We had just settled into our seats on what would prove to be a surprisingly unraucous train back from Heuston Station on the evening of August 17th when a Mount Sion clubman, making his way down the aisle, espied your correspondent. “Well, will we survive?” he said. It took a moment or two for the penny to drop. Survive the celebrations? No, what he meant was, would Waterford survive against the All Ireland champions three weeks later (and credit to the man for being already keen to look forward as opposed to being happy, and perfectly understandably so, to luxuriate in the moment). They would, I told him. Whether they’ll survive and prosper remains to be seen, but staying afloat is the first priority for a team taking on Kilkenny and staying afloat is the very minimum that should be expected of Waterford next Sunday.
Let us count the ways in which they’re equipped, shall we? They’re big. They’re strong. They’re experienced. They’re good under the dropping ball, a facet in which they cleaned out Tipperary during the closing quarter of the semi-final. They have forwards with pace. They have forwards – the same forwards, happily – who can score. They have, when hurling well, a gear available to them that no other team in the country bar Kilkenny possess. They’ve hit 2-18, 2-19 and 1-20 in their last three outings, further proof of what we said prior to the semi-final about their recent evenness and consistency of performance. In short, Waterford have all the wherewithal to give their opponents plenty of it. It might not prove enough in the end, of course. If the McCarthy Cup holders didn’t leave the best of themselves behind against Cork in the first of the semi-finals, it probably won’t. As opening gambits go, however, it’s an impressive list of goods and chattels and one considerably more substantial than a younger, lighter and less hardened Tipp would have brought to the table.
Thousands of readers of this newspaper will consider themselves to be stakeholders in next Sunday’s showpiece from a Waterford viewpoint. Strange as it may sound, so does this writer. From a personal point of view, the hurling world has been a brighter place these past ten years with the Deise taking a prominent part in it. Their representatives have never been less than kind, helpful and engaging. I’ve drunk 7-Up in Pat Fanning’s house. I’ve drunk something stronger than 7-Up in Flynn’s in Ferrybank in the company of Shane Ahearne. I’ve had Ken McGrath, being the well brought up young man that he is, return my phone calls – a pretty rare thing with hurlers and presumably completely unknown among professional footballers. I’ve been given a tour of De La Salle College by Derek McGrath. I’ve had John Mullane offer to walk me past a bevy of lurking ladyboys to a taxi rank in Singapore. (Seriously.) I’ve had correspondence with Anne Ryan, that indefatigable Waterford woman in Dublin. I’ve watched WLR FM commentator Kieran O’Connor carry out his Glanbia duties on many a pre-All Ireland media night in Langton’s in Kilkenny and didn’t have to be told how much he’d love the opportunity to do the same for his native county. As of last week I had the pleasure of drinking tea in Austin Flynn’s house in Dungarvan, and what a gentleman he is. As of the week before I had the slightly less unadulterated pleasure of being described as a “veteran” by a certain Waterford local newspaper that I may well be seeing in the High Court some fine day. (A veteran? Come on, people! Look at that photobyline!)
Yet in much the same way that fine words butter no parsnips, all the exciting hurling this group of players have done over the years will count for nothing on the day this coming Sabbath. It will certainly count for nothing if they enter the fray as naively as Limerick did 12 months ago. Never mind about trying to beat Kilkenny; that isn’t actually the first item of business on the agenda for Waterford. No; the opening objective for Davy Fitzgerald’s men instead will be to cope with the sheer power of the titleholders. To manage this they’ll need two items: a gameplan and controlled aggression. A look at the video of the opening ten minutes of last year’s All Ireland final will show them how these things aren’t done. Not only did Limerick allow Kilkenny to walk all over them in physical terms, they were sufficiently innocent as to land their first two puckouts exactly where they shouldn’t have landed them, right on top of JJ Delaney and Tommy Walsh, with stunningly predictable results. The game was over before the quarter-hour mark had been reached. Limerick had no idea they were entering a lions’ den. Their successors as challengers do.
Now Waterford are unquestionably a superior team, and by some distance, to Limerick. And Clinton Hennessy, unlike Brian Murray, could drop his puckouts on his half-forward line in the reasonable belief that they wouldn’t come back too quickly. But the bottom line remains. The underdogs cannot hit and hope for the best next Sunday. They’ll have to have thoroughly worked out their tactics, and their response to Kilkenny’s tactics, in advance.
Apropos of that phrase “controlled aggression”, they’ll need to get the balance right there too. Carry the battle to the champions by all means, but don’t expect to horse them out of it and above all don’t become entangled in silly running squabbles. Arguably the greatest strength of Brian Cody’s Kilkenny is their ability to hurl not on their terms but on whatever terms the opposition succeeds in laying down.
So there you have it. Outsiders? Certainly. But outsiders with talent and imagination and verve and sweep. Let them show their quality and qualities. It is not too much to ask for. It is not too much to hope for. After that, the cards will fall where they will.
Enda McEvoy is the hurling correspondent of the Sunday Tribune.