditocracy seeing that I wasn’t?

The answer would be in the programme, but more on that later. Before the game I was gloating in the presence of our secret weapon – my brother-in-law, and his 100% record at Waterford matches. Not only would his essence inspire the Waterford players to ever-dizzying heights, but he would be wowed by the awesome majesty that is Páirc an Chrócaigh. Towering cathedral-like over the rude huts of association football, he would return to his native soil laden with reports of the marvels he had witness in the land of the supposedly unsophisticated Gaels.

Okay, I wasn’t that concerned that his gob be well and truly smacked by Croke Park’s splendor, but I managed to be a little disappointed that he didn’t even bat an eyelid. As someone who habitually decries the cult of the sports stadium – ohmigod the Nou Camp which is really the Camp Nou in Catalan I know these things because I’m a stadium geek is sooooo amazing it just goes on and on and on – it’s a little disconcerting to find oneself hoping the Saxon will deign to notice our contribution to the cause. Note to GAA self: must work harder on dispensing the inferiority complex.

Then again, talking about Croker saves us the bother of talking about the match. Ah yes, the match. Must knuckle down and maintain this august contribution to the ages. Arriving after the teams had been announced, I hadn’t noticed that Brian O’Halloran had replaced Seamus Prendergast on the team sheet. I don’t have any problem with playing someone who is waiting on their Leaving Cert results, preferring to subscribe to the school of though that says if they’re good enough they’re old enough. But I thought this nonsense of shuffling team sheets at the last-minute had gone the same way of Ger Loughnane’s hair and management career. Speaking of nonsense, Tipperary had decided early on to play the short puckout game, and were rewarded with some woeful wides. There is no link between the two but the tenth circle of Hell is being constructed for those who engage in short puckouts so a few bad misses was surely a small price to pay.

For all of that, Tipp scored a couple of points with suspicious ease to cancel out Richie Foley’s fine opener and despite a point from Eoin Kelly (WD) from a free to level matters there was a feeling that Waterford were already struggling, typified by John Mullane nearly taking an opponent’s head off with a wild lunge for which he was deservedly booked, although he was quick to acknowledge his culpability. Mullane looked up for it and scored another trademark stunner, but if he was getting ragged this early on then we were in trouble.

I spoke of the programme earlier and how it contained the answer to how the game would pan out. As Croke Park programmes go this was one of the worst, containing some truly dreadful filler – semi-finals from 1990 – 2010? How arbitrary. But it had an interview with Donal O’Grady which was prescient, O’Grady saying that if Tipperary’s half-backs got on top they’d be likely to win. And boy, was their half-back line in charge. We were living off scraps and a cracking individual effort from Kevin Moran and some more wayward shooting, most shockingly from the deadballs of Eoin Kelly (TS), kept Waterford in touch. It wasn’t as if Waterford could claim that the referee was out to get us, John Sexton inexplicably missing another high challenge although Waterford gave the ball straight to John O’Brien to put them back in front, a case of bad karma if ever there was one.

The pitch was beginning to look like it had lurched a few metres off centre as Eoin Kelly (An Pasáiste – someone in the County Board clearly overdosed on the Gaeilge as mystery clubs like Caisleán Cuanach agus Deaglán Naofa cropped up in the clár) missed a relatively easy one before Tipperary scored their first goal. The nerves were getting shredded at this stage so I thought taking as many pictures as possible would put me one step removed from the action. So the ball flew over the top, I had the camera poised in situ . . .

. . . and missed the action as Lar Corbett stole in around the back and lashed the ball past Clinton Hennessy. Five points down and already I was thinking that’d be an acceptable deficit at half-time. A free from Kelly and a point for Seamus Prendergast, on the pitch early in an admirable admission from Davy Fitz that the gamble on O’Halloran hadn’t worked out, seemed to open up the possibility that we might achieve that, but Tipperary finished the half on the charge and two points in injury time snuffed even that limited hope.

The half-time break seemed to go on forever and the arrival of the Waterford team was greeted with a soul-destroyingly small ripple of applause. I knew it, they knew it, we all knew it – we were licked. For years I’ve railed in a not-very-orignial way against cavalier shooting, but watching this game made you ponder whether it can be, except in the extreme case of Kilkenny, a symptom of overwhelming dominance. The Clare team of Ger Loughnane used hit 15-20 wides a game but they’d invariably come out on top as their crushing machine-style ultimately overcame the opposition. Tipperary supporters were probably fretting that they’d regret those misses, but from the other side of the fence the perspective was that they could afford to be prodigal.

Points from deadballs from Tony Browne and Kelly and another classic from Mullane moved it to a one score game but then Noel Connors, prospective All Star after the year he’s had Connors, served up the kind of moment that really makes you despair, winning the ball superbly then handpassing the ball inside to the waiting Lar Corbett who pivoted and knocked it over the bar. Sickening, and when Kelly stretched the lead to five the time had come to play the last roll of the dice, Dan Shanahan and Ken McGrath entering the fray in what was in at least one case an effort to prolong their inter-county career for another three weeks. No sooner were they on though when the truly decisive blow was landed. A sideline cut managed to elude everyone and this time it was Eoin Kelly’s turn to dance his way into space and pull the trigger. It was seemingly a splendid effort but at the time it looked untidier than a World of Warcraft addict’s bedroom and the woe-is-me how unlucky can we be mentality was really beginning to dominate proceedings.

It had to be goals now. Ken McGrath sent a bomb in which tickled the crossbar and for a split second looked like it might drop under, and John Mullane would slalom his way through the Tipperary defence bringing off a brilliant save from Brendan Cummins. But by that stage Tipp had already gotten a third goal, Eoin Kelly being given the freedom of the park to bat it home. The futility of Waterford’s efforts were emphasised by the final set of substitutes which left all but Mullane out of the starting six forwards on the bench. The Tipperary fans felt comfortable enough to start giving ‘Slievenamon’ an airing, something that even amidst the disappointment could be appreciated as something refreshingly old school. One of the subs gave the choir a moment of pause . . .

. . . Eoin McGrath repeating Corbett’s trick of sneaking in around the back for an easy finish and yes, you did wonder if we could pull off an Istanbul, but John Mullane drove a half-chance high and wide and that was that.

Since the game, people in work have being asking how it was. The word I have come up to keep it pithy was deflating. The gap between expectations and reality was revealed with ghastly slowness by a Tipperary team who have already shown that they can put it up to Kilkenny. There’s no chance that we can. Things can change. Things do change. But we going to require change of Darwinian proportions to get to where we want to be.

Waterford: Clinton Hennessy, Eoin Murphy, Liam Lawlor, Noel Connors; Tony Browne (0-3, 0-165), Michael Walsh, Declan Prendergast, Shane O’Sullivan, Richie Foley (0-1), Kevin Moran (0-1), Stephen Molumphy (0-1; Thomas Ryan), Eoin Kelly (0-5f; Ken McGrath, 0-3, 0-1f),) John Mullane (0-3), Shane Walsh (Eoin McGrath, 1-0),  Brian O’Halloran (Seamus Prendergast, 0-1)

Tipperary: Brendan Cummins, Paddy Stapleton, Paul Curran, Michael Cahill, Declan Fanning, Conor OMahony, Padraic Maher, Brendan Maher, Shane McGrath (0-1), Gearóid Ryan (Seamus Callinan), Patrick Maher (Pa Bourke), John O’Brien (0-6), Noel McGrath (0-7, 0-1f, 0-1 65), Eoin Kelly (2-5, 0-3f), Lar Corbett (1-2)

HT: Waterford 0-8 (8) Tipperary 1-11 (14)

Referee: John Sexton (Cork)