Having been in two minds on Monday night whether to review the tape from Sunday I was glad I did, for I’m more optimistic now, if not overly-so, than I was walking out of Semple Stadium.
The fact Waterford found (or rather put) themselves so far behind at the break, having started all-guns-blazing, meant there was no sense of crushing disappointment. It had been a slow death rather than a sudden one.
Going through the papers on the bus up not one of the pundits, for all the question-marks about Tipperary’s streakiness, gave Waterford a chance – a team on the slide being the general consensus. Sure we’d read all that before. This time, however, you wondered if it was more than just the same old stuff. The view of those freed from blind faith?
One’s immediate reaction afterwards was to shrug: sure what can you expect if a team gives up goals like that – a lot like the All-Ireland semi-finals of ’04 and ’07. If you learn from your mistakes, Waterford should be A-grade students by now.
It was a classic case of self-destruction. The defensive howlers that have done for Waterford so often at critical moments in the past came back to haunt them. The collective cost of individual errors. A pity. But for Waterford it seems to literally be a case of mores the pity.
The culprits don’t need identifying and it goes without saying that no-one goes out to make a mess of things. When I first heard that Davy Fitzgerald had praised the spirit of his players in defeat frankly I thought it was putting a fallaciously brave face on things. But the video evidence confirmed the strength of character they showed in the second half – and ignore those who’d have you believe Tipp took their foot off the pedal. They’d taken so much stick for doing just that this season that it couldn’t have been a deliberate slowdown.
There’s a definite if not yet fatal flaw there and only for Waterford’s few paux pas too many Tipp were there for the taking. They’re a team with lots of threat, and some beautifully-inventive players, but there’s a definite weakness within their psyche: that killer fourth goal was followed by another serious ‘fade-out’ for sure, but that’s denying Waterford due credit for the battling qualities they showed to come within two scores of forcing a replay or even winning the match.
Unfortunately too many of the Waterford team had off-days. With a couple of exceptions the backs hadn’t a great afternoon at the office, while, after an initial burst where Kelly and co could have had three goals, the forward-line didn’t function as hoped (hitting some woeful wides, especially at the start of the second half), and at centre-field Tipp were well on top.
The positives? Having been directly at fault for at least one of the goals, Declan Prendergast was a revelation when pushed out to the half-back line, bringing great athleticism and go-forward momentum and the management may have inadvertently found his best position.
Michael Walsh was absolutely outstanding again and will surely be in the All Star centre-back shake-up come season’s end. As you’d expect, skipper Stephen Molumphy simply refused to surrender and showed no ill-effects of the knee injury he was carrying, so that at least is one less concern.
As for John Mullane, corner-forwards don’t typically win Hurler of the Year awards, but after another deadly, indefatigable display he must be on the shortlist already.
So when all is said and done what are we left with? The short answer is Cork or Galway. Neither would be ideal opposition, but they’re by no means unbeatable. Waterford must make sure they don’t go beating themselves to begin with, mind. The management have plenty to ponder this week and next: the midfield needs a rethink, and in attack Waterford simply can’t afford to hope Mullane, for all his consistency, keeps firing on all cylinders. And they need to keep Kelly in and around the danger area as much as possible, not taking frees that Tony Browne or someone should be delivering. Plus while there were multiple under-performers among the starting XV on Sunday, some of the subs are much better players than they’re looking this year.
At the end of The Sunday Game they showed the classic Munster Final from five years ago. We all know Waterford won, but Cork went all the way. Something to think about if your looking glass of choice is staring at you half-empty. There’s still plenty to play for apart from pride.