Something happened on Sunday last in Thurles that hadn’t been seen since all the way back in 2006, that is a Cork victory over Waterford in senior hurling championship. And it’s not as if the two counties haven’t met or have met infrequently since then either. Last Sunday was the sixth championship meeting in that period and the record in the previous five was, Waterford with three wins and two draws (something which could so very easily have happened again on Sunday) and Cork with no win.
When one thinks back to the dark days of the ‘70s, ‘80s and into the early ‘90s this really is a great record. Davy Fitzgerald, speaking to Kieran O’Connor on WLRfm, at the Waterford versus Clare U-21 match, was very proud (and rightly so) of the fact that in his three and half years in charge his Waterford team had never lost a game (league or championship) to Cork. Some going.
But as they say, records are there to be broken and that great sequence of results against the Rebels came to an end in Semple Stadium on Sunday last in front of just over 38,000 people.
We spoke on these pages last week in depth about the wonderful matches that these two counties have produced when they’ve collided over the last decade and a half or so and last Sunday’s game didn’t disappoint on that regard either and it will fit it nicely to the catalogue of excellent games between the counties, but that will be scant consolation to Michael Ryan, Ken McGrath, Sean Cullinane, Brick Walsh and his players or the large Waterford contingent this week. The facts are that the Déise lost and their involvement in the race for Liam MacCarthy for 2012 is at an end. So too is their quite excellent run of six successive All-Ireland semi-finals, which they were hoping to make seven in two weeks time.
I believe and hope that Michael Ryan and his players will get very little criticism or backlash from Waterford hurling fans in the wake of this defeat as on the day they really did put up a very good showing and with ten minutes to go, having been six points behind after just 16 minutes, it really did look as if another victory over Cork was almost (almost being the word in hindsight) in the bag. Regular readers of my columns will know that I have no time for moral victories and I’m glad that Michael Ryan was quick to put across a similar viewpoint after the game on Sunday.
There were many reasons why Waterford didn’t win but here are the main ones, in my opinion.
- THE BENCHES
The GAA, as we all know, is a real hotbed for the cliché. We GAA folk, especially us in the media, love a good cliché. Two of my favourites really do fit the bill here though, 1) a team is only as good as its subs and 2) the modern game is a 20 man game. Jimmy Barry Murphy and his selectors really proved both of these gems to be true on Sunday in Thurles.
Much has been made of the Cork selectors’ decision to make so many changes to each of their three starting teams in this year’s championship but after the way the lads who came off the bench turned it on on Sunday then it’s hard to argue and to think one of those five, John Gardiner, was making his championship debut on Sunday (at centre-back) shows the faith that JBM has in his squad. Of the five there is no doubting that Cathal Naughton (not for the first time against Waterford) and Darren Sweetnam made the biggest impacts, but Gardiner, Moylan and Lorcan McLoughlin also played their parts. On the other hand the Waterford selectors only used three of their five subs, with Shane Casey and Eoin McGrath both seeing championship action for the first time this season in this the third game. No sign of Martin O’Neill, Paul O’Brien, Eoin Kelly or maybe most surprising of all, Gavin O’Brien, who was deemed good enough to start the two previous games but not good enough to even come on as a sub on this occasion.
2. FINAL QUARTER
When Cork raced into a six point lead after just 16 first-half minutes even the most ardent of Waterford hurling fans will have feared the worst. But, inspired by the excellence of the great John Mullane, Waterford stormed back into the game and six points in a row before the break ensured that the Rebels held just a one point lead at the midway point.
When John Mullane put over Waterford’s 18th point in the 56th minute the Déise boys led by three and there looked to be only one winner. But two crucial wides followed for the Decies which would have pushed them into probably an unassailable lead and then Cork fought back.
The closing 14 minutes of normal time and the three minutes of stoppage time saw Cork outscore Waterford 0-7 to 0-1, with that lone score coming from a Maurice Shanahan, with five of those Cork points coming from play. One point from a free in the last 17 minutes of hurling really was the straw that broke the camels back from a Waterford point of view.
During the period (before half-time) when Waterford got on top in this game and again midway through the second half it was at midfield and upfront where they were really killing Cork. Molumphy and Moran were well on top at midfield and in attack Mullane (especially at wing-forward), Paudie Mahony, Maurice Shanahan, Seamus Prendergast and Shane Walsh all had their men in trouble and all were scoring and Cork looked in big trouble.
But in that final quarter of an hour all that changed and so Cork stormed back into a game that looked that it was going to slip away from them. Tom Kenny and Brian Murphy did far better on Mullane second-half, Sean Og O hAilpin roared into the game when relieved of his arduous task of trying to put the shackles on John Mullane, Gardiner settled things down at centre-back and above all Shane Sweetnam really turned things around for his side at midfield and got the Rebels on the front foot and got good ball going to his attack. Another massive blow was the loss of Shane Walsh to injury with about 13 minutes to play.
4. GREEN FLAG
The last day, in the Munster Final against Tipp, Waterford really stormed out of the blocks and really took the game to the Premier from the first whistle. I presume that was the plan again on Sunday last but on this occasion it never materialised. Luke O’Farrell was denied from putting the ball in the Waterford net by the crossbar after just 23 seconds and for the majority of the next 20 minutes it was all Cork. The goal eventually came in the sixteenth minute through Jamie Coughlan and it put the Rebels six up. I know Waterford wiped that out but it still played a big factor in the game as in the end it was that, the game’s only green flag, that separated the teams. It also didn’t help that for the second championship game in a row Waterford failed to score a goal