By Jim O’Sullivan
THE precise stage at which this absorbing Guinness Munster hurling final was won and lost in Thurles yesterday was only reached in the closing minutes.
That was because a Cork side which had struggled in the opening 20 minutes, but stormed back in the second half with the aid of the wind, had the greater momentum to protect a narrow but decisive advantage on the scoreboard.
In reality, though, it was a minor disaster for Waterford to concede their title for spurning scoring chances at key stages.
Overall, a game which was unexpectedly disappointing in the first-half had several noteworthy features, not least the three-goal contribution from John Mullane
From the start, Waterford hurled with the greater conviction, settling quickly and gaining encouragement from the strong play of Dave Bennett at midfield and the early promise of their forwards.
They were two points ahead before Setanta Ó hAilpín's opportunism produced a splendid Cork goal in the sixth minute when he beat a hesitant Stephen Brenner to a half-hit shot from Niall McCarthy.
Mullane, who was to produce his best display of the campaign, troubled Diarmuid O'Sullivan from the opening minutes and, after switching with Wayne Sherlock briefly, the Cloyne man was replaced.
It had been a calculated gamble to start him, because he had been struck down by a virus for the past fortnight, but the Cork management reacted quickly and brought in Mark Prendergast who was to play very impressively.
Conversely, the Cork selectors showed commendable faith in their team when it was obvious that it was performing well below their semi-final standard.
In this sense, questions asked in advance about their ability to reproduce that form were being answered.
Waterford used the wind to boost a strengthening challenge which was given added impetus by good form from Tony Browne, which was surprising in view of his lay-off due to injury.
They were particularly solid in the full-back line, with Declan Prendergast using his height to do a good marking job on Ó hAilpín and Brian Greene, one of their most consistent players on the day, commanding against Joe Deane.
At the other end, Mullane's pace and power were still a worry to Cork even though Sherlock curbed him somewhat.
Andy Moloney was quite effective at left-half and once he settled (at full-forward) after an early head injury, and Paul Flynn had the beating of Pat Mulcahy.
The one negative for Waterford was the inability of Ken McGrath to contribute. One reason was that Ronan Curran was generally dominant at centre-back
However, the more obvious one was the Mount Sion star was to waste good opportunities in both halves and end the game with a tally of six wides.
By the 20th minute, Waterford were 1-8 to 1-1 in front and could feel well pleased with the return.
In contrast, Cork were still trying to get their challenge off the ground and were concerned at the lack of ball going into their inside forwards.
Ben O'Connor was not penetrating, Timmy McCarthy was wasteful with what little possession he had and it was left to Niall McCarthy to try and lift the siege which he did eventually.
While Alan Browne was finding it hard to make headway against Tom Feeney, he showed a good facility to win ball when he roamed out from the corner.
Coupled with improved play at half-back, where Sean Óg Ó hAilpín was settling, Cork showed obvious signs of a recovery in the last 15 minutes during which time they limited Waterford to a single point.
It meant that they went their dressingroom only five points in arrears (1-9 to 1-4), a better position than might have been anticipated earlier.
From the resumption, the Cork players were highly charged, much more focused and, in no time, competing on even terms all over the field. They were also be more disciplined in their approach.
In the space of eight minutes they had drawn level, before John Gardiner (from his second consecutive 70) had them ahead for the second time.
It was to set the scene for an exciting final quarter which was to produce four goals in a nine-minute period and set Cork up nicely for a final, conclusive push for victory.
Curran grew in stature at centre-back, where he was to be faced by Flynn.
Ken McGrath, meanwhile, was operating at midfield, where he was to win some good possession but fail to better Gardiner Mulcahy bounced back to be in control at full-back.
Tom Kenny came very much into his own (contributing a marvellous score); and Ben O'Connor was to produce some sparkling play including the last of four points from a sideline cut.
It meant that Cork posed a more potent threat in attack, with the inside trio benefiting from more ball of a higher quality.
Niall McCarthy exerted a strong influence and Timmy McCarthy improved, except in his shooting. In contrast, Tony Browne was to fade at midfeld for Waterford and Hartley also ran out of steam.
After Flynn set up Mullane for a 48th minute goal, Waterford enjoyed a two points lead briefly. And, seven minutes later Mullane came to their rescue again cancelling out an Alan Browne goal, created by the combined efforts of Ó hAilpín and O'Connor.
The game had reached its most competitive phase and the initiative was back with Cork when Deane ran on to a long clearance from Prendergast to goal.
Cork could even afford the luxury of some poor wides before Waterford came back, a crucial stage being reached when only two points separated the sides before O'Connor scored after a misdirected clearance by a Waterford back.
In the time remaining, a rampant Cork were not going to overtaken, with Waterford finishing with 14 men after Flynn was sent off for a second yellow card offence.
*Referee Pat O'Connor's handling of the game was well up to his usual high standard.
Scorers: Cork: J. Deane 1-4 (0-2 frees); A. Browne 1-1; B. O'Connor 0-4; J. Gardiner 0-4 (0-2 frees, 0-1 seventy); S. O hAilpín 1-0; N. McCarthy 0-2; T. Kenny 0-1.
Waterford: J. Mullane 3-1; D. Bennett 0-4; D. Bennett 0-4 (0-2 frees); P. Flynn 0-4 (0-1 free); E. Kelly, E. McGrath and T. Browne 0-1 each.
CORK: D. Óg Cusack; W. Sherlock, P. Mulcahy, D. O'Sullivan; T. Kenny, R. Curran, Sean Óg O hAilpín; M. O'Connell, J. Gardiner; B. O'Connor, N. McCarthy, T. McCarthy; Setanta O hAilpín, J. Deane, A. Browne (capt.). Subs: M. Prendergast for O'Sullivan (16th minute); J. O'Connor for O'Connell (66th).
WATERFORD: S. Brenner; T. Feeney, B. Greene, D. Prendergast; J. Murray, F. Hartley, E. Murphy; T. Browne (capt.), D. Bennett; E. Kelly, K. McGrath, A. Moloney; J. Mullane, P. Flynn, E. McGrath. Subs: S. Prendergast for Moloney (47th minute); P. O'Brien for Kelly (53rd); P. Queally for Browne (60th); N. Kelly for Hartley (62nd); M. Walsh for E. McGrath (68th).
Referee: P. O'Connor (Limerick).