Well, that was disappointing, wasn’t it? Not the result but its manner. Not the defeat but its margin. Given the circumstances, given the list of injuries, given the fact that Waterford would have had to win two more games to retain their provincial title had they seen off Clare, the demise of the Munster champions was understandable – one might even say not unacceptable. Yet rather than taking time and space here to vapour about the many obvious issues and questions raised by the scale of the loss, it may be better to look two months down the road and cut to a different kind of chase. To wit: if Waterford come through the qualifiers a fitter and fresher team and reach the All Ireland quarter-finals, will anyone care about, or remember, what occurred on the Ennis Road last Sunday? Now that the dust has settled, does it really matter, indeed, that they lost by nine points rather than by two or three?
Look, Waterford were never going to win this one without the lads, and that’s not an assertion made with the benefit of retrospect, as your correspondent’s bookie, who took a nice little kicking on Clare at 9/4, will be only too unhappy to confirm. Nor was it solely that a team of the Déise’s supposedly limited resources (viz Tomás Mulcahy on The Sunday Game afterwards) would inevitably be horribly handicapped without the services of Eoin Murphy, Ken McGrath and Eoin Kelly; any team, from Manchester United to Real Madrid to Kilkenny to Kerry, would miss three players of their stature, recent All Stars to a man. Besides, Clare had been counting down to the first round of the championship from last autumn. All that transpired on Sunday, therefore, was that a hungrier and necessarily fitter team beat injury-hit opponents who didn’t quite have their eye on the ball, and beat them well after getting a run on them at the right time, much as Waterford themselves got a run on Tipperary in the closing quarter of the 2002 Munster final. Once Niall Gilligan smacked in the second goal, the force was with the Banner. These things happen. The moment to break out the sackcloth and ashes has not yet arrived.
Ken McGrath has hurled many a shining hour for his county in the past. He hurled a decent enough game for them on Sunday by sheer dint of not being on the field in the first place. Thus the manifold virtues, some of them frequently overlooked, that Ken brings to the team – his presence as a barrier that blocks off the central avenue of the defence to opponents, his power in the air, the mobility that sees him cover all across the half-back line, the speed of thought and foot that allows him to anticipate deliveries played to either side of him and beat his marker to the point of breakdown, the fluency off left and right when clearing the sliotar – were missing and missed. What was it Yeats said happens when the centre cannot hold? Oh yeah: things fall apart. Exactly.
Add in Dan’s lack of sharpness following his injury and Stephen Molumphy’s lack of sharpness following his return from inactive service and the excuses – or explanations – for the outcome are all present and correct. That nine-point losers hit a tally of 0-23 was the only real surprise on the day. What was infinitely more disturbing than the defeat and the magnitude of it, however, was the sight of those bad old defensive habits rearing their repulsive heads again, rather like that Alien that keeps coming back to put work on poor Sigourney Weaver. Like so many of the goals Justin McCarthy’s charges conceded last summer, Clare’s brace arose from bread-and-butter, easily defendable situations. The first in particular was an utter horrorshow; a nothing ball in from out the field, Kevin Moran failing to cut it out, Aidan Kearney losing Mark Flaherty, no defender on hand to fill the space, no defender close enough to prevent Flaherty getting his shot in. Not that one should encourage cynical behaviour in others or anything (any cynicism that’s going on here, I’ll do it, naturally), but Waterford’s lack of a defender who’ll happily and calculatedly get himself booked when the occasion demands it is an item that’s been bemoaned on this page for the last three years now, scrolling right back to the afternoon they leaked four goals in the All Ireland qualifier at Cusack Park. To return accordingly to a question posed here in the past: would Diarmuid O’Sullivan or Noel Hickey have conceded a goal like the one Gilligan was allowed in for in the second half, the afternoon’s decisive score?
Time will probably show the game to be an unreliable guide to future events; it is no insult to the winners to say that their tally of 2-26, 2-18 of it from play, has a decidedly false ring to it. Where the best Munster championship fixtures are rare beef, dripping blood, this was skinless chicken. Certainly the plus points from a Waterford aspect are quickly enumerated. John Mullane was superb; Eoin McGrath was highly effective, doing his bit in a series of short sharp bursts and never once overplaying his hand; Gary Hurney fared as well as could have been expected of a footballer in his first competitive intercounty hurling match; Dave Bennett was tidy. Here endeth the encomiums.
Two closing thoughts. Regardless of the distance to the Gaelic Grounds, the turnout from Suirside was a letdown; this group of players deserve, and have long since earned, better support than that. As for said players, a look in the mirror won’t do them any harm over the coming days. Like dishes on TV cookery programmes, the excuses for a defeat were already prepared (“here’s one we made earlier”, etc); the disheartening part was that Waterford were only too happy to reach for them. To take the most obvious touchstone, there is no way on earth that Cork, had their preparations been compromised to the same extent, would have thrown in the towel as abjectly during the closing quarter. Yes, they might have lost, but as we saw at Semple Stadium in last year’s Munster semi-final, they’d have gone down with all hands on deck, raging against the dying of the light. Their pride and sense of self simply wouldn’t have allowed them to do otherwise.
Courage. Sticking place. The moment is coming for Waterford to screw the former to the latter. If not, they’ll have plenty of Sundays in August to get the club championship finished early.
* Enda McEvoy is the hurling correspondent of the Sunday Tribune.