After the drama of the RSC on Friday, Sunday saw Part II of the Waterford sport weekend. Having seen the soccer team overcome Carrauntoohil, how would the hurlers fare against Everest? There were differences between the attempts which went beyond scale. I had readied myself for a wry look at the differences between the respective match programmes, the respectable effort by the Blues no doubt standing in stark contrast to the woefully skinny fare on offer from the Waterford County Board. However, even a conscious attempt to be kind to the Blues vis-à-vis the Déise came up against the will of the mob. Turning up at Walsh Park nearly half-an-hour before throw-in, a huge crowd was already gathered outside the ground. Once inside, there wasn’t a programme to be had. It was great to see that the plain people of Waterford still consider the hurlers worth patronising. Could the team justify that faith?
Initially it didn’t look like it as Kilkenny slipped effortlessly into gear. A deft touch from Richie Hogan put Eoin Larkin in space and he was duly chopped down, allowing Richie Power to open the scoring from a free. Liam Lawlor then failed to clear properly and Kilkenny worked the ball back to Michael Fennelly in space to double the lead. Jamie Nagle came on briefly for Kevin Moran as a blood sub and made two hefty contribution, not that that’s a strategy you can replicate. What you can replicate are short puck-outs and Waterford didn’t do too badly with them this time around. Darragh Fives was almost caught out by Matthew Ruth but from the subsequent sideline ball Waterford managed to get the ball to Maurice Shanahan who opened Wateford’s account.
You’d get so stressed about taking on the Cats that you rejoice in the idea that we can manage one score from play, because at the other end Waterford were struggling to get the ball out, Lawlor again failing to get the ball away cleanly and this time Larkin benefittng from the ball being played back to him in space. When Waterford did manage to get the ball out of their own half it was well won by Michael Walsh who played in Gavin O’Brien to score from an acute angle. It was a good moment for the future but the past was still in situ in the form of Tony Browne who won a free based more on his reputation as being Tony Browne. Unfortunately Pauric Mahony was going to have an uncharacteristically bad day from the dead ball, his loss of control of the sliothar obvious from the moment he lifted it into the air. At least, I hope it is uncharacteristic. It might be too early in his career to say.
Not long after, in a moment that would have resonance later on, Waterford took down TJ Reid when it looked like he was about to set off towards goal. The loss of the point was the right choice in those circumstances. Power and Mahony swapped points from frees before a dreadful pass by the other Mahony when Waterford looked like being able to mount an attack allowed Ruth to step in and stuff it over the bar. It wasn’t bad fare from Waterford. Kilkenny were being typically ruthless when they got space but they weren’t being allowed much space as Waterford made it hard for them to get clean ball. And it was the master of laundering dirty ball who contrived to set up Waterford’s first goal, Michael Walsh emerging from a ruck and playing a masterful ball to Maurice Shanahan. It look like he wanted one more step with the ball than was necessary but it proved to be the right call as his shot arrowed its way to the net.
A goal! Like the Blues the other night, you were just happy to see one and to hell with the overall result. When Colin Fennelly could tap it over so casually from the puckout, and Mahony could another relatively simple free, you felt the goals were necessary just to keep the score down. Power showed the unfortunate Mahony how it was down with a simple effort after Reid had been dragged down under the dropping ball. But Mahony didn’t heed the lesson as another ball drifted wide, albeit this time from a long way out. Thank Tony Browne then for Tony Browne. Before that miss from Mahony he sent a stunning effort over the black spot from way out, and after that miss from Mahony he took on the long-range frees and landed another splendid score. Seamus Prendergast also managed a score from an improbable distance and remarkably Waterford were in front. Some excellent defending from Declan Prendergast as he flicked the ball off Richie Hogan’s hurley just as he seemed set to bear down on goal, then harassed the Kilkenny full-froward sufficiently to see him put the ball wide, and you began to wonder whether things were beginning to click for Waterford after the shocker against Cork two weeks ago. Waterford really were playing well, supporting each other at both ends of the field, and when O’Neill teed up O’Brien for another fine score it was all looking good.
“One more point and we have it won” said the boy in front of me. Perhaps he was right, because unfortunately the next score was a Kilkenny goal. Remember what I said earlier about committing a professional foul if the occasion demands it? Alas, Waterford neglected to pay attention when Richie Power began weaving his way through the defence. He just managed to squeeze the ball out to Ruth who just managed to get away a shot ahead of the attentions of three Waterford backs and the ball bobbled apologetically in at the far post. Ian O’Regan will look back on that moment with some embarrassment as he flung himself in anticipating a thunderbolt and was made look distinctly foolish by the actual shot. Those who question how we could let Adrian Power slip off the panel (not that I’ve been able to confirm what happened there; Update: it’s nonsense) will be clucking with displeasure.
Waterford soon showed they had learned the lesson of that moment, a decent clearance returned with interest after a stunning catch from Reid and the Waterford backs took out Richie Power rather than let him get through on goal again. Power duly notchted the free and the contrast with the other end was quickly made clear as Waterford’s number 11 was taken out in similar fashion but Pauric Mahony wasted another uncomplicated opportunity. When the next free opportunity arose Martin O’Neill took it and scored from it. Then Maurice Shanahan sent over a simple effort when put into lots of space of Walsh to level matters.
A period of play followed where neither side could get clean possession which is the way Waterford would want it. It was encouraging to see. Brian Carthy would comment at half-time that our hooking and blocking had been Kilkenny-like in its intensity, and while Kilkenny would take the lead before half-time from another Power free, the half would end with a fine catch under pressure from Liam Lawlor. Waterford had hurled with great style, certainly far more enjoyable to watch than anything we saw under Davy Fitz. Could they maintain this for another 35 minutes?
In short, no. They probably didn’t maintain it for a sustained 35 second period in the entire second half. In the first two minutes Kilkenny players simply plucked the puckout from the air on three occasions and sent it straight back at O’Regan, the first shot going wide but the second and third going straight over the bar. Waterford were clearly agitated about where this was all going, O’Neill driving a free which was a soft point chance into the mix and then sending the clearance that came back him wide. Another breathtakingly easy point from Power stretched Kilkenny’s lead to four and all the splendid harassing and hassling of the first half was now a distant memory as the Cats brushed their opponents off with contemptuous ease. Perhaps Waterford poured all their effort into keeping up with them in the first half, perhaps Kilkenny upped their output levels. I’m inclined to think it was the former rather than the latter – can you really turn intensity on or off like a tap? Whatever it was, Waterford were now not so much chasing shadows as having the shadows smack them upside the head.
It’s not as if Waterford gave up. O’Brien nearly eluded his marker in one corner while Shanahan scored a fine effort, flicking the ball over the bar from a narrow angle to reduce the gap to two. But sometimes you just have to give way to a superior force and ths it was proving for Waterford. Richie Hogan added another makes-it-look-easy point then it was his rampaging run that set up Matthew Ruth’s second goal, Hogan scattering the Waterford backs like skittles before a deft pass to Ruth in space from where he could not miss.
During the week I read a tweet where John Henderson, a relic from a time when three All-Ireland medals won with Kilkenny was considered a respectable haul, was accused of patronising Waterford by labelling us a proud county. You wonder what people would rather he said – that we’re crap and it’ll be shooting practice for Kilkenny? Because that’s what it was now, TJ Reid trying a shot on the run from a crazy distance when he had the time and space to move into a much better position. O’Neill scored a point from a free with another inelegant swipe through his midriff but at least it went over and he followed it up soon after with a point from play to keep a respectable(ish) gloss on the scoreline. Hogan kept on showing Waterford how free-taking should be done with a longe-range effort and Ruth added to his goals with a fantastic point from a long way out. As I said, shooting practice.
The game moved into the last quarter in much the same manner as the All-Ireland semi-final last August, Kilkenny nonchalantly holding Waterford at arms length. O’Neill managed to nick ahead of his man to score another point and was unlucky when a clever attempt to lever his marker out of the way as a ball came through, something had it worked would have left him clear on goal, just didn’t come off. It demonstrated a keen hurling intelligence, but that can only get you so far against athleticism of the type demonstrated by Richie Hogan as he caught the ball and laid it off while falling backwards to allow Eoin Larkin in for another score. It was an awesome sight, and really makes you appreciate what everyone is up against in this Kilkenny team.
The game was petering out now. O’Neill added another couple of points from frees, Reid scored one sideline cut and missed another. Waterford nearly got caught out by the short puck-out nonsense and were relived to see Hogan drive the follow-up wide of the target. O’Neill had one chance from a much better distance than before to go for goal from a free after he had been hauled down with delightful cynicism by Jackie Tyrell, but his shot was saved and the rebound blocked out for a 65 (missed), thus leaving us to contemplate the decline of the goal-scoring Waterford free-taker of yore and the game meandered its way to its pre-ordained conclusion.
It wasn’t all bad for Waterford. The youthful forward division of Shanahan, Martin O’Neill and O’Brien scored 1-7 from play, and the first half showed that they can put together a coherent plan if given the chance. Cork beating Dublin means that map out of the Division 1A basement can be drawn before the end of the campaign. The thought of having to face this lot in the summer though for the umpteenth time in recent years is a grim one. Having us put out of our misery early on doesn’t seem that unattractive by comparison.
Waterford: Ian O’Regan, Darragh Fives, Liam Lawlor, Declan Prendergast (Jamie Nagle), Tony Browne (0-2, 0-1f), Kevin Moran, Philip Mahony, Stephen Molumphy, Paul O’Brien, Seamus Prendergast (0-1; Shane O’Sullivan), Michael Walsh, Paudie Mahony (0-1f), Maurice Shanahan (1-3), Martin O’Neill (0-6, 0-4f), Gavin O’Brien (0-2)
Kilkenny: Eoin Murphy, Paul Murphy, JJ Delaney (Willie Phelan), Jackie Tyrrell, Tommy Walsh, Paddy Hogan (Kieran Joyce), Conor Fogarty, Michael Fennelly (0-1; Cillian Buckley), Richie Doyle, TJ Reid (0-2, 0-1 s/l), Richie Power (0-10, 0-8f), Eoin Larkin (0-3), Colin Fennelly (0-2; John Mulhall), Richie Hogan (0-2), Matthew Ruth (2-1)
HT: Waterford 1-9 (12) Kilkenny 1-10 (13)
Referee: John Sexton (Cork)