A downcast Tony Browne leaves the field.   | Photo: Jim O’Sullivan

A downcast Tony Browne leaves the field. | Photo: Jim O’Sullivan

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In the final 20 minutes of Sunday’s All-Ireland Hurling final, two men in white and blue stood out like defiant warriors in the face of the most irresistible force our national showpiece has ever seen.

John Mullane, as he has done in every outing this summer, hustled, bustled and harried from first whistle ‘til last. The third of his three points from play would have replayed times over had it not been for the tapestry of jaw-dropping scores Kilkenny wove.

The De La Salle man was magnificent, worthy of inclusion on the Hurler of the Year shortlist, a gong surely heading the outstanding Eoin Larkin’s way.

Sixty yards behind Mullane, Tony Browne pushed himself as hard as he could for as long as he could. Pride drove the Mount Sion man on long after this match was decided.

Once again he defied the years on the hurling bark. Once again he demonstrated what playing for Waterford means to him. Once he again he won the supporters’ hearts.

“This is hugely disappointing,” he said, as his ashen faced team mates boarded the bus beneath the Hogan Stand. “In fact it’s close on a disaster.”

Browne said: “On today’s performance, Kilkenny would have beaten not only any other team but the pick of Ireland. You could see by the way they played that the motivation to achieve the three-in-a-row really drove them on. And they delivered in some style.

“For the first 15, 17 minutes, we were in the game, but after that, Kilkenny’s game plan clicked, pretty much to perfection and they just pulled away from us. They were absolutely awesome.”

That Waterford have entered the All-Ireland final history books for all the wrong reasons has left the sort of taste in the mouth that no amount of sorrow drowning will eradicate.

“The size of the defeat is very hard to take,” the wing-back added.

“But it’s got to be remembered that this was the first All-Ireland final that any of us have lined out in. And I’ve no doubt that the lads are young enough and good enough to get back to the final again.”

The question of whether Browne will elongate his remarkable inter-county career was not one to be answered with emotions running so high on Sunday evening.

“Now isn’t the time to be talking about whatever plans I might have for next year,” he said. “But I will have to give it a lot of thought.

“But whatever about me, I know that the rest of the lads will come back. They’re mostly young fellas with plenty of hurling. They’ve learned a very hard lesson today but the secret is to learn from today and go onto better things next year.

“We must keep on going and never give up.”

And should Browne decide to call it a day, fans the county over will agree that he owes the Waterford hurling public nothing after another magnificent season in a magnificent career.