This was tough to witness, whether you made the trip to Limerick or decided to give TV3’s maiden hurling championship coverage a go which, given the attendance, many clearly did.
Waterford fans, some lacking rings on the bark when it comes to recalling the bad old days, have long been fed on a diet of total effort, be it in victory or defeat.
Rarely over the past decade could anyone watching Waterford in championship action feel as if the players had let themselves or their fantastic supporters down when it came to applying themselves on the turf.
But Sunday’s nine-point defeat to a ravenous Clare, despite a magnificent performance from John Mullane, cannot be described as anything other than thoroughly underwhelming.
The disappointing league campaign and the absence of several of Waterford’s greatest hurling servants, made the bar facing the Munster champions too high to clear last Sunday.
That they came up against a Clare team that’s been buoyed-up exponentially by Mike McNamara which quite simply tore into Justin McCarthy’s side from the throw-in didn’t help.
As suggested here last week, Clare came into this championship with little expected of them beyond their boundary – a little like Limerick last year.
But five years without a Munster Championship win and a desire to get the sour taste left by last year’s internal machinations out of their system made for an irresistible mix from a Clare perspective.
After racing into a three-point lead just five minutes into the match, it appeared that Waterford looked set to meet the Clare challenge and face them down.
But in the 11 minutes that followed, the Bannermen registered 1-5 while a solitary reply from Mullane was all that the champions could muster.
Mark Flaherty’s 16th minute goal was conceded all too easily. Dan Shanahan failed to track the run of wing back Pat Donnellan, who lofted in a high ball which no Waterford back advanced to deal with. The ball fell to the impressive Flaherty, who smashed the ball beyond Clinton Hennessy.
But Waterford’s response to Flaherty’s goal was both immediate and impressive, as Mullane, Seamus Prendergast, Stephen Molumphy and Eoin McGrath bisected the posts with fine scores.
And when Gary Hurney and Dave Bennett added another couple of points to the scoreboard, it appeared that the Deisemen had regained control of the game.
It’s worth pointing out that John Mullane was hooked when goal bound in the 20th minute, a score which could have put Waterford into a commanding position.
Alas, this was to prove as good as it would get for the Deisemen. Clare finished the first half much the stronger, outscoring Waterford by 0-8 to 0-3 in the final 10 minutes to lead by Flaherty’s goal at the break. It was to prove a lead they would not relinquish.
The patterns established by both teams in the first half were carried into the second. Mullane was Waterford’s only effective attacking foil, with virtually every ball from deep directed into the De La Salle man’s path.
He performed like a lion throughout, arguably his best championship performance since his 2003 Munster final hat-trick – but there was only so much he could do on his own.
Virtually every time a Clareman in possession took a look upfield on Sunday, he saw plenty of space ahead of him, which undoubtedly made life easier for Conor Plunkett at centre back and Diarmuid McMahon at 10.
It’s difficult to recall Waterford winning all that many incoming balls in either the full-back or centre-back slot, as Ken McGrath’s absence swung into sharp focus the longer the game went on.
While Clare hunted in packs, dominating the midfield battle in the process, Waterford looked a few yards off the pace and largely remained in touch thanks to Dave Bennett’s free-taking.
That Molumphy and Michael Walsh won so little clean ball in centrefield ultimately put victory beyond Waterford’s reach – yet statistics suggested that it was the men in white who enjoyed greater levels of possession.
But there was no doubt which team made better use of the ball when they had it.
Dan Shanahan endured his most disappointing day at this level for many years, although questions must be asked about how fit the Lismore attacker was coming into the game.
And as he left the fray, Shanahan swerved to avoid a pat on the back from his manager.
Was it a telling moment of body language, indicative of some disquiet within the camp or merely the reaction of a disappointed player who felt himself unworthy of such a gesture? Time alone will tell on either count.
Waterford’s lack of goalscoring threat was also disappointing and had Gary Hurney managed to find an immediate response to Niall Gilligan’s 48th minute goal, perhaps the outcome may have differed. But one strongly doubts it.
The moments before Clare’s second green flagger offered a microcosm of Waterford’s day. Both Hurney and Seamus Prendergast ran towards the same ball and it was the latter who took the sliotar, only to surrender possession just as quickly.
Seconds later, after another unchallenged ball from the deep, Gilligan rifled the ball beyond Hennessy and put Clare six points up.
Within moments, Hurney had spurned a great opportunity from point-blank range, a miss compounded by Tony Carmody’s point 60 seconds later.
What ought to have been only a three-point bridge to gap was instead stretched to seven and effectively ended the game as a real contest. Clare had pep in their step while Waterford had lead in their boots.
And had Hennessy not managed to brilliantly deny Tony Carmody in the final minute, the magnitude of this defeat would have been even greater.
Can Waterford pick themselves up after this heavy defeat? Well, one would like to think so, especially when you think about the players due to return as well as those who weren’t 100 per cent fit on Sunday – and surely there were a few.
But irrespective of absentees and injuries, the most disappointing element of this display was that Waterford proved so meek in surrendering their Munster crown.
The form book hasn’t been good this year – and that’s been reflected in Waterford’s results throughout the League and, unfortunately, that’s now carried over into the championship.
No team has recovered from an opening day defeat like this to end the summer as All-Ireland champions. How much fight is left in this group of players will be revealed a month from Sunday when they’ll face either Galway or Antrim.
There has to be, there must be, there will surely be a reaction to this defeat.