Band of brothers: It was a proud evening for Ballysaggart’s Shane, Stephen and Kieran Bennett.

Band of brothers: It was a proud evening for Ballysaggart’s Shane, Stephen and Kieran Bennett.

Less than 24 hours before Cork blew the Munster Championship wide open with a sensational performance against All-Ireland holders Tipperary, Waterford enjoyed a 13-point win over Kevin Ryan’s Offaly at Ballysaggart’s Páirc Mochuda.
Waterford’s smallest GAA club, which hosted Uachtarán CLG Aogán Ó Fearghail on Saturday last, now boasts one of the best playing surfaces in the county, a far cry from the damp and regularly unplayable sod they’d coped with since 1981.
And there was deserved local pride given that the Deise panel currently features three local clubmen, the Bennett brothers, with Stephen running up a 3-1 tally, with Shane also in action. The honour of being the only Deiseman to play the entire match fell to Kieran, the youngest of the trio, who again demonstrated his efficiencies in the full-back slot.
And while Derek McGrath is wholly confident that he’ll have Barry Coughlan back for the Munster semi-final clash with the Rebels in Thurles on June 18th, one couldn’t help noting that the youngest Bennett was left in the number three slot for the entire 70 minutes.
The match was very much played at challenge pace, and was a few gears down on the Deisemen’s meeting with Limerick six nights previously.
But that did give the sizeable turnout (with many East Waterford residents visiting the village on the Knockmealdowns’ slopes for the first time) a chance to witness, with much greater proximity than usual, the quality of fielding and distribution from both teams.
And in that respect, the first touch of both Stephen and Shane Bennett, the deftness of touch demonstrated by Jake Dillon, Austin Gleeson’s ability to fade a sliothar, along with some fine defensive showings by Stephen Daniels, Noel Connors and Ian Kenny, caught the eye.
As for Offaly, who face Westmeath in Mullingar on Saturday evening next, full-forward Stephen Quirke got through a mountain of work, and regularly found himself surrounded by two or three Waterford backs. Wing-back Sean Gardiner weighed in with two fine points from the deep, while only minor concern was expressed due to the injury-forced withdrawals of Sean Ryan and Joe Bergin.
Intriguingly, Offaly and Westmeath are, of course, both managed by Waterfordians – Kevin Ryan and Michael Ryan – and if two Deisemen have ever faced off in such a context before, then it escapes my recall!
Also on the injury front, Maurice Shanahan, who was full of vim and vigour following his introduction on Saturday last, pulled up with an injury which looked like an upper hamstring issue.
And while Shanahan wasn’t overtly wincing as he made his way to the dressing room afterwards, Derek McGrath could have done without the sight of the Lismore clubman hobbling to a seat on the sideline.
News that Darragh Fives picked up a calf issue during the week has also surely lengthened his odds of making the matchday panel against Cork, which is naturally disappointing for the Tourin clubman.
Another point worth noting from Saturday’s match was the withdrawn role played by a razor-sharp Pauric Mahony, who struck four impressive points from play during the second half. Ahead of him, the likes of Shanahan, Tommy Ryan and Peter Hogan all regularly interchanged positions and reminded spectators of the futility of attempting to assign a specific position to a modern day forward.
The game has moved on, and for all the talk of rigid structuring, one couldn’t help observing the fluidity of Waterford’s attack at times, with Bennett’s first half finishing proving of the highest order.
To see Stephen fully fit and flying gives Derek McGrath and Dan Shanahan a weapon that simply wasn’t at their disposal this time a year ago, and the understanding he has with brother Shane in particular, along with Austin Gleeson and DJ Foran, could cause plenty of problems for Cork come June 18th. Pace and precision will always cause problems.
Derek McGrath made 11 half-time changes on Saturday last, and while that proved almost as big a pain in the posterior for the note-taking scribes as the literal one Maurice Shanahan sustained late on in the game, in reality it wasn’t that big a deal, let’s face it.
Matches like this are as much about giving players who may not even make the bench against Cork a chance to build up some ‘air miles’ should they be called upon deeper into the campaign, as they are about making that time count.
So any flak directed towards management for giving as many lads as run-out as possible is, to be blunt, unfair.
Challenges are the only chance a manager ever gets to make such wholesale changes, and while of course that takes from the game as a spectacle, anyone paying at the gate ought to know what to expect at such an occasion.
Speaking to Kevin Ryan afterwards, in the context of facing a Westmeath side that’s already had three round robin outings, he said that Saturday’s match was more useful than most of his side’s League run-outs due to the pace Waterford brought to proceedings.
The long-standing argument that weaker teams can only get stronger by facing superior sides with more regularity is difficult to argue with, as how else can a management gain a true sense of how much his group is developing if they’re not exposed to such opposition?
Offaly are historically down at present, and the halcyon days of the 80s and 90s seem like a wonderful albeit increasingly distant memory.
But Kevin Ryan has first hand knowledge of what it’s like to play at a lower standard than befits the tradition of any self-professed hurling county: he togged out for Waterford in the mid-1980s, after all.
One suspects Offaly will not be down for as long as Waterford were between 1964 and 1998 (even taking three Munster Finals in the 80s into the equation) and it would be a great pity were the Faithful not to get back into contention in due course. It’s a county I’ve a great personal connection with too, which probably adds weight to my hopes for their recovery.
As for Waterford’s Munster semi-final opponents? I suspect facing Cork, with whom they have no psychological baggage, is somewhat easier to digest than facing a Tipp side they’ve defeated only twice in the Championship this century.
The Rebels, who’ve really got their act together at Under-14, 16 and 17 grades, demonstrated that Tipperary, while worthy champions, are not as far ahead of many contenders as had been extolled over the winter.
And given the near universal dismissal of Waterford as potential champions in several printed All-Ireland previews over the weekend, the Deisemen will head into their June 18th tussle with the spotlight primarily directed on a rejuvenated Cork side. While not quite in the long grass, this tight Waterford group will now be doubly determined to claim a Munster Final berth, which would leave them within 70 minutes of a first provincial crown since 2010. And I for one cannot wait. Here comes the summer…

Waterford: Stephen O’Keeffe; Ian Kenny, Kieran Bennett, Shane McNulty; Stephen Daniels, Darragh Lyons, Seamus Keating; Mikey Kearney, Colin Dunford; Austin Gleeson, Stephen Roche, Jake Dillon; DJ Foran, Stephen Bennett, Shane Bennett.

Subs Used: Kevin Moran, Philip Mahony, Pauric Mahony, Shane Fives, Brian O’Halloran, Michael Walsh, Jamie Barron, Tommy Ryan, Mark O’Brien, Noel Connors, Ian O’Regan and Colin Dunford for Maurice Shanahan.

Scorers: Stephen Bennett (3-1), Pauric Mahony (0-6; 0-2f), Austin Gleeson (1-2), Shane Bennett (0-5; 0-3f, 0-1 65), Brian O’Halloran, Colin Dunford, Maurice Shanahan, Peter Hogan and Kevin Moran (0-2 each), Jake Dillon and Tommy Ryan (0-1 each).

Offaly: Eoghan Cahill; Ben Connelly, Dermot Shortt, Enda Grogan; Conor Doughan, Aidan Treacy, Sean Gardiner; David King, Sean Ryan; Shane Kinsella, Emmet Nolan, Peter Geraghty; Sean Cleary, Stephen Quirke, Oisin Kelly.

Subs Used: James Dempsey, Padraig Camon, Shane Dooley, Joe Bergin, James Mulrooney, Pauric Guinan, Dan Doughan and Cillian Kiely.

Scorers: Stephen Quirke (0-6; 0-4f, 0-1 65), Shane Dooley (0-5f), Emmet Nolan (0-5; 0-1f), Sean Cleary, Sean Gardiner and Ben Connelly (0-2 each), Sean Ryan and Cillian Kiely (0-1 each) and Oisin Kelly (0-1 Sl).

Referee: Johnny Ryan (Tipperary)

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