Waterford end 44-year faminewith National League title

Waterford . . . 0-20; Kilkenny . . . 0-18

Over the decades historic Semple Stadium has witnessed many outstanding encounters involving the cream of Munster hurling and recalled in song and story over the years, but up there with the best of them, must surely rank last Sunday’s Allianz National League Final, in which near neighbours Waterford and Kilkenny served up a spine tingling seventy plus minutes of exhilarating hurling , leaving the majority of the 22,000 attendance present completely drained at the end of it all. Victory in the end went to the men of the Decies and by a slender two points margin, and it could have gone the other way, or perhaps a second meeting at the same venue this coming week end, but weighing up all the pros and cons of this epic encounter, the honours of the day, unquestionably and unambiguously rest firmly and squarely where they belong.

It may have been a long time in coming, and as far as this particular national title is concerned, forty four years in fact, yet, even the most partisan black and amber supporter present, would have to agree, that on the day the better team came out on top, and it unreservedly whets the appetite for the championship still to come. This was hurling at it’s very best – fast, furious and played at a cracking pace from start to finish – it may have lacked green flags, but my goodness many of the points registered came completely out of the top drawer. It was sporting and ultra competitive and the magnanimous manner in which both victor and vanquished embraced each other at the end of it all, was all in keeping with the great rivalry existing between those South Eastern neighbours.

Once again the Thurles pitch was in resplendent order, demonstrating once again if such was needed that there it possesses few if any equals, when it comes to demonstrating the greatest field game of them all. This was electrifying stuff in which no quarter was asked or given, and an eye-opener for those who had come to accept that the competitive nature of the game had become too predictable. The mould has now been broken, and it can only be a good development for the game, and an encouragement to others who have been seeking a place in the sun. Waterford and Kilkenny folk this place of dreams the best of friends, and while the Decies men took away the trophy, the over all winner of the day, proved to be the game of hurling itself.

The threatened rains of the morning held off and gradually as the afternoon wore on, the weather conditions improved, with sunshine engulfing the final minutes of this pulsating spectacle and a reminder for caman enthusiasts of the Summer days to come. It was an occasion to savour and for Waterford hurling fans, who had waited so long to see their standard bearers take home a national title, it was akin to ecstasy.

Evenly matched

Even though Kilkenny made a late replacement for central defender John Tennyson (who picked up a virus the day before), it didn’t lead to hold sale changes – in fact the experienced P.J. Delaney slotted into the vacant position from the very start. The early indications suggested a close match, and on a few brief occasions subsequently one had to seriously question that assumption. Despite their pronounced territorial advantage when supported by the breeze, the challengers struggled a little to keep their noses in front – for the most part it was point for point, with equality keeping a more firm grip on things from time to time. Eventually Waterford managed to accumulate a three points advantage some fourteen minutes before the break, and apart from a breathing space, it certainly showed what they could achieve, had all their forwards been ‘on song’. The concession of frees from favourable scoring positions, didn’t help the Decies cause especially with a sharp shooter of the calibre of Henry Shefflin on the opposing side – it was the latter’s first match in the current League campaign, making one ponder on the obvious questions – how did the champions get so far without him. He did miss what looked a real sitter just before the break, when from a 20 metre free, his delivery may have been hampered by the thought whether he should go for a goal or a point, but at any event his shot veered to the left, much to the relief of the huge Waterford following, who formed the vast majority in the 22,000 plus attendance. The Ballyhale man was also involved in another crucial incident just before the short whistle, when a vital Clinton Hennessy interception in injury time, helped enormously to keep the Decies lead intact, and earn them a fully deserved interval lead of 0-11 to 0-9.

Having reshuffled the pack before the start, Waterford’s defensive alterations worked most effectively in stemming the usual early Kilkenny onslaughts. The last line in particular didn’t move to their published positions, and in due course was to emerge as the real stars of the day. Man to man marking is a speciality of Eoin Murphy – just ask Cork’s Joe Deane or Tipperary’s Eoin Kelly, and this time the black and amber captain James ‘Cha Fitzpatrick had reason to remember his clash with the Knockanore Shamrocks man, and was called ashore early in the second half. The youthful Shane Kearney in his first full scale senior intercounty season added to his growing reputation with a flawless display, and in due course must have run the inspirational Ken McGrath, very close for the ‘man of the match’ accolade.

Initiative surrendered

The change of ends also led to a dramatic change in Waterford fortunes, and while Kilkenny proved mighty slow in leaving the confines of their dressing rooms, they quickly and most strikingly altered the complexion of the contest up to the half way stage. They had come on level terms within five minutes, and ominously from the challengers perspective went three points clear before the contest had reached it’s 40th minute mark. The Decies were floundering, but eventually picked up the pace again, and when a hard earned free was won by Seamus Prendergast, his colleague Eoin Kelly got the team’s first score since the 31st minute, to arrest a worrying trend. The new situation was not lost on the champions who immediately redoubled their efforts all over the field – Tommy Walsh who had been absolutely brilliant all through, Martin Comerford, Richie Power, electrified the scene with some excellent use of the ball, and once again it appeared as if Waterford’s famine in the title winning stakes was to continue.

Yet, to the delight of the Decies supporters, and perhaps every neutral present as well, this intriguing affair had a few more twists left in it still. Team captain Michael Walsh came really thundering into the game and by deed and example drove the marauding Kilkenny men back into their own territory, players like John Mullane and Dan Shanahan who had featured prominently up to that stage commenced to come to terms with their game and gradually things commenced to happen. Two second half team replacements Paul Flynn and Eoin McGrath came up with a brace of invaluable points and with thirteen minutes of normal time remaining – a parity situation – scoreboard wise had been reached again. Along with the admirable leadership from the back constantly supplied by Tony Browne and Ken McGrath and Seamus Prendergast rallying his forward colleagues right, left and centre, and John Mullane popped up with two crucial points at the right time. Waterford a lot more in the tank as the concluding minutes unfolded. Twice more equality existed however, and visions of a possible replay this coming Saturday took hold. Indeed Henry Shefflin’s last minute equaliser did set a concluding crescendo, keeping every single onlooker firmly in their places to the very end.

But like all good stories, this eventually had a happy ending – Waterford rose strongest to the challenge, Eoin Kelly restored their lead just as time pieces showed that there could be no more than a minute or so left, and then came the real icing on the cake – John Mullane winning vital possession, set up the lion hearted Seamus Prendergast, for a peach of a score – it was the last score of the day and most appropriate perhaps,in view of the phenomenal work rate of the Ardmore club man throughout.

Final score board reading – Waterford 0-20; Kilkenny 0-18.

After match scenes

The scenes of joy following the final whistle, simply beggars’ description. Ecstatic Decies swarmed onto the pitch in numbers Thurles hadn’t experienced in a mighty long while, and all the setbacks and disappointments of countless tears rolled back as at last the sun commenced to shine, and the winning heroes were acclaimed on all sides. The sounds and cheering grew louder and louder as winning captain Michael (Brick) Walsh lifted the famous Croke Cup high after receiving it from Kilkenny man Nicky Brennan the President of the G.A.A. The broader hurling fraternity joined in saluting the Waterford hurlers on their tremendous achievement, and it stands out as a real appetising tableau for the championship ready to be get under way later this month.

Both teams will now stand back and ponder on what the Spring months unfolded – Waterford having collected national tagged silverware at last, and ready for what promises to be a titanic battle for the Munster crown, with other leading contenders like Cork, Clare, Tipperary and Limerick straining at the leash to before the first to lower the Decies colours. Kilkenny on the other hand are in no way despondent by the outcome, and will regroup within the week in order to prepare for their next big date – June 10th, when either Offaly or Laois will be their opponents in the penultimate Leinster title series.

The swings and roundabouts

It took exactly fifty nine seconds for the first of the day’s thirty eight points to be recorded on the electronic score-board – significantly that score went Waterford’s way and it was a confident delivery from the stick of midfielder Jack Kennedy as the ball broke his way from the throw in. By the time the short whistle sounded the white flags count had reached the twenty mark – with thirteen of them coming from placed positions, the day’s chief marksman Eoin Kelly and Henry Shefflin sharing ten between them. The man of the match Ken McGrath notched up three prodigious efforts, while all of one’s from play proved exceptional. Waterford having won the toss and elected to play with the assistance of the breeze and directly into the Killinan end of the Grounds, enjoyed the lions share of first half possession, but alarmingly wasted a disconcerting number of chances, shooting eight inexplicably bad wides, while the champions had three overs at the other end. Equality existed on four separate occasions, before the winners eventually opened up a three points advantage – their biggest of the day, and this situation lasted for six minutes.

The change of ends saw Kilkenny initially demonstrate the fine art of picking off scores – and firing on all cylinders, they shot five points without reply in a rampant ten minute spell, and in the process overhauled an interval deficit situation and opened up a three points lead for the first time – 0-14 to 0-11, and ominously had five wides chalked up during the period in question as well. It took the eventual winners all of fourteen minutes before recording their initial change to the half time score board reading, and when the champions went three points clear again a few minutes later, it certainly looked as if the black and amber brigade would prevail after all.

But the concluding twenty minutes of this Thurles epic transcended all earlier reasoning as the challengers emphatically threw down the gauntlet in earnest to the champions – the introduction of Paul Flynn was an important move and when he engineered a super point in the 55th minute, the differential between the sides was back to the minimum. Subsequently equality existed on four more occasions, before the deciding moments arrived and this 2007 League Final was lost and won. The second period saw Henry Shefflin top up his first half frees tally with five more from placed positions, and Eoin Kelly delivering one more from a free, but significantly the ultimate lead point from play in dying moments, with the insurance score by the lion hearted Seamus Prendergast, coming during the second minute of added on time.

Scorers

Waterford:- Eoin Kelly 0-8 (0-6 frees), Seamus Prendergast 0-3, Ken McGrath 0-3 (frees), John Mullane 0-2, Jack Kennedy, Eoin McGrath, Paul Flynn and Dan Shanahan 0-1 each.

Kilkenny:- Henry Shefflin 0-12 ( 0-10 frees), Martin Comerford and Richie Power 0-2 each, Derek Lyng and Eddie Brennan 0-1 each.

Teams

Waterford:- Clinton Hennessy (Ardmore), Aidan Kearney (Tallow), Eoin Murphy (Shamrocks), Declan Prendergast (Ardmore), Tony Browne (Mount Sion), Ken McGrath (Mount Sion), James Murray (Tallow), Michael Walsh captain, (Stradbally), Jack Kennedy (Ballyduff Lower), Dan Shanahan (Lismore), Eoin Kelly (Passage), Stephen Molumphy, (Ballyduff Upper), Shane Walsh (Fourmilewater), Seamus Prendergast (Ardmore), John Mullane (De La Salle). Subs – Paul Flynn (Ballygunner ) 48th minute for S. Walsh. Eoin McGrath (Mount Sion) 53rd minute for J. Murray, Shane O’Sullivan 74th minute for J. Kennedy.

Kilkenny:- P.J. Ryan (Fenians), Noel Hickey (Dunnamaggin), Brian Hogan (O’Loughlin Gaels), J.J. Delaney (Fenians), Jackie Tyrrell (James Stephens), P.J. Delaney (Fenians), Tommy Walsh (Tullaroan), Derek Lyng (Emeralds), Willie O’Dwyer (Mullinavat), Eddie Brennan (Graigue-Ballycallan), Martin Comerford (O’Loughlin Gaels), Richard Power (Carrickshock), Henry Shefflin (Ballyhale Shamrocks), James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick (Ballyhale Shamrocks) (captain), Aidan Fogarty (Emeralds). Subs – Eoin Larkin (James Stephens) 39th minute, for J. Fitzpatrick. Eoin McCormack (James Stephens) 66th minute, for A. Fogarty.

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