Speaking to many Waterford hurling people in the aftermath of Wexford’s win over Clare and into the early part of last week, two and three days on from that, the feeling I got is that the Deise public really believed that this Wexford team was there to be beaten and that going in as underdogs would really suit the Deise and therefore I felt that Waterford had a great chance of causing an ‘upset’ and making the last eight of this year’s All-Ireland senior hurling race.
Things changed midweek though, after a well fancied U-21 team with at least ten on the county senior panel, were hammered by a fairly average Cork side in their own backyard in Walsh Park. Long before the final whistle on Wednesday night you could feel the mood change and optimism amongst Deise supporters started to drain away.
There’s no doubt that the manner of the U-21 performance and with so many senior players involved put a massive dent in the Waterford support that travelled to Nowlan Park on Saturday night and I’d be very surprised if it didn’t have a negative impact on the senior panel too. A positive frame of mind is vital coming into any game but especially knockout championship matches and there’s no doubt that Wexford came into this game in a better frame of mind, coming off the back of a brilliant extra-time replay win over All-Ireland champions Clare and a second successive Leinster U-21 final win. You can’t buy that kind of a boost or momentum for a team and it showed when this game was in the melting pot.
Before I go on to look at the reasons why this game was won and lost, I can’t help but go back to a second to the U-21 match and Waterford’s record at this grade. In the past six seasons Waterford have been involved in almost every Munster minor final, winning won and an All-Ireland along the way. That means that the players are there for the under 21 level but during this same period the Deise have only won one U-21 championship match. That’s a staggering statistic. The way the modern game has gone it seems to me that the two most important things that now go into producing successful inter-county hurlers are 1) the Fitzgibbon Cup and 2) strong U-21 teams. Clare are the obvious example. They have won two All-Ireland U-21s in the last four or five years and have also landed the Liam MacCarthy during that period, and most of their team have played Fitzgibbon Cup.
Waterford have plenty of Fitzgibbon Cup players and winners in their ranks but they’ve fallen down badly at U-21 and I think this is something that needs to be addressed and it’s more vital now than ever with last year’s All-Ireland winning minor team and this year’s good minor team coming through. Waterford needs to be successful at U-21 level to hit the ground running at the senior grade.
There’s a lot of doom and gloom around Waterford hurling this week but I don’t agree with that synopsis. The management team took the job for three years and last Saturday saw year one come to and end. Was it a brilliant year? No. Was it a bad year? I think not. Ok, relegation wasn’t ideal but Cork were relegated last year and now they are favourites to win the All-Ireland. Small tweeks and improvements make a big difference and I think they’ve done that all along this year as it has progressed. The performance against Cork, the first day, was definitely the standout showing but there was a lot in their Nowlan Park display too to suggest that this management team and group of players are on the right track. Deise supporters are more than entitled to their view but one also has to be realistic. The way the championship has panned out would suggest that they are about the seventh or eight ranked team in hurling at present. Is that unfair or unrealistic? I think not. That’s probably where they are right now but with this group of players and the continued development of the younger lads like Austin Gleeson, Stephen Bennett and hopefully next year another couple of last year’s minors….I suggest thinks aren’t at all as dark as some people may be trying to paint them to be.
So why did Wexford win this game and win the right to play Limerick next weekend?
1. HALF-TIME SCORE
The half-time score read Wexford 2-9, Waterford 0-12. With five minutes to play in the opening period Waterford led by 0-12 to 1-7 and deserved to be much further ahead on the balance of play. In terms of possession in that opening half, Waterford were way on top but they were struggling to make that dominance show on the scoreboard, which is of course the only place to make it count. All too often Waterford secured good possession in their own half-backline and around midfield but the final ball left them down. The wide count was only five in the first-half but there was a load more balls that dropped harmlessly short or into the goalkeeper’s hands. When you play with two in the full forward line (and often times there was only one man in there) it’s hard for the man out the field to pick the right ball. I’ve no problem with two men full forward lines but you must have the right men in there and have you players well drilled in how best to feed them. Then came that goal before half time from Conor McDonald, that followed two quick points, which was a real hammer blow to Waterford. This meant that in the space of five minutes they went from being two up to three down and that was a huge momentum shift for Wexford.
2. MASSIVE WEXFORD SUPPORT
In championship matches, especially in tight venues like Nowlan Park, a large and vociferous support is a huge boost to a team and on Saturday night last that advantage was all to Wexford as they totally outnumbered Waterford in the stands and on the terrace and in fairness to them they let themselves be heard, which had to lift their team especially, as it was bound to, the exertions of the two extra time games with Clare and their U-21 Leinster final took their toll on their bodies. As I said above I’ve no doubt the U-21 game against Cork had an impact on the Waterford crowd but that included it was still surprisingly small for a local derby just up the road.
3. LAST 20 MINUTES
With 49 minutes on the clock and buoyed by two great Colin Dunford goals, which saw the Deise show great heart to come back from seven down, Waterford led by a point (2-14 to 3-10) and this game was very much there to be won. There’s no doubt that the introduction of Seamus Prendergast saw them adopt a more direct game plan and it was definitely working and from here there was every reason to believe that Waterford would go on and win the game. But for the remaining 22 minutes (including injury time) Waterford managed just a single point, from another sub Stephen Molumphy. In reply Wexford struck five points in the same period and that was enough to see them over the line.
4. 3-12 FROM PLAY
Wexford might not have scaled the heights that they did in beating Clare but they did enough and every time Waterford seemed to be about to pull away they seemed able to get a vital score. Their scores came easier than Waterford’s and out of 3-15 the only got 0-3 from frees. That’s a big return from play in any game. Waterford in response scored 2-8 from play.