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Difficult piece to write. How can you buy Killarney? How do you solve a problem like Maria? And how do you even begin to try coping when you happen to be the team on the receiving end of the greatest and most awesome performance in the history of hurling? St Therese said something about more tears being shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers; Deise folk may have an idea of what she was talking about. Or as Oscar Wilde might put it were he alive and flouncing down Barronstrand Street, there are only two tragedies in this life. One is not reaching an All Ireland final; the other is reaching it. Yet again we’re left to rue the manner in which Waterford got their timing so badly wrong and contrived to leave it to Limerick to be the ones who strode out in Croke Park 12 months ago.
It may or may not be a consolation that there are no fingers to be pointed this week. Unlike the aftermath of last year’s semi-final, there are no what-ifs or might-have-beens, no couldas or wouldas or shouldas for the management and players to torture themselves with. Waterford were simply unfortunate to be eyewitnesses to a display that came as close to perfection as has been seen in the lifetime of older readers and as will be seen in the lifetime of younger readers. Kilkenny essayed 37 attempts at the target on Sunday. Two went wide, Clinton Hennessy saved one and another came back off the upright, meaning that 33 shots found their mark. It was a level of precision that might have been designed by computer. Certainly it defied belief in the here and now. Had Martin Comerford’s shot in the 37th minute not tailed a foot or two wide, indeed, the winners’ first-half performance could legitimately have been described as flawless. Waterford’s only real fault was to be the opponents who lurched into the path of this giant threshing machine.
Davy Fitz declared afterwards that he and his selectors had done all the planning, covered all the angles and turned all the stones they could have. There is no reason in the world to doubt his words for a moment. Problem was, Kilkenny asked questions of such variety and complexity that the challengers had no way of answering them all simultaneously. Then they asked some more. “Okay, lads, Kilkenny have Henry Shefflin. He’s been Hurler of the Year twice. But we can cope with him. And they also have Eoin Larkin, who may be Hurler of the Year this season. But we can cope with him. And they also have Eddie Brennan, who was man of the match in last year’s All Ireland final when he hit 1-5. But we can cope with him. And they also have Aidan Fogarty, who was man of the match in the 2006 All Ireland final when he scored 1-4. But we can cope with him. And they also have Martin Comerford, who hit 1-4 in the 2003 All Ireland final. But we can cope with him. And they also have Richie Power, who has two All Ireland minor and two All Ireland under-21 medals. But we can cope with him. Oh, hang on a minute – what will we do if they all switch positions..?” Long before the final whistle Davy must have felt like he was the little-known Sixmilebridge cousin of that small Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke. So many holes, only so many fingers and a raging black and amber tide pouring through minute by minute.
The writing was on the wall right from the off. Kilkenny were instantly into their stride and doing what this Kilkenny team do so well. Attaching a message to every ball they hit, mixing long deliveries with short ones, swarm-chasing down the opposition defender in possession, swarm-chasing down the opposition attacker in possession. If this was bad enough from a Waterford point of view, much worse was the fate befalling their attempts to construct a serviceable platform. The supply of clean ball from back to front that had helped them roar into an early lead against Tipperary was cut off at source. John Mullane couldn’t get into the game. Dan was being eaten alive by JJ Delaney. The most obvious signifier of the trouble the underdogs were in arrived when Eoin Kelly, the putative Hurler of the Year, tried to cut in from the left at the Railway End. Noel Hickey barred his way, Kelly was unable to pass, Tommy Walsh dashed in to help his full-back and in a trice the champions had turned defence into attack.
Those FBI criminal profilers who seem to pop up on every second programme on television these days would have their work cut out to catch Kilkenny. There is no signature modus operandi that betrays them. They can suffocate you, they can strangle you, they can slit your throat, and when the mood takes them they’ll just reach for their Magnum and blow you away. Last Sunday they did all of those things to their victims. Rather than condemning them for keeping the foot on the pedal till the final whistle, moreover, one should commend them. Another team in the same position might have succumbed to self-indulgence, ball tricks and general urine-subtraction of beaten opponents. These guys are too focused and relentless for that.
Little else remains to be said. It wasn’t so much that the losers were bad, it was more that they weren’t given the slightest scope to be good. Very few of them actually hurled particularly poorly, and in the circumstances John Mullane was nothing less than heroic. He may end up fighting it out with Kelly for Waterford’s sole All Star. It won’t be as obvious a decision as it might have appeared prior to throw-in.
And that’s it. A difficult piece to write. It ends here.
Enda McEvoy is the hurling correspondent of the Sunday Tribune.