Given how they were almost swallowed whole by the hype last autumn, the best thing about the Waterford hurlers’ hugely encouraging effort and result against Kilkenny last Sunday is its timing.
With three-and-a-bit months to go before the mother of all Munster championship openers against Justin McCarthy’s hard-to-figure, new-look Limerick, there’s a heap of things that can, and knowing us probably will, happen in the meantime.
For now nobody, least of all Davy Fitzgerald and his players, is getting carried away with last weekend’s win.
That said, it says a lot for their strength of character and self-belief that they were able to heal some of the hurt inflicted back in September, and the soul-searching they must have done in private seems to have been worthwhile.
As Ken McGrath says, all they could do after what happened was move on. Reports have it that the training the panel have put in over the past two months has been unprecedented. They certainly look far fitter than they normally would at this stage of the year, finishing matches with something to spare, a definite spring in their step.
A lot of that has to do with the rebuilding job Fitzgerald and his selectors have undertaken, blooding new players, rejigging the tried and tested, giving the entire set-up a genuine competitive edge.
Basically they’re attempting to do what Kilkenny have done so successfully, something many people thought impossible, as we purportedly don’t have the players; never had, never will. Right? The manager thinks otherwise. It’s early days but the signs are he’s onto something.
However, the whirlwind way the visitors started off on Sunday was ominous: Waterford could easily have thrown in the towel early, as some would argue they did last September (when it was nothing so simple as that), but instead they rolled up their sleeves, got stuck in and ultimately out-hurled Kilkenny, no two ways about it.
(It goes without saying, mind, that Brian Cody will use this minor blip to motivate his men. Kilkenny don’t do complacency, but even ‘Les Invincibles’ need reinvigorating now and again.)
While much has been made of the flashpoints, and more anon, there were pure-hurling plus points aplenty all over the field from a Waterford perspective. Michael Walsh, I thought, was magnificent at centre-back: commanding in the air, sweeping up cleverly and distributing the ball simply and swiftly. Indeed, Waterford’s combined play, as Ger canning calls it, was a feature throughout.
Similarly the man whose boots Brick is filling, Ken McGrath, was a colossus as the fulcrum of the attack, scoring some superb points from play and frees, and also defending from the front, as you have to in the modern game.
Newcomers Noel Connors, who was a revelation, and Richie Foley are ensuring they won’t be easily dislodged, while James Murray had a mighty game on the other outer defensive flank. Likewise the youthful partnership between Jamie Nagle and Shane O’Sullivan in midfield looks really promising, while the tireless Stephen Molumphy was immense, quite apart from his smartly-taken goal. The tactic of deploying Jack Kennedy in a free role also worked well, though teams will be wise to it from now on.
Shane Walsh had started impressively up front before succumbing to his injury jinx, and his replacement Eoin Kelly was at his brilliant best before being yellow-carded with Tommy Walsh (who for all his talent is a magnet for trouble, with his nasty crack to Kelly’s elbow just before their altercation not untypical, unfortunately).
Seamus Prendergast was also making a big impact at full-forward before getting the line with Jackie Tyrell for their involvement in the ‘afters’.
Both decisions were doubtless deserving of yellow cards under the letter of the experimental rules, but it could have spoiled what was shaping up to be a smashing game. Thankfully it didn’t, though Declan Prendergast had a right rush of blood to the head in striking Eddie Brennan with his hurl and is looking at a month’s suspension at least.
What Brennan received a straight red for is unclear (an appeal is inevitable), though it’s safe to assume that the Waterford No 3 was reacting to something or other the Kilkenny man had said or done beforehand.
Trying to find another full-back at short notice is something Fitzgerald could have done without, but with (memo to Michael Duignan) so many players still to come back into first-team contention – Tony Browne, John Mullane, Bryan Phelan, Kevin Moran, and eventually Eoin McGrath, who by his reckoning is still 5-6 weeks away from being up-to-speed – the picture looks much more promising than that painted by those preoccupied with writing off Waterford at every given opportunity.
Davy has a lot of fine-tuning and decision-making to do yet, but this will do wonders for the spirit in the camp, considering the would-be consequences of another Kilkenny cakewalk.
Clinton Hennessy told another former Clare ‘keeper, the Sunday Times‘ Christy O’Connor during the week that “there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we can win an All-Ireland.”
Fitzgerald will feel the same way, though he’s certainly not letting on. “We all believe it now more than ever,” Hennessy said.
Dare one say don’t stop believing?