Last Sunday’s fifth and final round of Division 1A of the 2013 National Hurling League was very much a day of permutations. It was that way before all three games got underway and it was that way right up until the point that the final whistles blew in Walsh Park, Nowlan Park and Semple Stadium. Waterford came into the final round on top of the pile and knew that whatever happened elsewhere that a draw or a win would be enough to see them into the semi-finals of the league for the first time since 2007. Galway on the other hand knew that they had to win to have any chance of making it to the last four of the league and defeat would send them into a relegation play-off.
Close to seventy minutes after all three games got underway the makeup of the last four and the relegation play-off contestants was still up for grabs. A late Conor Lehane goal brought Cork to within a point of the Cats in Nowlan Park, where a draw (with Tipp home and hosed in Thurles) would have been enough to see both teams through to the semi-finals. While in Walsh Park a late Waterford goal to give them a share of the spoils would have seen them march into the semi-finals at the expense of the Tribesmen. Dramatic stuff indeed.
It may have had, and may still have, its critics but any league format that sees all teams go into the final day with a chance of being in the top three or bottom two and two of the three games being right in doubt to the final whistle has to be good for supporters of the game.
In the end Tipperary topped the group meaning they will face the winners of Division 1B in the semi-finals, while in the other semi-final, Galway will take on Kilkenny in a repeat of last year’s All-Ireland final. Before that, Cork will face Clare in the relegation play-off with the losers being doomed to Division 1B for 2014.
So where are Waterford in all this? Well the answer is stuck right in the middle, in a kind of No Man’s Land if you like. With three teams going into the semi-finals and two contesting the relegation play-off, one team was going to have its league season come to an end on Sunday last and as it turned out that was Waterford. I heard one Waterford supporter say, whilst leaving Walsh Park on Sunday, that you’d be better off in the relegation match than with no more matches to play but I have my doubts that Michael Ryan and his selectors will share that viewpoint.
Yes an extra game would have been beneficial but not a relegation battle for which the losers will pay the price of dropping out of the top tier – a fate that no county wants. While I feel Michael Ryan and co. will be disappointed with last Sunday’s display (especially the first half) I think, once the dust settles this week, that they will be pleased enough to have ended in the middle of the pack and most importantly to have secured their Division 1A status for 2014 without a relegation play-off dogfight where anything can happen.
Five games – two wins (over Tipperary and Clare), one draw (against Cork) and two defeats (against Kilkenny and Galway) was Waterford’s return. Good on the face of it but with a semi-final spot in their own hands facing into a last day game at home to Galway (against whom they have a brilliant record in recent years) this must go down as an opportunity missed. Especially as Galway were a long way from their brilliant best on Sunday last.
There’s no doubt that Déise supporters will be asking how Waterford were so poor in that first-half? Playing with a strong breeze on a grand surface on a dry crisp day they only managed a total of three points in that first 35 minutes, with one of them coming from a Jake Dillon free. That kind of a return just isn’t good enough at this level and in all truth this game should have been over as a contest at the interval. Galway led by 0-8 to 0-3 at that juncture but in all fairness it could easily have been twice that margin, especially after Joe Canning had a penalty well saved by Shane O’Sullivan. Indeed Waterford failed to score from the 13th minute to the 38th minute. That tells its own story.
There’s no doubt that strong words were spoken in the Waterford dressing room at the midway point and they definitely worked as the home side were much better in the second-half, without ever looking as sharp or as dangerous as they had in previous matches. There’s no doubt that the plan for the second-half was the get the ball into Seamus Prendergast as high and as quick as they could from out the field and while Seamus did grab a few, nothing really came out of it. The fact and the most worrying aspect of this performance was that Waterford didn’t create half enough scoring chances and never really looked like getting a goal, apart from a couple of 21 yard frees that Maurice Shanahan could possibly have gambled on going for goals.
In all Waterford scored 0-12 over the 70 minutes, 0-6 of this came from play. This is a poor return by anyone’s standards and something that Michael Ryan and his backroom team will be very anxious to work on in the run up to the championship. Jamie Barron and Brian O’Halloran both got nice early points but weren’t conspicuous for most of the game and while Jake Dillon worked his socks off he did a lot of his best work a long way from the Galway goal. Ray Barry tried hard on his first league start and Seamus Prendergast recovered well in the second-half after an out of sorts first period but all things considered there would have to be big worries about where the scores are going to come from.
A big positive for Waterford will have been the performance of Maurice Shanahan who really took the game to Galway in the second-half and also took over the free-taking duties with great aplomb. The big Lismore man had a slow start to the league but has really taken his chance over recent games and now looks set to be a key man in attack for the championship.
Another switch that the selectors made to the team ahead of this game was the decision to move team captain, Kevin Moran, to midfield to partner Shane O’Sullivan and in the process breaking up the halfback line of Nagle, Walsh and Moran that had been so good as a unit up to now. While Moran tried his hardest, as he always does, he struggled to get into the game and one would wonder if he gives this team more from the number seven shirt.
Overall though Michael Ryan and his players will take a lot of positives out of the league and rightly so. They had very good and deserved wins over Clare in Ennis and at home to Tipp and also the draw with Cork in terrible conditions showed great commitment and tenacity and of course the league gave great game time to the likes of Jake Dillon, Brian O’Halloran, Jamie Barron, the two Fives, the Prendergasts and others, and all have shaped up well which will have been objective number one of this campaign.
As always there is plenty to mull over between now and June 2 and a meeting with Clare in the Munster championship but one thing for certain is that Waterford will have to be going into that game with all guns blazing against a Davy Fitzgerald driven Banner outfit. It’s now over to Michael Ryan and his backroom team to ensure that they are.