Waterford 2-22 (28) Laois 1-15 (18)

You could get used to this. Not the result. It goes without saying that that was worth the effort. And not the game. While it was hard-fought, honest contest played at a decent tempo, it was too error-strewn to be called anything other than mediocre. No, what you could get used to was being able to roll up to the ground less than an hour before throw-in and be back home less than an hour after the final whistle. One of the rarely mentioned virtues of the back door is how it creates the sense of a season, a summer of hurling which is available to more than just a select few.

05 Waterford V Laois 28 June 2014

What you’d never get used to is the early loading of gun and discharge in the toe area. Barely a minute on the clock and the first attack saw Stephen O’Keeffe take a step too far under the high ball/get cleaned out by the forward (delete according to preference) and drop it right in the path of Neil Foyle who had the simple task of tapping the ball into the empty net. With Waterford playing with what looked like a strong wind this was a dream start for Laois. They didn’t make much use of it though as Waterford were soon on top. It was obvious from even the first five minutes that Waterford were that bit more slick than their opponents. Passes were going to hand and any loose balls were being invariably mopped up by a player in white. A couple of  frees from Pauric Mahony, one from way out, soothed the early nerves.

Less relaxing was Waterford’s battle plan. The two-man forward line was back, as were the ‘targeted’ puck-outs. The former quickly made its presence felt in the form of Shane Walsh finding himself moving in on goal with absolutely no support and was eventually hustled out of it and it took Michael Walsh, of all people, to take a shot that went wide. The latter wasn’t long in making an impact either as a short puck-out after a free had been scored by Laois was rattled back over the bar so quickly that I hadn’t even the time to lift my head after noting the previous score.

Frustrating stuff, and a third hair-tearing aspect of Waterford’s play would soon become evident, but not before a moment from Colin Dunford to bring the crowd to its feet. Picking up the ball out around the 45 near the sideline, there didn’t seem to be much on but he accelerated towards the endline and turned inside his man like he were on rails before popping it up to Shane Walsh to bat the ball into the net. He followed up that trick with a sensational point from right in front of us in the stand, and it didn’t seem unreasonable to think we’d kick on from there.

08 Waterford V Laois 28 June 2014

But ooh, that two/one/occasionally no-man full-forward line. I can kinda understand the logic of it against a superior outfit like Cork. Operating on the assumption that they’re better than us, it’s not a bad idea to go off piste in order to confuse them. However, there are two problems: 1) it’s a one-trick pony, Cork had us sussed early in the second and took us apart; and 2) it’s really not necessary against this quality of opposition. I’m not normally one for counting wides as I don’t see them all as being equal, If the ball bobbles out on the dry surface after trying to put a man in space in the corner, it’s not as bad as slashing at it from near the corner flag. But as they piled up, most of them of the dire variety, the frustration was getting to boiling point. Watching the Laois goalie carelessly bat a long ball away, safe in the knowledge that once he got it past Shane Walsh it would be safe as no other Waterford player would be within thirty metres, there was a danger of complete meltdown in the stands.

It needed the half-backs and midfield, completely dominant as they were, to take charge and run at the Laois backs and when they did it reaped the necessary reward. Kevin Moran and Dunford combined to put Laois on the back foot and overwhelming numbers finally told, the ball ricochetting to Shane Walsh to smack in goal number two. Now kick on, please?

Nope. Cue wide number nine, and there wasn’t even 25 minutes on the clock. Darragh Fives did hit over one long-range effort and Mahony slotted over another free to move the lead to five, but the pointlessness (pun unintended) of the tactics were so obvious that a change was finally made, Ryan Donnelly withdrawn for the target man that is Seamus Prendergast. There’s been a lot of stink on boards.ie over this, and it’s fair to say that it must have been chastening for Donnelly, especially given he never had a chance because of the tactics that were employed. He should get over it though. Hopefully there’ll be other opportunities, and the management showing the willingness to make changes rather than sticking to their spiked guns raises the likelihood of more chances for everyone in the future.

Waterford ended the half on the up, a couple of good points from distance on the run and a score from a soft free leaving the half-time score at double figures, but the reaction from the crowd at the whistles was far from jubilant. Had we been told before the game, or even a minute in when already a goal down, that we’d be eight points ahead at half-time I doubt if anyone would have turned their nose up at that. So what explains the grumbles? Normally I’d until the end of this to say where each team was at, but  to understand the dismay in the stand/terraces  you need to get straight to the spoilers. Laois were, to put it kindly, not the team that I had imagined them to be after the near miss against Galway. Not one of their players stood in the way that an established name like Kevin Moran would do, or even a young tyro like Colin Dunford did. Sure, they were well-drilled and kept their shape throughout, which is an advance on previous Laois outfits. But there wasn’t one moment in the game where I expected a Laois player to burn off his Waterford marker or a scramble for a loose ball to end with anything other than a Waterford player emerging with possession, and for a fatalist like me to feel that way is revealing. With that foundation, to be only eight points down was extremely flattering  to Laois and everyone was rightly concerned, not only for what it said about how we’d fare against stronger teams, but also about possible late pileups in the square ending in disaster.

Laois made a couple of changes at half-time and they looked to be paying dividends as they got the first two scores, each completing the sandwich of yet another shocking wide which put the kibosh on any notion that the sun was distracting anyone shooting towards the Keanes Road end of the ground. It proved to be a short-lived spurt from Laois as Seamus Prendergast slotted over from a narrow angle then Shane O’Sullivan did well to draw a foul and give Mahony the chance to restore the eight-point lead. It didn’t ease the tension in the crowd though and when Tadgh de Búrca thought about taking a quick sideline cut the hysterical reaction from the Waterford support spoke volumes.

12 Waterford V Laois 28 June 2014

Anyone reading match reports from neutral observers, laden as they are with bland assurances of the inevitability of Waterford’s eventual success, may wonder what all the fuss is about. The source of the fuss is twofold. By trying to keep things tight, Waterford were only succeeding in making it messy. Playing a possession game, whether via lots of short puckouts or hand passes, created so many working parts that the chances of one of them failing increasingly approaches 1. When it works, it works well as some neat approach work between Seamus Prendegast and Michael Walsh produced a goal chance, the Laois goalie managing to deflect the danger away for a point. When it doesn’t work though it’s horrid as the next attack broke down when Darragh Fives opted to play a hospital pass out wide to the helpless Shane O’Sullivan that bounced apologetically out for wide.

The second concern was the fitness of the Waterford team and, potentially, that of their opponents. We have shown an alarming tendency to implode about three-quarters of the way through games in recent years, and with suggestions that Laois were prepared preceding them any Laois surge was going to give everyone a case of the heebie-jeebies. So it proved midway through the second half here as, having swapped a couple of points, one of which from Waterford the result of Shane Walsh scoring from a sideline ball when Darragh Fives simply walloped it up the field rather than trying anything funny, Laois suddenly went nap. An 11-point lead was reduced to six in a handful of minutes. When you see a puckout being intercepted and drilled back over the bar for the second time, then the goalie gets penalised for timewasting on the puckout and the next move sees him carry it out for a 65 that is duly converted, it was not unreasonable to fret that everything was about to go completely Pete Tong.

21 Waterford V Laois 28 June 2014 Action 1

Thankfully for us, Laois couldn’t make it stick. That cardinal sin, a foul committed on Darragh Fives after the ball has gone, allowed Mahony to restore the three-score cushion, and when a chance for a point for Laois from a free went wide and was immediately punished by Waterford, first with a free of our own then a stunning score right from the puckout by Kevin Moran, Laois’s resistance was finally broken. The game petered out with a couple of points exchanged to leave Waterford winners by an unflattering ten points.

I’ve already given Laois the once-over, so what about Waterford? It was a desperate performance. Michael Ryan couldn’t resist putting the boot in to the effect that he can’t do anything once players cross the white line if they then can’t put the ball between the sticks, and he was right – but only up to a point. To hit so many wides, really bad wides, becomes a fault of management, especially when the strategy involves denying players the outlet of corner-forwards to pick off points. Is this a repeat of Davy’s plan in 2008 of sticking with a plan that wasn’t working – persisting with Ken McGrath at full-back – in the hope of perfecting it? It might be, but it’s an extraordinarily high-risk strategy so it’s surely it’s best to just trust in the players we have to get it right.

And there’s the positive from the Laois game. Before it, I was concerned that we were on the way down and our path was about to intersect with theirs on the way up. Well, they haven’t caught up with us yet. If hurling is a game of fourteen mini-battles then we, despite abdicating a few of them, came out on top in most of them here. The manner in which Kevin Moran swatted over the point that finally ended things showed we still have some players of the highest quality. Not enough to be winning things – but enough to keep us ticking over until the future arrives.

Waterford: Stephen O’Keeffe, Shane Fives, Liam Lawlor, Paudie Prendergast, Darragh Fives (0-1), Michael Walsh, Tadgh de Búrca, Kevin Moran (0-1), Shane O’Sullivan (Jamie Nagle), Jake Dillon (0-3), Pauric Mahony (0-11, 0-10f), Austin Gleeson (0-1; Gavin O’Brien, 0-2), Ryan Donnelly (Seamus Prendergast, 0-1), Shane Walsh (2-1; Martin O’Neill), Colin Dunford (0-1)

Laois: Eoin Reilly, John A Delaney, Brian Campion, Brian Stapleton (Darren Maher), Joe Fitzpatrick, Matthew Whelan (0-2 65), Tom Delaney, Dwane Palmer (Ciarán Collier), Paddy Purcell (John Purcell, 0-2), Joe Campion (0-1, James Walsh), Willie Hyland (0-5), Stephen Maher (0-2f; Ross King, 0-2f), Neil Foyle (1-0), Charles Dwyer (0-1), Tommy Fitzgerald

HT: Waterford 2-10 (16) Laois 1-5 (8)

Referee: Alan Kelly (Galway)