I Travelled to the theatre of hurling dreams on Sunday with, among others, a ten-year-old chap from Melbourne. On the way back the thought occurred to enquire who his man of the match was, not least because it might make a handy line – even better, a handy intro – for this piece. He duly obliged, and without hesitation. ‘The baldy guy for Waterford,’ came the instant response. The baldy guy for Waterford. Good choice.
Our young Australian might have gone for Da Big Man with his 3-3; that would have been the obvious choice. He could have opted for Tony Browne, whose powers of anticipation, speed of striking and general youthful fleetness of foot constitute one of the small marvels of the age. He wouldn’t have been far off the mark had he nominated Michael Walsh, whose presence and industry and willingness to chase every ball as if it were the last ball he’ll ever chase give the National League winners and new Munster champions their ballast in the middle of the field; Limerick had closed the gap to a goal four minutes from time when Walsh won the free under the Old Stand that Ken McGrath converted to give the favourites breathing space and clear the decks for their flying finish.
But no: Master Melbourne reckoned that John Mullane had done the state generous service and he was right to reckon so. If the nine-point margin of victory flattered Waterford and did the underdogs less credit than they were due for their manful tilt at the silverware, the scoreline also served to airbrush one or two rocky periods for the winners out of the afternoon’s narrative. Justin McCarthy’s side started smoothly, reeling off points with the fluency we’ve come to expect from them; they once more finished like an express train; yet either side of the interval they hit a number of bum notes – as, to be fair, any team is entitled to do in the course of a game. Thing is, nobody did more than Mullane to shepherd them through their discordant passages. Had he been charging in from the right rather than the left he’d surely, by turning onto his favourite left side and increasing the angle for himself, have stuck away that first-half chance Brian Murray blocked. Oh, and he can even charm stray dogs too.
For its opening 20 minutes the 2007 Munster final was absorbing if scrappy. From there to half-time it was fitful and tetchy and constipated. No prizes for guessing which team this state of affairs suited more. Less expansive than their opponents, not blessed with attacking verve and incisiveness and scoring power to anything like the same degree, Limerick needed to get down and dirty, to play the game on their terms, to throw themselves physically into the fray, to fix their hands on Waterford’s throat and try to throttle them to death. They succeeded admirably; the favourites only managed one point during the closing 13 minutes of the first half.
It got no better for the Deise on the resumption. Though Ollie Moran, their hero against Tipperary, was unable to impose himself on the proceedings, Limerick landed the opening three points of the new half. This, emphatically, was now a dogfight, and one that Richie Bennis’s side were winning. The second of those three points was struck by Mike Fitzgerald after McGrath slipped; Ken then put a free wide; Browne caught a dropping ball but lost it and Fitzgerald again capitalised to put the Shannonsiders 1-8 to 0-9 ahead; Eoin Kelly missed a free; Paul Flynn, of all people, was blocked down.
You could probably write the remainder of this paragraph yourself. Feel free. Assert by way of a start that Waterford in the same position a couple of years ago would have become frustrated, lost their concentration, lost their tempers, lost their nerve or all four. Add the crucial rider that that was Waterford then but this is Waterford now. Following up by noting that what they produced here was a near-photocopy of their second-half performance at the same venue in the National League final back in April, a stilted start giving way to a full-throated finish. Having outpointed (literally) Kilkenny by 0-5 to 0-3 in the closing ten minutes that day, they blew Limerick away in the same period on Sunday, hitting 2-4 for the concession of 0-2. This Waterford side, every true romantic’s team, have become the grandmasters of the endgame.
Fittingly it was Mullane, a coiled spring of urgency who’d never stopped showing for the ball amid the collective wobble, who won the 46th-minute free that Flynn knocked over to give the winners their first point of the new half. Now they were back on terra firma. Moments later Flynn was an inch or two away from smacking home the goal of the season following a well-constructed running move. No matter; a similar move involving Seamus Prendergast and Stephen Molumphy in the 51st minute led to Dan feasting on the crumbs from close range after Murray had saved Flynn’s drive. At their best last weekend, as against Cork in the semi-final, Waterford were devastating. At their worst, they nonetheless avoided doing silly things or losing their shape, the last ten minutes of the first half – when once more there was no structure to their attacking play – apart. Fair’s fair, mind; the ploy of clearing space up front near the end, the tactic that yielded the big man’s second and third goals, was a very bright idea on somebody’s part. I’d love to know whose. All told, Waterford have, slowly and tortuously, had most of their jagged edges planed off them.
Some other observations. Prendergast does his best work on the half-forward line and should be left there, regardless of Justin’s fondness for moving his pawns around the board. His sibling Declan, as was pointed out here after the semi-final, needs to be told to stop putting up his hand to incoming frees. A better full-forward line than Limerick’s would have had two goals on the board inside the first three minutes. Molumphy, who started brilliantly and finished almost as well, is gaining on Aidan Kearney in the find-of-the-year stakes. And perhaps the ultimate indication of how all the individual boats have been lifted – or lifted themselves – by this year’s swell, these days Ken doesn’t have to try to be Superman any more. He merely has to be Ken.
They’re potential All Ireland winners. Sing it.