Not that you’re necessarily unaware of this and not that you’re likely to care one way or another, but pieces such as the one you’re reading right now are, for deadline purposes, usually written before the weekend. This particular offering, on the other hand, is being written shortly after midday on Monday for the simple reason that your correspondent decided that a look at the first of the All Ireland semi-finals was warranted before he began to pontificate about the second of them. Specifically, would Kilkenny’s five-week layoff – and for Kilkenny read Tipperary, their fellow provincial champions – tell against them and would the recent momentum that had been generated by Cork – for whom read Waterford, naturally – during the qualifiers prove significant?
Turns out there’s no auspicious omen for supporters of the Déise on that count. Far from being stale, Kilkenny were prepared for the hour and prepared to the minute. Far from having built up an inexorable head of steam by dint of their two nailbiting wins at Semple Stadium, Cork were never in the hunt after the 25th minute. Match-fitness had no hand, act or part in the outcome. If you feel absolutely impelled to clutch at straws you might choose to make a case to the effect that Brian Cody was well used to calibrating Kilkenny’s training regime to take account of the hiatus between the Leinster final and the All Ireland semi-final and that Liam Sheedy, being new to the scene, consequently may not manage to fine-tune matters as precisely at the first time of asking. But we wouldn’t advise it.
Anyway. Here’s a question for the mathematically-minded out there. What are the odds against a county featuring in six All Ireland semi-finals in the space of 11 seasons and losing each of them? Gary Lineker attributed the secret of his goalscoring success not to being in the right place at the right time but to being in the right place all the time. That’s one thing to be said in Waterford’s favour; they’ve been getting themselves in the right place all the time, which is a tribute to their consistency since 1998. What their inability to win even one of the five semi-finals they’ve contested says about their head for the big day is, of course, an entirely different kettle of blaas.
Plausible explanations have attended each of the defeats. In 1998 they were stepping into the unknown and didn’t realise they could win the match until it was too late. In 2002 they started too fast and couldn’t maintain the pace. In 2004 they leaked three first-half goals – all of them avoidable – and couldn’t quite make up the leeway despite raging bravely against the dying of the light. In 2006 they were squeezed out by a point because a couple of players made small but crucial errors at the supreme moment. In 2007, though their edge had been blunted after two journeys to the well on the previous two Sundays, they still hurled sufficiently well to hit 2-15, only to be unhorsed by the combination of a rake of wides and the concession of five goals. Yet to reheat a comment made here after last year’s August disappointment, we cannot keep making excuses for Waterford’s serial semi-final failures. On the other hand, as Cyril Farrell is fond of declaring and Gary Lineker would doubtless agree, if you’re around long enough, some day the ball will finally hop for you.
Under the radar
That’s one potential scenario next Sunday. That the ball will hop for Waterford, that the law of averages will have its day and that the county will storm through – or stagger through, it matters not a jot which – for a first Croke Park appearance in September since 1963. Such a scenario, however, takes no account of some hard and very relevant realities. Are enough Waterford players playing well enough for victory over the National League and Munster champions to be a viable prospect? Who’s going to stop Lar Corbett, who’s taken over from Eoin Kelly as Tipperary’s go-to man in the forward line? Who is going to mark Corbett, in point of fact, and will the underdogs position their centre-back – whoever he may be – as deep as possible in front of Corbett to provide an extra layer of insulation? If not, why not? Can Dan Shanahan kick on from his upturn in form against Wexford or will he slip back into torpor? Will the past three weeks of training bring on Stephen Molumphy, Waterford’s x-factor in 2007? What about John Mullane’s decision-making when in possession? And so on and so forth.
Getting in one’s excuses in advance is rarely an exercise to be recommended. But here’s the thing. Even though they’ll be entering the arena as underdogs, there can be no excuses for Davy Fitz’s men on Sunday. They’ve come in by night under the radar. They haven’t been twiddling their thumbs for the past month and a half, which was part of the problem in 2002 and ’04. That said, they haven’t been doing so much hurling of late as to be driving with the needle in the red zone, which was part of the problem last season. If they’re beaten it’ll be because they weren’t good enough on the day and because, more fundamentally, they hadn’t been playing well enough all year.
Feel the fear and do it anyway. Hold hands, close your eyes and jump. There is nothing to lose except that awful All Ireland semi-final record.
Enda McEvoy is the hurling correspondent of the Sunday Tribune.