On the back of his left hand, Derek McGrath sported a circled number five.
Nobody in the media auditorium asked about the penned figure, but then they didn’t need to. Waterford’s regular number five, Tadhg de Búrca, was never far away from the thoughts and actions of this Waterford group.
After the player’s unsuccessful plea to the Disputes Resolution Authority concluded in the small hours of Friday morning, McGrath promised Waterford would win through to an All-Ireland final and de Búrca’s team-mates delivered. It is a first September decider for the county in nine years, a second in 54, and it will be against a county that has never beaten them in championship? Like Galway, they too can dare to imagine.
That they will be without Conor Gleeson, so strong in curbing Conor Lehane, will be a blow, though the return of de Búrca will soften it somewhat.
However, the same might not be said for losing Austin Gleeson, who could now suffer the same fate as Stephen Bennett against Cork in June and pick up a retrospective suspension for tugging the faceguard of Luke Meade.
Those reckonings will come into sharp focus for Waterford over the next 24 hours, but for yesterday, at least for a few hours, they could bask in something that has been too rare for the county. At the third time of asking (fourth if you include last year’s replay), McGrath and his band have stuck around for the last dance.
On the scoreboard alone, it appears like a two-fingered salute to those who have lined up to take pot-shots at how this Waterford team operates. In truth, the margin was made wider by the loss of Damien Cahalane to a second yellow card in the 51st minute and Cork, having been hit by two goals in the space of a minute, were wide open as they chased the game near the end, when Jamie Barron scored his second three-pointer.
Then, however, would Waterford have put themselves in such a position without turning their backs on convention? Hardly.
An 11-point difference doesn’t tell you how these sides were level on 12 occasions, how Cork had managed to go two points up in the 57th minute, having lost Cahalane, through the immensity that was Pa Horgan. Cork’s overwhelming support in the 72,022 crowd attempted to play their part in filling the role vacated by Cahalane after his high tackle on Conor Gleeson, but it was Waterford who drew blood next in the 59th minute when Austin Gleeson stole possession from Christopher Joyce, squared the ball to an unmarked Jamie Barron and his tidy hit was too good for Anthony Nash.
Cork had been impressive in responding to goals this summer — Shane Kingston had actually answered Michael Walsh’s first-half goal with a point in the next passage of play — but Conor Gleeson added to their difficulty from the following puck-out when he fired over from distance. Matters took a significant turn for the worse when Austin Gleeson, having been fed by Pauric Mahony, made up for a fumbled ball and, ignoring a better option of Michael Walsh on his right, he calmly dispatched the ball behind Nash after darting towards the Hill 16 posts.
Two points down to five points up in less than two minutes, a massive Mahony free followed in the 62nd minute and Waterford looked unbeatable. Scores by Conor Lehane and Luke O’Farrell were countered by points from Brian O’Halloran, Maurice Shanahan, Mahony and Austin Gleeson and Bannon’s second goal in additional time crowned a win that was emphatic on paper if not truly in nature.
Waterford merited this victory. Unlike the Munster semi-final, they played to the style that has come almost like second nature to them. Darragh Fives, no stranger to filling the sweeper role made famous by de Búrca, excelled, clearing ball between the two defensive lines, especially in the first half. The form men of Kevin Moran and Walsh were incredible in the first half, when Waterford, for all their dominance, were only one point up, 0-9 to 1-7, having posted nine wides.
If Moran was making midfield his own, Walsh, 14 years Mark Coleman’s senior, was ruling the right wing. At times, he found himself on his own, but was still able to hold up ball for advancing team-mates. It was his goal that sprung Waterford into a seventh-minute lead, when Shane Bennett crossed a ball that eluded Coleman and Walsh’s strike, while straight at Nash, couldn’t be stopped, given the short distance.
Cork recovered, managing to take the lead in the 23rd minute when Horgan fired over his third of four first-half frees. He helped himself to three points from play in that period, too, as his clever movement inflicted pain on a Waterford defence that was otherwise up to the job.
Waterford could have added a second goal, only for Nash to keep out Mahony, but the Ballygunner man came back with a couple of frees, the second of them after Cahalane had earned his first yellow card for fouling Austin Gleeson.
At that stage, the Waterford sideline may have been bemoaning the lack of support their forwards were getting and their mounting wide count, but they took satisfaction as Nash’s puck-outs were foiled or went out over the Hogan Stand sideline. It was obvious the game, at that stage, was being played out on their terms. As it turned out, the result would be too.
WATERFORD 4-19 CORK 0-20
Scorers for Waterford:
Pauric Mahony (0-8, 4 frees); J. Barron (2-1); K. Moran (0-4); M Walsh (1-0); A. Gleeson (1-2); D. Fives, C. Gleeson, B. O’Halloran, M. Shanahan (0-1 each).
Scorers for Cork:
P. Horgan (0-12, 7 frees); A. Cadogan, C. Lehane (0-2 each); S. Kingston, D. Fitzgibbon (sideline), S. Harnedy, L. O’Farrell (0-1 each).
S. O’Keeffe; S. Fives, B. Coughlan, N. Connors; D. Fives; K. Bennett, C. Gleeson, Philip Mahony; J. Barron, K. Moran (c); M. Walsh, A. Gleeson, Pauric Mahony; Shane Bennett, J. Dillon.
Subs for Waterford:
M. Shanahan for J. Dillon (46); B. O’Halloran for Shane Bennett (56); T. Ryan for M. Walsh (59); C. Dunford for Pauric Mahony (68); P. Curran for J. Barron (70+1);
C. Gleeson (69, red).
A. Nash; D. Cahalane, C. Spillane; M. Ellis; C. Joyce, S. McDonnell (c), M. Coleman; B. Cooper, D. Fitzgibbon; L. Meade, C. Lehane, S. Kingston; A. Cadogan, P. Horgan S. Harnedy.
Subs for Cork:
M. Cahalane for L. Meade (h-t); D. Kearney for B. Cooper, L. O’Farrell for A. Cadogan (both 64).
D. Cahalane (51, second yellow); P. Horgan (69, red).
J. Owens (Wexford).
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