Waterford 1-16 (19) Kilkenny 2-19 (25)

Alexei Sayle once had a sketch exploring the cosmic narcissism that governed a sentiment like ooh, it always starts raining when I come out without an umbrella. Cue a series of images where a demented demigod figure is tasked with watching over the person at all times and ensured that precipitation would be targeted at that person at the exact moment they dared to mock the Gods by stepping outside without adequate rain gear. How self-centred would a person have to be to think this is the way the universe operates? Much more believable, however, is a situation whereby Waterford’s results are determined by whether I’m at the game or not. And when it became clear before this game that the presumptions of the Kilkenny and Tipperary hoors in work meant that there was no holidays left for the first Sunday in September, thus ensuring I would be working that day, we were bound to be present. Damn you, cruel Fate!

This was, of course, ridiculous. How were Waterford to first overcome the drag factor from my presence in Croke Park for the semi-final? The answer was that they couldn’t as the Déise turned in one of the most consistently anaemic periods of play in the third quarter that I’ve ever seen from them to put the kibosh on any good work they had performed in the first half. If only I had left at half-time . . .

Then again, if I had left at five past four I’d have missed most of the first half too. We departed our city centre hostelry as the final whistle blew in the Minor game. I suggested that extra-time might be imminent, but the sight of the Galway and Clare players shaking hands seemed to contradict this, as did the knot of Clare supporters charging along the North Circular Road. It was only when I sat in my seat and had made myself comfortable – something that after the Páirc Uí Chaoimh experience I say without a trace of irony – that I twigged that the match was still going on! The GAA really need to sort this kind of nonsense out. If they must insist on having extra-time in these matches then it has to be built into the schedule. Alternately the time has come to de-couple the Minor matches from the Senior games. Players not knowing whether there is extra-time or not is just plain daft, and far more damaging to the image of the GAA as a serious organisation than people invading the pitch.

Then again x2, perhaps this is the strategy the GAA have adopted for making sure there are no latecomers. Not that they need have worried here as the crowd was pitiful, not least from Kilkenny. They must have known something the rest of us did. As one wag behind me put it we were level fifteen minutes after 3.30pm. Pity there was only thirty seconds on the clock because Waterford were immediately under the cosh from a dropping ball from Henry Shefflin – were the feckers going for goals already? – with Michael Walsh failing to get the ball clear and Shane O’Sullivan just barely eluding the Kilkenny forwards. Waterford managed to get clear but Pauric Mahony’s rushed effort was wide. It was as close as we’d get to their goal in the opening moments as Kilkenny won every early ball and soon put our worst dreams into reality, a Waterford back overshooting a long ball and Darragh Fives was shown a clear pair of heels by Richie Hogan before drilling the ball past Clinton Hennessy,

What was that we said about not giving away early goals? Doesn’t work that way though, and always sometimes you’ve just gotta give second best and it began to look like it would be 2008 all over again. Richie Power got the freedom of the park to race towards goal only to hit it wide and we weren’t making our situation any easier with the evil of short puckouts as Hennessy put Noel Connors in all sorts of bother and a free was eventually conceded from which Shefflin pointed. What is the logic of the short puckout? It was tried on several occasion but for every time it worked, thus gaining Waterford about another twenty metres on the drive, it would give Kilkenny time for two forwards to close in on the back. Just drive the damn thing. Little did we know at that stage that it would become the refrain for the day.

Seamus Prendergast, who didn’t pull up any trees against Galway, would have a much better outing here, his first contribution being a great catch and was unfortunate to see his effort being blocked, only to Kilkenny charge straight down the field. The extreme robustness that has characterised this generation of Kilkenny hurlers was much in evidence and Waterford were relieved that Barry Kelly chose not to play advantage when Eoin Larkin looked to have swatted off the despairing challenges of the Waterford backs. As it was, Shefflin knocked over the free and Kilkenny were five points up without a single effort to show from us. Our first score almost looked like a mercy effort from Mr Kelly and he harshly adjudged Jackie Tyrrell to have overcarried and Eoin Kelly tapped it over. Why was he taking the free? Some people speculated that he might go for a goal, a notion bolstered by him taking it but undermined by not a single other Waterford player bothering to face the goal as he took the free. Kilkenny were soon back in the attack, some scrappy Waterford defending leading to a sideline ball which Tommy Walsh floated into the mix for Larkin to turn and rifle the ball over the bar.

It looked grim already, but Prendergast finally managed to get things going for Waterford as he won the ball and teed up John Mullane for our first score from play. Shane Walsh also began to demonstrate what has made him such a revelation this year. It’s curious watching a player bloom at such an advanced age, but he has looked every inch an inter-county hurler in 2011. He had two useful contributions in succession here, first batting the ball down which just eluded the onrushing Mullane, then seeing a splendid pickup and shot just plucked from over the bar by David Herity. His clearance wasn’t the most inspiring though with Mullane intercepting it and drawing the foul from Pauric Mahony reduced the gap to three.

Thanks to the efforts of Mullane and Prendergast, hope was beginning to kindle. Mullane had moved out to the half-forward line, almost to the midfield, and his presence was making life more difficult for Kilkenny and a rather labyrinthine series of passes after he had won the ball found Prendergast in not-much-space and he made the space for a fine point. The tortured nature of that score was shown up by Brian Hogan who galloped from his own half for a great score to restore their three-point lead. The Mullane and Prendergast show carried on, a sweet pass from the latter to the former leading to a foul, a pointed free from Mahony and Mullane lepping around like a mad thing to try and gee up the crowd. Even a soft free from which Shefflin scored didn’t dampen spirits. We were in this game now. Could we step it up?

What the ref had given earlier he now took away, failing to play advantage when Stephen Molumphy managed to release Eoin Kelly and got elbowed for his troubles – the big screen showed the replay then moved swiftly on – only for Mahony to miss the tricky free. The ref then risked antagonising us further, ignoring a blatant push on Seamus Prendergast only to eventually award a free for a much less obvious foul on Connors. Tony Browne’s free went straight to Tommy Walsh whose clearance was brilliantly intercepted by the omnipresent Mullane. His deflected effort was cleared with interest by Herity and while Shefflin was hustled out of it by Lawlor he managed to find Michael Fennelly to stretch Kilkenny’s lead back to four.

The curse of the short puckout now reared its ugly head, Fives this time finding himself surrounded by a clutch of hungry Cats. In the ensuing scramble the referee ignored several opportunities to penalise harrassed Waterford backs and we were relieved Kilkenny eventually shot wide. The Fates weren’t going to ignore that piece of undeserved good luck though as Kilkenny scored straight from the proper puckout. Maybe they should have hit it short. And Waterford were left rueing more poor judgement as Eoin Kelly sent a quick free from under the Hogan Stand straight down into the corner where he was ordinarily stationed. He possessing not the gift of bilocation Kilkenny were able to clear and strike over another point. A blizzard of switches in the forwards reflected the fact that we were creaking again and it took a lightning-quick sweeping clearance out for a sideline from Connors to prevent a second goal. Kilkenny missed the sideline and the switches that had taken place at the other end paid instant dividends, Prendergast winning well and playing a clever ball for Mullane to run to. His shot arrowed past Herity and the concerns of the last few minutes evaporated like so much gossamer. With so obviously in the zone that you felt we had a chance – if only one or two others could step to plate with him.

You were already thinking it in the 26th minute: can we hold out to half-time? The defence seemed to be fronting up to Kilkenny, back-to-back throw-ins in the Waterford half being cleared but the entire team seemed to have been drawn to the ensuing shemozzle and there was nothing but Cats in their half. Kilkenny rammed the ball back down the field and TJ Reid found the space to put Kilkenny an insurance score ahead. It was the kind of effortless score that sadly Eoin Kelly seems to no longer be capable of, his limp effort into no-man’s-land being easily gathered by Mullane. The frustration of it all led to Mullane charging into him and earning a yellow card, much to the chagrin of the Waterford crowd. Two lads near me argued that the ref was right because he had taken the goalie off his feet, although my brother wondered whether that only applied inside the small square – if not, a goalie could probably come up fifty metres and benefit from the same rule. To my mind the ref was right because Mullane had no intention of playing the ball. Still, it was stirring stuff and he was soon on hand to take the ball off a rampaging Molumphy for another fabulous score. When Kelly made good on an excellent win by Shane Walsh the gap was suddenly down to two. Dare we dream?

Dangerous things, dreams. When Mullane managed to get way from his marker again, he dared to dream of goal when a point might have been simpler. Despite what Davy Fitz has said subsequently, he was right to for the goal. We weren’t ever going to win this game by being timid and his eye was sufficiently ‘in’ that he felt he could do anything. The effort was decent but it needed something better to beat the goalie from that angle and it was a routine enough save. What made it look bad was what happened next as Kilkenny came down the field, Connors’s clearance to nobody suddenly put Waterford on the back foot and Shefflin managed to wriggle onto the ball and down on goal. His flick up to Hogan was too easy to miss and he didn’t. A six-point turnaround, and the best you could say for that phase of play was that Clinton didn’t see red for what looked like another clothes-lining on a forward. The last few moments saw Waterford desperately trying to prevent another blanket finish much like Tipperary had had four weeks earlier, forced to foul Shefflin and give away another pointed free and just about sniffing out another move that was heading towards another goal.

At half-time I tweeted that we were playing “at 100% but six points down“. In retrospect we weren’t that good – I was assuming that the magnificence of Mullane was concealing some great performances to come – but it reflected the satisfaction with the performance while simultaneously not believing it would be remotely enough. Things could have been worse though. Carol Kiely, the one-millionth person to attend a Championship match in 2011, was outed by her father Tommy as the best-preserved quinquagenarian around:

Interviewer: How long have you been taking Carol to games?
Tommy: For over forty years now.

Her Langer future husband has a lot to match up to.

Remember I said earlier how driving the ball would be the motif for the day? The third-quarter of this match would probably be the most frustrating period of play I’ve ever seen following Waterford. I’ve said a few times this week that ‘it must be easier said than done’, bowing to the superior knowledge of the likes of Davy Fitz on matters hurling. But the extent to which Waterford’s backs kept on trying to make space for clean strikes at the expense of quick, direct ball was galling. It was typified by the first move of the half, no less a level head than Tony Browne playing a hospital ball to the exposed Jamie Nagle which was intercepted and whipped over the bar. At the other end, Waterford were already resorting to shooting on sight. Kevin Moran dragged one effort wide when he had more time to steady himself, although at least he could claim he had done all the spade work himself. Eoin Kelly, on the other hand, tried a ridiculous over-the-shoulder effort from way out on the right that might have made sense had he been knocking them over from all angles in the first half. He had not been.

The refusal to let the ball fly reached an almost farcical level five minutes in, Waterford players batting the ball around along their own 45 and inducing puce-faced screams from everyone wearing white-and-blue in Croke Park. It was a relief that it ended in a free-out. Not even Waterford would be doing anything but putting the bas through the sliothar for one of those. A wide from Kelly followed after more good approach work from Mullane, and the frustration was reaching boiling point as Colin Fennelly was given several attempts to spoon the ball onto his hurlety before being fouled and allowing Shefflin to move them eight points clear.

Mullane tried to keep the show on the road with yet another point after good approach work by Molumphy, and this was the point when Davy began the time-honoured response of the beaten team: emptying the bench. Pauric Mahony came off for Maurice Shanahan which was a bit harsh on the new boy but you could argue that something had to be done. Not that it made any immediate difference, Michael Fennelly getting an easy score then Shefflin doing his thing to stretch the gap to a demoralising nine points. Some more careless dinking around by Jamie Nagle nearly led to the hammer blow as Colin Fennelly was able to steal the ball and get a clear run on goal, but he inexplicably flopped a shot wide when it seemed easier to hit the target and we were able to at least coo with delight at a Kilkenny clanger.

Kilkenny were beginning to coast already. A free-out from Hennessy was almost screwed up by two Kilkenny backs as they had so much time and space, while the pattern of Waterford forwards panicking at the prospect of a rare chance continued, this time Shane Walsh shooting wide from a silly angle. Shefflin was again allowed too many touches on the ball, then Larkin was allowed to run around the Waterford defence. Briefly it seemed he might put the head down and go for goal but settled for a point. Waterford were flatter than an obsessive compulsive’s tablecloth, and no amount of jiggery-pokery was changing that.

The dismay at such a supine performance didn’t justify the cheers that greeted the next wave of subs. Eoin Kelly knocked over a point from a free after being chopped down on and that was to be his last contribution, possibly ever for Waterford. It’s clear he’s not the force he once was, the superhuman energy that once characterised his game dissipated by injuries and age. To cheer his departure stank of ingratitude, and makes you wonder why any hurler bothers. That was his last act, and another wide from Shane Walsh was his last, replaced by Richie Foley. Again, this struck me as short-sighted. The match really was over, and taking off Walsh will probably deny our most improved played a tilt at an All-Star. Out of sight, out of mind – that’s the journalistic way.

What made it more maddening was the worst characteristic of Waterford’s play continued unabated. Another short puckout was ruthlessly given what-for by Michael Fennelly, and anything good Waterford did seemed to come from some oh-so-precious direct ball. Prendergast managed to give Molumphy a score after a fine catch, then some neat passing at the right end of the field led to a foul on Molumphy from which Shanahan pointed. Michael Fennelly benefitted from a loose bat-down from Fives, although we soon had the grim satisfaction of seeing Shefflin yellow-carded for a nasty chopdown on a Waterford forward. Shanahan added the free and the fact that I was trying to whip myself into a frenzy thinking of what the meeja would say had a Waterford player done that to Blessed Henry showed how desperate I was for some spark.

That point put the gap down to seven and when successive points from Mullane, the first served up to him again by Prendergast and the second pouncing on a sideline cut, we managed to convince ourselves that we were only two scores behind. Like life on the good ship Venus, we allow ourselves to get excited by such fantasies because there’s naff all else to do. A forceful drive from Nagle, clearly learning from earlier howlers, allowed Shahahan to get the ball back to five and with Kilkenny having several second half wides, undocumented by this Waterfordcentric scribe, it briefly looked possible that the Gods were about to punish Kilkenny for their profligacy. Alas, it was not to be. A thunderous effort from sub Paddy Hogan stretched the gap back out to six and Kilkenny now circled the wagons in front of their goal, safe in the knowledge that Waterford did not have the craft to find a way through their ranks. Several long-range efforts followed, some dropping into Hennessy’s lap and some drifting wide, but all evidence of the amount of bodies they had back there through which none would pass. A knackered Liam Lawlor, surely cementing his position at full-back for next year, allowed Eddie Brennan a late point, and Shanahan gave Mullane the chance to notch up his sixth point. It had been a stellar performance. God knows what went through his head as the final whistle blew and it had not been enough. Not by a long chalk.

Last year’s performance against Tipperary represented the first semi-final loss where you felt that if we played them again in the morning the result would have been no different. This was the same, only more so. This was far from a vintage Kilkenny team, a shadow of the one that hit two wides in the 2008 All-Ireland final. We have got decent underage talent, and all our eyes turn to the Minors next week against Dublin, a rising force if ever there was one. But Limerick are now the Munster Under-21 champions. Clare won the All-Ireland at that level two years ago and have won back-to-back Munster titles. Not to mention Dublin – oh, we already did. The standards are rising all around us. Those Minors are going to have to grow up very quickly if we’re not to be swamped.

Waterford: Clinton Hennessy, Darragh Fives, Liam Lawlor, Noel Connors, Tony Browne, Michael Walsh, Declan Prendergast (Jamie Nagle), Kevin Moran, Shane O’Sullivan, Seamus Prendergast (0-1), John Mullane (1-6), Pauric Mahony (0-2f; Maurice Shanahan, 0-2, 0-1f), Stephen Molumphy (capt, 0-1), Shane Walsh (Richie Foley, 0-1f), Eoin Kelly (0-3, 0-2f; Thomas Ryan)

Kilkenny: David Herity, Paul Murphy, Noel Hickey, Jackie Tyrrell, Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan (capt, 0-1), JJ Delaney, Michael Fennelly (0-3), TJ Reid (0-1; Paddy Hogan, 0-1), Michael Rice (0-1; Eddie Brennan,0-1), Richie Power, Henry Shefflin (0-7, 0-4f), Colin Fennelly (0-2), Eoin Larkin (0-2), Richie Hogan (2-0)

HT: Waterford 1-7 (10) Kilkenny 2-10 (16)

Referee: Barry Kelly (Westmeath)

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