Waterford minor hurlers qualified for a third successive Munster final when they overcame Limerick in an amazing semi-final game in Walsh Park on Saturday night. This was a real see-saw game, with Waterford totally dominating the first quarter and building up a big lead, following which Limerick fought back with growing momentum which turned into total control for much of the second half, to the extent that they went into a three-point lead with just five minutes to go. However, Waterford steadied the ship and brought the game into extra time in which they outshot their opponents by six points to one to finish 4-17 to 3-15 winners.
Waterford started playing into the city goal with both the sun (which didn’t last long) and the stiff breeze behind them and absolutely owned the first fifteen minutes. More importantly, they made their territorial control tell on the score board. Right half forward Darragh Flynn fired home a marvellous goal after just one minute after great work by right full forward Adam O’Sullivan. Two minutes later the Limerick full back failed to cut out a great low ball in from midfield and full forward Stephen Bennett ran on to finish expertly to the net. Five minutes later Bennett repeated the dose, gathering Cein Chester’s good low ball from the left corner to give the Limerick keeper no chance from 15 metres.
After ten minutes Waterford were 3-3 to no score in front, and by that stage Limerick had failed to get the ball inside the Waterford 45 metre line even once. However, one was mindful that the Waterford seniors had a similar lead over Limerick in the championship exactly ten years previously and yet managed to lose in the end. And indeed, Limerick gradually began to get on top in midfield and to create chances, many of which were missed to leave Waterford still eleven points to the good after 20 minutes, 3-5 to 0-3.
Waterford might have put the game completely beyond Limerick’s reach coming up to half time when (I think) Bennett’s great run through the middle and pass left Chester completely in the clear in front of goal but his first touch left him down and his second effort went wide. Almost immediately, Limerick were presented with a lifeline with a soft goal at the other end. The Waterford defence failed to clear its lines leaving a Limerick forward in for a shot which goalkeeper Paddy Cooke saved well at the post. However, still on his knees, Cooke unwisely attempted to roll lift the loose ball back into his grasp (instead of tipping it out for a 65) and was dispossessed by the inrushing Kevin O’Brien who finished to the net. However, Cooke was to make up for this lapse with some excellent saves later in the game.
Half time: Waterford 3-7 Limerick 1-4.
Following their brilliant start Waterford had become quite tentative, increasingly being beaten to the ball, losing the fifty-fifties and fumbling possession, while their preoccupation with short handpassing in the middle third saw them repeatedly losing possession when it was clear that the early ball into the full forward line was the ball to play. We hoped that Waterford would regroup during the half time break but Limerick scored two points within a minute of the restart and were on their way. Only poor shooting on their part allowed Waterford to maintain their big lead, and after 40 minutes they still led by 3-8 to 1-7.
Playing with great physicality and commitment, Limerick got completely on top in the middle third and with the flow of play going almost entirely in the direction of the Waterford goal, the scores began to materialise. Corner forward O’Brien got his second goal, batting home the rebound after a good Cooke save. In a breakaway, Stephen Bennett got possession on the right and broke through to again finish to the net to provide the home team with badly needed oxygen, but Limerick left half forward Mark Carmody then careered through to shoot Limerick’s third goal which left the teams level 4-8 to 3-11 after fifty minutes.
Limerick, led by their powerful centre forward Shane Dowling, were now rampant, and three points in succession put them in what looked like an unassailable position with five minutes to go. Then, as if by magic, Waterford lifted the siege and scored three points to level matters. However, the key factor here was not magic but astute substitutions by the Waterford mentors and the benefit of heavy early-year conditioning which gave Waterford a crucial advantage in fitness as the game entered its closing stages.
Jake Dillon got things going with a point from a 65, then substitute Donie Breathnach, with his first touch, rode two heavy tackles to shoot a super point only to have it bettered moments later with a brilliant equaliser by fellow substitute Cormac Heffernan. In fact, the introduction of Heffernan, who is only making his way back following an horrific leg break in last year’s All-Ireland quarter final, was the single most important ingredient in the Waterford comeback, as he used his strength and freshness to win ball repeatedly after he entered the fray.
Score at the end of normal time: Waterford 4-11 Limerick 3-14
Waterford were a transformed team in extra time, winning primary possession all over the field and, crucially, holding onto it to drive at the Limerick defence. The frees followed, with Jake Dillon doing the honours from various distances and angles. Having notched the last three scores in normal time, Waterford proceeded to add the first five scores in extra time to go five points up, 4-16 to 3-14 at the end of the first period of extra time.
However, Limerick refused to give up and threw the kitchen sink at the Waterford goal in the second period of extra time. There were some hairy moments (including a disallowed goal), some super saves by Cooke and some good defending, but all Limerick could manage was a single point to which Waterford replied in kind to leave the final score: Waterford 4-17 Limerick 3-15.
There was a clear similarity between this game and Waterford’s first-round win over Tipperary in which Waterford also built up an early lead only to have it wiped out before coming good in the end. In both games also, the opposition’s cause was not helped by a multiplicity of wides and Waterford will surely get caught if they let this happen again. They know they can play better than they did for much of Saturday night’s game, and that they need to maintain their intensity for more sustained periods.
However, they have a fantastic never-say-die spirit, are superbly fit and have a fantastic panel of players. For example, apart from Heffernan and Breathnach, I thought that Jim Power did very well when coming into the fullback line in the second half for the injured Damien Ahern.
Waterford: Paddy Cooke; Jamie Barron; Damien Ahern; Colin Walsh; Stephen O’Neill; Darren Foley; Shane Roche; Gavin O’Brien (0-3, one free); Ray Barry (0-1); Darragh Flynn (1-0); Jake Dillon (0-8, 0-6 frees); Shane McNulty (0-1); Adam O’Sullivan; Stephen Bennett (3-2); Cein Chester. Substitutes: Jim Power for Ahern; Cormac Heffernan (0-1) for Chester; Mícheál Harney for Flynn; Ian Kenny for Roche; Donie Breathnach (0-1) for O’Sullivan; Colin Dunford for O’Neill; Chris Kervick for McNulty.
Limerick: PJ Hall; Shane Irwin; Barry O’Connell; Brian Murphy; Liam Ryan; Ciaran Keogh; Barry Lynch; Dan Morrissey; Diarmuid Dee; David Reidy; Shane Dowling (0-7, all frees); Mark Carmody (1-4, one free); Kevin O’Brien (2-2); Mike Fitzgibbon, Jack Aherne (0-2). No record kept of substitutes
Update: Having seen the TG4 highlights of Saturday’s minor match, I want to make two changes to my match report. The mistake I attributed to goalkeeper Paddy Cooke for Limerick’s first goal was actually the fault of one of the full backs. Sorry Paddy! And Dónie Breathnach’s point was scored in extra time, not in normal time. Dónie was also unlucky when he broke through the middle and slipped the ball past the keeper but it just rolled the wrong side of the post. It would have been a great goal.