Coming within 72 hours of the Minors’ Munster Final triumph, the Waterford Under-21s’ immensely impressive performance in defeating hot favourites Tipperary in Dungarvan in their provincial semi-final last Wednesday evening (hitting them for all of 3-21 in the process) has infused the county’s hurling followers with optimism just as a decade, the likes of which we were sure we’d never see again, draws to a close.
Astutely managed and inspired by manager Shane Ahearne and his selectors (who like Jimmy Meaney & co have given lie to the claim that Waterford needs to look outside its own) they played some sublime, unfettered hurling and showed a level of cool-headed, whole-hearted commitment and team-work that a star-studded Premier outfit, after getting off to an ominous start, simply couldn’t match.
Among the county’s talented up-and-comers, brilliant Ballyduff Upper goalkeeper Adrian Power produced one stupendous save at a crucial stage in the second half and frustrated Tipp prodigy Noel McGrath on numerous occasions; plus his massive puck-outs kept the Tipp defence under the kosh. (Between himself and minor netminder Stephen O’Keeffe the county could face a ‘Shilton-Clemence’-type conundrum yet; a nice headache to look forward to, mind.)
Noel Connors’ buzzing brother Tomás grabbed a vital goal within seconds of his namesake, young Ryan of Tallow, raising a green flag to wipe out Tipp’s early advantage, and the latter repeated the trick just before the finish to seal a famous Fraher Field victory. (And credit where it’s due: the pitch has scarcely looked as well.)
Lismore’s Maurice Shanahan, younger brother of Dan, scored a sensational 13 points, showing exemplary nerve under pressure from both placed balls and open play in front of a big crowd, while Shane Casey of Dunhill contributed some superb assists as well as a couple of smart scores.
Inspirational team captain Stephen Daniels of De La Salle was commanding at centre-back, confining Séamus Callanan to a solitary point, while any number of others – including Tourin’s imposing and composed full-back Shane Fives; Ballygunner’s Shane Walsh, a 10th-minute substitute, who made midfield his own; Cappoquin wing-forward Paul Murray, and Geraldines No2 Jerome Maher – also confirmed their huge promise. And Philip Mahony is still only minor, imagine. The list could go on.
The amount of clean ball Waterford won in the air, not least by that man Muiris (a real crowd-pleaser in-the-making) was terrific to see, as was the players’ ability to pick the right option, to take their points, and have the confidence to seize the crucial goal opportunities when they arose. Ryan’s classy brace – the first a superb angled strike into the far corner; the second a quick pick-up and flick past the advancing ‘keeper – being the epitome of poise.
When one considers the calibre of hurlers they were up against – the aforementioned Callanan and McGrath, as well as Pa Bourke, Brendan Maher and Padraic Maher: Liam Sheedy first-teamers all – Waterford call-ups can’t be far away for a number of these lads, and of course some have already been given game-time by the watching Davy Fitzgerald and his selectors.
Clearly the groundwork laid over the past decade throughout the county is paying dividends; apart from with the bookies, who’d Tipperary tipped at 1-7 and 1-5 to beat Waterford in the Minor/U21 ties.
With Clare awaiting in the provincial final next Wednesday (they having beaten Limerick with 15 points to spare in Cusack Park), the possibility of a repeat of the Munster U21 and Minor double of 1992 beckons; the respective oppositions, the Banner and Tipp, hopefully being a happy coincidence.
Heady days indeed then for the Déise at underage level. (And not forgetting the Intermediates’ bid to win a second Munster title in three years against Cork on Leeside this week.) Tony Browne, All-Ireland-winning U21 captain all of 17 years ago – when few if any of the current crop had even started school – was among the senior players who watched last Wednesday’s coming of age. He’ll have been heartened no doubt that the future of Waterford hurling is in good hands.