“Are you not entertained?” asked O’Maximus as another bloody limb went flying. “Is this not why you are here?” Well yes actually, we are entertained and this is why we are here. In defence of such Tipp-style beating down on the afflicted, we couldn’t be sure during this game whether we would need the points difference to be heavily in the credit column before the Wexford game this weekend. But that’s not much of a defence. It was enjoyable in itself watching Waterford whale on a team in what would prove to be our record-equalling victory in the National Hurling League. Coming next – dunking kittens into buckets and pulling the legs off spiders. Get your tickets early in SuperValu.
Not that many did that. Getting tickets early in SuperValu, that is. There was a small enough crowd at throw-in and even if it did swell a little after a few minutes, it does demonstrate the downside of Division 1B hurling that was referred to by the Limerick County Board chairman a few years back, i.e. it’s hard to get supporters and sponsors enthused when you can’t offer a game/games against the likes of Kilkenny, Cork or Tipperary. No offence to Antrim, I’m sure they feel the same way about us when we head up north, and besides: there will be plenty of offence to follow. Giveitfong seems to be of the opinion that the early stages did not suggest Antrim were about to be pulverised, and I’m loath to disagree with his smarter take on hurling. But I was pretty calm in the early stages and I’ve managed to lose my calm in the early stages against the likes of Derry and Down. Even early on there were little vignettes that suggested Waterford were a cut above Antrim. The ball sticking to a hand here, a deft flick of the wrist into space there. All the players on the field are well capable of acts of ingenuity, it’s doing it at speed that separates the men from the boys, and while there would be a blatant example of it later in the game to prove the point, the initial signs of Waterford’s extra craft were there.
That’s not to say that some of the old failings were not present. A few terrible wides were exasperating, and a mis-hit free by Pauric Mahony which went out for a 65 (subsequently missed) when he could have conceivably kicked the ball over the bar were enough to give to the heebie-jeebies. But the first goal was enough to banish the blues. A short puckout – even they all seemed to go right – to Shane Fives, a pass down the line to Colin Dunford, a streak past his marker, a deft ball into the middle and a thunderous finish from close range from Stephen Bennett. Lovely stuff, and not even a dozen Championship starts between the three of them. Dunford in particular looked the part in those early exchanges. Remember what I said above about pace? At one point he got the ball from a standing start and simply ran around his marker. He missed that chance to score, but immediately after the goal he took a point himself from the other corner, then set up Bennett again for another score to leave us 1-9 to 0-3 after just 25 minutes. The shooting at this stage was still a little ropey, and for all of his sterling winning of the ball it was a little concerning to see just how slow Michael Walsh was compared to those around him, but the backs were serving up so much ball that it scarcely seemed to matter. Kevin Moran was charging onto the ball with his usual Roman-taxi-driver spirit, while Tadgh de Burca was making it all look effortless, and even the introduction of a battering ram in Matthew Donnelly, the kind of overweight cult figure that Waterford used to specialise in, didn’t bother him one joy. A half time lead of eleven points did not flatter us.
Waterford flew out of the traps like Master McGrath in the second half. An early long range free from Mahony was followed up by a puckout where Antrim goalie Chris McConnell hit a delicate lob out to Stephen Bennett who gathered it and rammed it over the bar. An awful moment for O’Connell who had a good game otherwise, pulling off some decent saves. The sheer awfulness of what was in front him was demonstrated when Walsh hit a good chance wide, only to get the possession with the very next attack. You could see he was thinking “this one is going over the bar if I have to climb the post to do it”, and duly it went over with a little less fuss than that.
Time for Maurice Shanahan to make an appearance in place of his doppelganger Bennett . . . the helmets really are a pain to identify players. You know something is wrong when you are confusing Bennett for Dunford . . . Maurice is that strange player who looks invincible in League hurling but, while more than adequate, can’t make the step-up in the summer that his big brother made. He has talent to burn but the lack of pace is always going to be a problem. Still, I confidently predicted as he trotted on that this would be a setting in which to fill his boots. Since I rarely make predictions because I don’t know what I’m talking about, I think I’m to retire after this one as Shanahan went nap.
But not before we saw the way things used to be in Waterford hurling as a fine Antrim move ended with the ball dropping at the feet of cult hero Donnelly who had time and space to pick the ball up and bury it. Instead he slashed at it first time and the ball flew high and wide. At the other end Shanahan somehow emerged with the ball from a melee – no, seriously, I could not tell how he got the ball into his hand – to pop it over the bar and stretch the lead to fourteen points. There was still 22 minutes to go, and the runs, er, points kept coming. Shanahan got his first goal after being teed up by Walsh. The ball was flying over from every part of the field now and it was a question of sitting back and enjoying the spectacle.
A young boy sitting behind kept up a relentless commentary that on another day might have made me want to throttle him. As it was, I couldn’t help hoping he didn’t think it was going to be like this every day. Tom Devine, who I found out was to be pronounced De-VEEN rather than De-VINE missed out on a goal by overcomplicating things but made up for it five minutes before the end with a strike to the roof of the net. Antrim did manage to make to double figures for scores but the game ended with yet another belter from Maurice to ensure that any points difference discussions would be for other teams to worry about.
A record-equalling victory, matching wins over the might of Louth in 1985 and Laois in 1975. A day-and-half or so on, and it feels mean-spirited to take delight in such a patent mis-match. We’ve been on the receiving end of a fair few of those over the years though. Only last year we took a 20-point pasting at the hands of Kilkenny, and the prevailing attitude would have been that we should just get relegated and find a level to which we were more suited. We’ll probably find out what level that really is on Sunday in Wexford Park. All there was to do now wait for the cold turkey of football after the coke binge that was this game . . .
Waterford: Ian O’Regan, Shane Fives, Barry Coughlan, Noel Connors (Shane McNulty), Tadhg de Burca, Kevin Moran (capt, 0-1), Philip Mahony, Jamie Barron, Martin O’Neill (Shane O’Sullivan, 0-1), Jake Dillon (0-2), Michael Walsh (0-3), Pauric Mahony (0-11, 0-6f; Paudie Prendergast, 0-2), Brian O’Halloran (Tom Devine, 1-0), Stephen Bennett (1-4; Maurice Shanahan, 2-5), Colin Dunford (0-1)
Antrim: Chris O’Connell, Ryan McCambridge, Neal McAuley, Aaron Graffin, Simon McCrory, Conor McKinley, Michael Bradley, Neil McManus (capt, Conor McCann), Ciaran Johnson (0-2f), Niall McKenna (Conor Johnston, 0-2), Tomas McCann (Eoghan Campbell), Paul Shiels (0-5, 0-4f); PJ O’Connell, Shane McNaughton (0-1f; Tomas O Ciaran), Ciaran Clarke (Matthew Donnelly)
HT: Waterford 1-13 (16) Antrim 0-5 (5)
Referee: Diarmuid Kirwan (Cork)