There are a few very simple certainties in life. One is that Munster hurling should be played on a Sunday (with Thurles a preference, if not a proviso). Most definitely not a Monday. Some things are surely sacrosanct, or is everything up for grabs nowadays? If the fall-out from the Celtic Tiger taught us one lesson it was that we knew the price of everything, but the value of nothing.
And so, while the hurling may have been summery, there was a strange, slightly submissive atmosphere attached to watching Waterford versus Clare in a three-quarters-empty Semple Stadium — the vast swathes of silence showing that John Mullane, who might just know what he’s talking about when it comes to hurling, was spot-on to question fixing the match for the dregs of a bank holiday weekend.
The 11,000-or-so supporters (and hundred-odd hammered teenagers) who travelled in the wet went without a surfeit of confidence on either side: a team in transition against a team, well, in even greater transition. Weighing things up, the experts — real and imagined — felt Waterford’s experience would tip the balance. And so it transpired. Eventually.
However, the early exchanges indicated Clare couldn’t be taken lightly; even if behind the scenes Waterford had apparently sought to hatch some sort of sweetheart deal with Cork to play the final in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. (Repeat that bit about the Celtic Tiger here.)
The fifteen Davy Fitzgerald selected to start collectively failing to raise their game to any great heights in the first half, though credit Clare for that. Ger O’Loughlin’s new generation of Banner boys appeared the hungrier team, their seven newcomers soon getting into the sort of stride pattern that saw them capture the Under-21 All-Ireland last year, after overpowering Waterford in the provincial decider.
Davy Fitzgerald’s tactics of trying to create space inside for Dan Shanahan and Mullane weren’t working. Clare were wise to it and rookie Cian Dillon shackled ‘The Man’ on the edge of the square, while Conor Cooney kept Mullane at a safeish distance.
The De La Salle talisman still managed to pick off three trademark points, two over his left shoulder in the first half which, along with tidy efforts from roving skipper Stephen Molumphy, ensured Waterford remained in touch.
Just as well they found the range, for Clare were keen as Colman’s all over the pitch, and the trio of Sean Collins, John Conlon and Jonathan Clancy had the Waterford half-back line creaking; Collins in particular making the most of the injury Jamie Nagle was clearly carrying.
Though the fielding of Shane O’Sullivan and Richie Foley gave Waterford an aerial advantage, Clare’s success in the half-back/forward sectors, allied to Nicky O’Connell’s all-action inspiration, enabled them to command the middle third.
In reality, with the wind in their sails, they could and should have been further ahead even before 19-year-old dangerman Darach Honan cut in and fired unerringly past an unsighted Clinton Hennessey two minutes before the break, swiftly followed by a point to put six them six to the good.
However, a pair of superb scores either side of the short whistle from Kevin Moran helped reduce Waterford’s arrears, though the strong-running De La Salle man’s threat was largely negated by Clare centre-back Diarmuid McMahon.
A determining factor in Waterford getting to grips with the game was the career-best performance produced by the much-maligned Declan Prendergast in the space of 30 second-half minutes.
Replacing Nagle, the former full-back answered his critics in sensational style, and, given that he also impressed at left half-back when moved there against Tipp and Galway last year, he must surely start in what’s plainly his best position against Cork.
As well as three beautiful points (his first ever scores in senior championship; the second a stupendous solo effort straight off the hurl), the Ardmore clubman picked up a lot of ball and whereas others seemed to forget they were wind-assisted (or were overly-inclined to shoot because of it), he used possession well, driving Waterford forward and lifting the crowd.
His older brother Seamus was introduced to stirring effect too, matching the man he replaced, Maurice Shanahan’s two-point contribution, while Dan, held scoreless, made way for Shane Walsh.
The emotional crescendo was left to Ken McGrath, who else. The Mount Sion great, whose career was practically finished mid-match by co-commentator Michael Duignan (who, according to Aidan Kearney, also called it wrong about him having a falling-out with Davy Fitz), had watched from the bench until the 65th minute. After sending over a peach of a long-range point, a sight some people feared they might never see again with Waterford, his reaction was the picture of pent-up frustration — and relief, after all it took to keep coming back. His honest, unusually-animated reaction — fist pumping, hurley walloped off the ground — possibly said more than any suspicions could suggest.
Looking at the winners line-up, and how it might stick or switch from here, Clinton Hennessy is inarguably the right man in possession of the goalkeeper’s jersey (though Cork will be wise to the short puck-outs), while Fourmilewater debutant Liam Lawlor didn’t do anything out of the ordinary, bad or good, at No3 (with the ‘big’ question being how might he handle Aisake Ó hAilpín). Either side of him, Eoin Murphy had his hands full with the prodigious Honan, while Passage cornerback Noel Connors continues to mature at a rapid rate and hurled an amount of intelligent ball away.
If the half-back line of Tony Browne (brilliant again in his self-styled sweeper role in the second half), Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh and Prendergast now looks like picking itself, the central pairing of O’Sullivan and Foley (who’d their work cut out, but stood up manfully, especially the Abbeysider in the closing stages) will probably stay in situ, with Eoin Kelly or Molumphy both auxiliary options.
Though short of his imperious best, apart from a couple of missed first-half frees — forgivable given the wind sweeping down from the Town end (Duignan taking a full 20 minutes to cop it was favouring Clare in the first half) — Kelly dug in, with a monstrous 100m score from well inside his own half barely registering with Ger Canning. Molumphy, who like Mullane hit 0-3, tired towards the end but considering his workrate from the off that’s understandable.
Fitzgerald is obviously fond of a big forward division: of the front six that started only the captain is under 6ft. Eoin McGrath didn’t enter the fray until time added-on when many feel his energy and eye for a pass would make for a more unpredictable attacking foil as opposed to the obvious. (At the very least, if he’s seen as an impact sub give him a chance to make an impact.)
Still, a 22-point haul in testing conditions, against an eager young team, and without firing on all cylinders, isn’t bad for openers. I’ll spare you the platitudes about Limerick, so when Waterford play Cork at Semple Stadium on July 11th they will go into the game as underdogs. Which is ideal, but Denis Walsh’s men will be favourites with good reason.
In taking Tipperary apart, Cork appeared men on an All-Ireland, never mind Munster mission, and just like Kerry in the football they’ll want to spare their legs and take the shortest possible route to Croke Park.
It’s been said already and will be many more times that Waterford won’t fear them, and rightly so, wit the Déisemen having given as good as they’ve got in their classic series of confrontations since 2002.
However, Waterford will have to start with a winning team. Beyond the bravado and the bullshit, three seasoned players whom Davy Fitzgerald decided were best left out came in and proved one of two things: that he was wrong not to pick them, or right to wait to bring them on when he did. Hindsight is 20:20 vision of course, but as Johnny Giles would argue, good management is picking your best team by design at the outset, not by accident during the event.
Fitzgerald might be happy with what he has in reserve, and maintains he’s not worried about how fellas on the bench might be feeling. But he should do. Man-management is a massive part of the job. (When have you ever heard Brian Cody say “I don’t care” about those he leaves out?) You mightn’t need to be friends with your players — most good managers aren’t — but it helps to have their respect.