FOR no more than a short few minutes in the sweltering heat in Páirc Uí Chaoimh yesterday did it seem possible that favourites Tipperary might fail to make it to the Munster hurling final against Cork for the second year in succession.
That was late in the game, following an admirable recovery from a Waterford team which had barely functioned through a first half, during which Eoin Kelly again inspired Tipp with a return of 2-4 and, in sharp contrast, Waterford’s attack stuttered and wasted a succession of chances.
What made it a real contest was the vast improvement in Waterford’s overall play in the second half, which saw them hit five scores without reply and Dan Shanahan lift their spirits with a splendid goal which left only two points between the sides.
Enter Tipperary substitute Lar Corbett (on the way back from injury) who stylishly converted a goal which the hard-working Diarmaid Fitzgerald helped set up.
!In simple terms, the opening half was a bit of a disaster for Justin McCarthy’s team, which had won the last two clashes between the counties, in 2002 and 2004. On the one hand, they failed dismally to curb the threat from Kelly — for the second game in a row the automatic man of the match — and on the other, a succession of players, including team captain Paul Flynn from frees, wasted chance after chance.
Tipp, undoubtedly benefiting from their game with Limerick, made the early running, with Eamonn Corcoran (so much more effective on the wing) and John Carroll both to the forefront on the right flank.
Waterford opted for the inexperienced Denis Coffey at left-corner back on Eoin Kelly, and he had neither the mobility nor the craft to close him down. But, while Kelly was to go on a bit of a scoring spree, a lot of his good work was down to the support he got around him and from further back the field — where Philip Maher made a serious impression after being extremely doubtful at the start of the week.
Ken McGrath took his place as expected at the heart of the Waterford defence but things didn’t work out well for him until the second half, by which time he had adapted to the pace of the game (after his lay-off) and he was operating at midfield. It was to be seen in the way the Tipp captain Ger O’Grady was to make progress at times down the middle.
To add to Waterford’s problems, Seamus Prendergast was limited by a hamstring injury and clearly struggled in attack before being replaced at half time. Michael Walsh showed a facility to win ball at times, as did Shanahan, early and late in the half, but too many efforts were individual.
After putting the ball in the net for the first time in the 10th minute (when Fitzgerald won possession over Eoin Murphy’s head), Kelly was to wait until the 28th minute for his second. This showed him at his best, twisting and turning his opponent on the left, speeding in and calmly kicking the ball to the right corner.
By this stage, Tipperary were enjoying an eight-point lead, while Waterford supporters were becoming more and more frustrated, as genuine score openings were lost and the team ran up a total of 11 wides.
Among the few players contributing in a meaningful way was Tony Browne at right-half back, while Tom Feeney was holding his end up behind him, and goalkeeper Clinton Hennessy was dependable under the dropping ball. Eoin McGrath, too, was putting in a big effort at midfield without making much headway.
Belatedly, Waterford moved the more experienced Eoin Murphy over on Kelly, and it was noteworthy that in his first real challenge the Tipp man was ticked for a jersey pull on him.
Just before the break, Flynn mishit a free which went harmlessly low, but it still needed Brendan Cummins to be alert when the ball hopped just in front of him. Immediately following that, the Waterford captain struck a ball narrowly outside the post.
Turning over 2-6 to 0-4 in front, Tipperary were to face a much more serious challenge from Waterford, which was to be boosted by some outstanding play in defence — with Feeney unbeatable in the air and substitute James Murray solid at centre back.
Most notable of all, Kelly was to see very little ball in the right corner, even though Eoin Murphy continued to mark him closely. Ken McGrath, too, was to be seen to much greater effect and the standard of finishing (which saw him put over three points) improved radically.
In the opening five minutes, Tipp hit two points with one in reply, but Waterford were to hit a purple patch with five unanswered points between the 41st and 53rd minutes. And, during this period Cummins denied substitute Shane O’Sullivan with a terrific save, then getting across to prevent Shanahan from finishing the ball to the net. But, just after Kelly put over a point which Tipperary needed badly at the time, Dan Shanahan had the ball in the net. There was just 15 minutes to go and the margin was now down to two points.
It meant there was the promise of a continuing rally until Corbett goaled for Tipperary in the 57th minute. Kelly (from his second ‘65) and John O’Brien added two quick points to further boost them. John Mullane was surprisingly introduced but was clearly off the pace, and Waterford’s best chance of saving the game came in the last five minutes.
Then, the effective O’Sullivan got to a ball which broke after a Shanahan shot was blocked — only to see corner back Paul Curran get in a timely tackle. After that, it was only a matter of waiting for the last whistle — and a pairing which will ensure a cracking final on June 25 in Thurles.
* Brian Gavin made it clear from the very beginning that he was going to be strict and he was consistent in this respect and in applying the rules. Overall, a good display of refereeing.
Scorers: E. Kelly 2-9 (0-4 frees, 0-2 ‘65’s); L. Corbett 1-0; J. O’Brien 0-2; J. Carroll, G. O’Grady and M. Webster 0-1 each. Waterford: P. Flynn 0-5 (0-4 frees); D. Shanahan 1-0; K. McGrath 0-3; E. McGrath, J. Kennedy, D. Bennett (free) and J. Mullane 0-1 each.
TIPPERARY: B. Cummins; D. Fanning, P. Maher, P. Curran; E. Corcoran, C. O’Mahony, H. Moloney; C. Morrissey, S. McGrath; J. Carroll, G. O’Grady (capt.), J. O’Brien; D. Fitzgerald, M. Webster, E. Kelly. Subs: K. Dunne for Morrissey (second half); L. Corbett for Carroll (51st minute); S. McDermott for Maher (56th); P. Kelly for O’Grady (62nd); D. Egan for McGrath (72nd).
WATERFORD: C. Hennessy; T. Feeney, E. Murphy, D. Coffey; T. Browne, K. McGrath, B. Phelan; D. Bennett, E. McGrath; D. Shanahan, S. Prendergast, J. Kennedy; G. O’Connor, M. Walsh, P. Flynn (capt.). Subs: J. Murray for O’Connor and S. O’Sullivan for Prendergast (second half); J. Mullane for Bennett (48th minute); P. O’Brien for Kennedy (61st).
* Attendance: 27,680.