Waterford 0-14 Cork 0-28

Given the record from the 1980’s of awful beatings for Waterford, there has been more than a modicum of satisfaction to be had from how rare they have been in the last couple of decades. Since losing by 21 points to Tipperary in 1995, each of the 10+ points defeats could be put into a unique context. The 12-point loss to Clare in 1998 was one of the most infamously poisonous games ever to be played, the 2008 All-Ireland final was, well, the All-Ireland final, and the seven-goal thrashing against Tipperary in the Munster final three years ago was the function of one wild throw of the dice that seemed like a worthwhile gamble at the time, i.e. putting Michael Walsh in at full-back. Adopting these cop-outs rationalisations, you could say with a straight face that Waterford don’t get hammered these days.

Not any more. Yesterday’s game was resolutely run-of-the-mill, and we got our clock cleaned. Ruminating on Offaly’s situation on Sunday and comparing/contrasting it with our own, I did wonder whether Offaly hurling fans can look back to particular a game when they could identify that the rot had set in. Having won four All-Ireland’s in the 1980’s and 1990’s, they must have initially looked on each defeat in the early 2000’s as nothing to get too upset about, there’s always next year etc. But then next year arrived and things didn’t get any better, until a point was reached where they could no longer anticipate things getting better the following year. Maybe it was the mid-part of the decade when it became clear that the last teams to win at underage level , the Leinster Under-21 and Minor champions of 2000, were not going to provide any more cause for optimism. Whenever it was, there must have been a tipping point, and I wonder will we look back at yesterday’s game as a watershed.

The cruel thing is that Waterford looked to have picked up yesterday where they left off two weeks earlier. A similar strategy of withdrawing from the full-forward line was being employed to some impact, with the added bonus that Colin Dunford was now looking more the part, showing his marker some moves which culminated in one near-miss and another fine score. At times it looked like Waterford had an extra man, so effectively were they swarming about the dropping ball.

Around the tenth minute, everything fell apart. Anyone watching it on the stream on RTÉ’s website might have thought they’d missed an entire chunk of the game, so emphatically did Waterford lose their way. Ultimately I think Cork got their measure of Waterford’s tactics. It had only taken them 80 minutes, and JBM should be concerned that it took them that long, but now it was Cork’s turn to hunt in packs and Waterford had no answer. Indeed, the response was to lose whatever commitment they had to the game plan. Two weeks ago the players were (mostly) happy to suppress the natural instinct to let it fly into the forward division and instead either try and draw a foul or manufacture the space to shoot from distance. Now they were getting so little possession in the middle of the field that they were earning no frees – Pauric Mahony only managed three scores from frees all day, and it was mostly for the want of opportunities – and when they did get possession they were sending in aimless balls to the self-created no man’s land.

It’s an endless debate as to how much management are responsible if players fail to apply the game plan once they cross the white line, and you’ll get no answer here. What I am pretty sure of is that management allowed themselves to be lulled into a false sense of optimism by the shenanigans right at the end of the first half that gave us the talking point of the day. Having finally managed to stem the blood loss with a couple of points in the last five minutes, Waterford duly gave away a penalty in what looked like a suspiciously belly-flop-like fall from the Cork forward. Up trotted Anthony Nash to give us another view of his singular penalty-taking style. I’ve not looked at it closely before now, not having spent much time reviewing last year’s All-Ireland final(s), so it’ll probably get dismissed as sour grapes that I think he is fouling the ball. The rules of the game (p 32) state that:

2.5 For all free pucks, including penalties, the ball may be struck with the hurley in either of two ways: (a) Lift the ball with the hurley at the first attempt and strike it with the hurley. (b) Strike the ball on the ground. If a player taking a free puck or penalty fails to lift the ball at the first attempt, or fails to strike it with the hurley, he must strike it on the ground without delay. Only when he delays, may a player of either side approach nearer than 20m. except in the case of penalties.

For me, Nash’s penalty shot is effectively two strikes of the ball. He flicks it up then waits so long for it to drop that it becomes a second shot. It seems to me that the authorities are so flummoxed by whether to (literally) cry foul on it or not that they are content to wait for another solution to present itself, and here it was in the person of Stephen O’Keeffe, haring off the line like a mad thing as soon as Nash lifted the ball. If Nash’s strike is legal, and seeing as the ref is not penalising it one must assume it is, in spite of my opinion on the matter, then O’Keeffe’s action was definitely illegal. If we are to apply the logic that the ball is live as soon as the free-taker lifts it then all hell is going to break loose. As it was, Waterford were so far behind that the ref probably felt comfortable writing it off as one of those things, all a bit of fun. He probably regretted that moments later though after the ball had ricocheted off O’Keeffe to a Cork forward who lashed it over the bar. As an ebullient O’Keeffe surged back towards his line he took Nash with him and everyone took this as permission to lay into each other, which might explain why he only dished out two yellow cards, one for O’Keeffe after the dust had settled on that spat and another for a Cork back who took out Austin Gleeson under the ensuing puckout. It was sensible on the ref’s part to blow it up not long after, although he has left Croke Park with a headache, as he has surely given all goalies carte blanche to come charging off their line the next time Nash does his thing. Which is likely to be as soon as this Sunday.

It was rocking good fun, and you had to laugh at the booing that erupted from the Cork fans as the half-time whistle blew. What was that all about – don’t touch St Anthony? The scoreline was no laughing matter though, and I fear the hi-octane end to the half deceived the management about how bad things had been. The team came out for the second half unchanged, the tactics were unchanged, and the direction of the traffic was unchanged as Cork piled on the pain. The forwards were licked, a situation compounded when Dunford had to be carried off with what looks like a particularly nasty injury, and while the backs were giving it their best there were just too many holes to plug. There were a few Ray Cummins-style moments when Cork forwards were content to take their point when a drive to goal might have imposed maximum punishment. O’Keeffe pulled off one tremendous save when they did get in behind us, and was gratifyingly reliable under a lot of high ball, but the points kept coming and midway through the half was out to 15 and complete disaster a la 1982 loomed.

That it didn’t happen is a function partly of bringing on some heavy guns up front in the form of Maurice Shanahan and Seamus Prendergast, a tacit admission that the game plan had failed,  and mostly down to Cork easing off the throttle and being content to engage in some shooting practice. I’m sure there a few Déisigh who yearned from a scorched-earth finish, to water the tree of Victory with the blood of failed players and managers. Yes, I’m looking at you, boards.ie. Personally I don’t see what would be gained by that. There were signs of life amidst the embers, not least from young Turks like Dunford, Gleeson and Tadhg de Búrca who really showed what they can do and don’t need the albatross of some record-breaking beating to be hung around their necks. The game petered out into a merciful 14-point hiding. Bad, but it doesn’t even make our top-ten of worst defeats to Cork:

Worst Senior championship defeats to Cork up to 2014

There will be worse days for Waterford. The worry is that they’ll be getting closer together. The Minors can’t grow up fast enough.