From Modeligo to Mount Sion, Tramore to Tallow and Ballydurn to Ballygunner, the city and county has been converted into a white and blue patchwork ahead of Sunday’s All-Ireland senior hurling final.
For those of us aged 45 or less, we’ve never known anything like it. And it’s been fantastic. Bunting and flag production has accelerated in these parts over the past fortnight quicker than John Mullane musters over the first 20 yards.
School caretakers have been erecting good luck signs to past pupils on the Deise panel, while both local authorities have done a terrific job in decorating the city and Dungarvan respectively.
The sense of something special in the air has been wonderfully palpable, with that once familiar summer staple – the sun, even making a special appearance over the past few days.
And with Kilkenny as opponents at Croke Park this Sunday, the sense of occasion couldn’t be greater.
For hurling purists, scanning their eyes back over the past drama-filled decade, as well as those who remember the face-offs of ’57, ’59 and ’63, this is the dream final.
In one corner sits the black and amber – the great achievers of the modern era, chasing three-in-a-row and a place in history as the greatest hurling team of all time.
And in the other sits Waterford – after 45 years, finally back in an All-Ireland final, chasing a third title and an opportunity to join the game’s immortals.
What Kilkenny have achieved in terms of recent achievement, Waterford, one could argue have equalled when it comes to pure entertainment and gut-wrenching drama.
While one team has made good on its trophy-winning potential, the other has teetered on the brink of greatness only to fall at the penultimate hurdle in a Shakespearean manner. Not this time.
At last, at long last, Waterford have removed the sizeable semi-final monkey off the metaphorical back and made it to hurling’s greatest stage. Now all that Davy Fitzgerald’s boys have to do is beat Kilkenny. Easy-peasy it shall be anything but.
The Waterford management has commendably done its best to maintain the panel’s focus ahead of Sunday’s final.
Having fulfilled its obligations to the media and the public last week, (with approximately 6,000 fans in Walsh Park and Fraher Field attending the open sessions), the training ground gate is now bolted shut.
The distractions are now done and dusted with. It’s time to think about one thing and one thing only: 3.30 at Croke Park on the first Sunday in September. And one senses that Davy Fitzgerald has got the balance just right.
An interesting story went around locally following Waterford’s semi-final win over Tipperary and since it may be nothing more than that, please note this particular qualification.
It’s been suggested, but not verified that Fitzgerald, standing in the middle of the huddled panel, produced one of his All-Ireland winners’ medals from his pocket at the end of a training session.
It’s the sort of moment that would surely be included in a dramatisation of the modern Waterford hurling story. And it doesn’t require too great an imaginative stretch to suggest the Clareman availing of a motivational tool like this.
It would be firmly in keeping with the managerial approach of a man whose passion for the game is so immense that attempting to quantify it represents an act of folly.
For the past two weeks, there’s little no doubt that Fitzgerald has studied Kilkenny’s Championship outings this summer as closely as those that his own side have been involved in.
He’ll have noted that Kilkenny’s midfield have at least contributed two points a game and will know that he’ll be looking for at least a three point return from his own centre-fielders on Sunday.
He’ll have noted that PJ Ryan’s net has yet to be breached by Offaly, Wexford and Cork and knows that to break that streak, ideally more than once, is probably essential as part of a victorious gameplan.
After all, not even the registering of 20 or 21 points would probably prove sufficient if Kilkenny’s attack catches fire at the other end.
He’ll have noted that 1-22 of Henry Shefflin’s 1-27 has come via the dead ball this summer, so eliminating silly fouls inside the 65′ will have been something he’ll surely have drummed into his players.
He’ll have noted how Eddie Brennan can devastatingly spring to life, while knowing that Kilkenny’s final successes of late have also been inspired by outstanding efforts from Martin Comerford and Aidan Fogarty.
For a forensic examination of the All-Ireland champions can reveal only one two-worded conclusion: danger everywhere.
For Waterford to win, all six forwards must contribute – and that doesn’t necessarily mean that they all have to score – but boy would it help.
Were Dan Shanahan and Seamus Prendergast to contribute four points between them on Sunday, the Holy Grail will be crossing Rice Bridge on Sunday night – I’ve little doubt of that.
With each of Waterford’s full-forward line in the form of their lives, Brian Cody knows that Michael Kavanagh, Noel Hickey and Jackie Tyrrell all have to deliver on Sunday as they did against Cork.
Diagonal balls from Waterford’s half-backs and midfield blew Tipperary’s defence wide open on occasion during the semi-final.
By dragging Tipp’s corner-backs out of position, Mullane and Eoin McGrath created great space for team mates – Eoin Kelly in particular, to take avail of and plunder.
By breaking even in midfield, Michael Walsh and Jamie Nagle helped free up ball into attack, while switching ‘Brick’ with Stephen Molumphy nullified Shane McGrath’s influence in the final quarter.
In general, when the big changes were made by Fitzgerald against Tipp they worked brilliantly and one suspects he’ll be quick to counter whatever Brian Cody may hatch during the tie.
All the ingredients for a fascinating 70 minutes at Headquarters this Sunday appear to be in place.
There is enormous self-belief in the panel, or the “family”, to use the manager’s phraseology. The target that Fitzgerald set for the team three months ago – to improve with each game – has been achieved to date.
That they’ll have to crank it up a further notch given the quality of Sunday’s justly lauded opponents is difficult to counter-argue ahead of the most intriguing All-Ireland match-up since 1995.
Kilkenny enter the match as favourites – how could they not given what they’ve achieved during Brian Cody’s reign – but know they’ll be in for one hell of a battle this Sunday.
Should Waterford be in touch by half-time, having successfully repelled the high-intensity sorties that the Cats are so readily capable of, what looked an impossible dream in early June will be within their grasp.
This team has never lacked for heart, guts, balls or resolve. Neither has its manager, who has unearthed something distinctively tribal from his men and produced winning hurling in so doing.
That’s why I’m letting the heart rule the head by tipping Waterford to be All-Ireland senior hurling champions by tea-time on Sunday after an absorbing, enthralling match.