By Jim O'Sullivan
Galway 2-15 Waterford 1-13
THIS well-earned victory for Galway in yesterday's disappointing Allianz Hurling League final at the Gaelic Grounds was precisely what they required to boost their championship prospects.
It was also exactly what Waterford didn't need seven days before they take on Clare.
Conor Hayes' expertly prepared team set a standard very early in the game which they matched throughout the 70 minutes as a result of dominant play in defence and a much more potent attack. And, they got the reward they thoroughly deserved with an eighth title after a lapse of just four years.
In contrast, Waterford struggled to find a rhythm, were unfortunate that Dan Shanahan missed a great chance of a goal just before the interval and when it was really put up to them in the last quarter to try and save the game, they were still found wanting.
Starting with just three players in their selected positions, Waterford conceded a point after six minutes. When Dan Shanahan (who was to emerge as their best forward) pointed two minutes later it marked the only time that the teams were level. Very quickly afterwards Eugene Cloonan goaled from a powerfully-struck 21 yards free, giving Galway an important psychological advantage.
It saw them force the pace with very dependable covering at the heart of the defence and expose Waterford inadequacies at the other end through the speed and skill of Damien Hayes and Eugene Cloonan in particular, and Kevin Broderick to a lesser extent.
While Dave Bennett was doing excellent work for the Munster side around midfield and half-back, few of his team-mates apart from Shanahan were moving well. The failure of Paul Flynn from two scoreable frees up to the 16th minute from around 50 yards range was a further discouragement.
As the game developed, a clear pattern emerged. It was evident that Galway had the mobility and the craft to create openings on a regular basis, a factor greatly influenced by consistently good defending. Ultimately, this was to yield a man-of-the-match performance from right corner-back Damien Joyce and an outstanding display from team captain Ollie Canning the TG4 choice who was not that far behind on the other side. Additionally, Diarmuid Cloonan at full-back was soundness personified.
Consequently, Waterford's forwards made minimal progress in relation to what Galway were achieving, their challenge further enhanced by the twin contribution of Alan Kerins and Adrian Cullinane in the half-forward line. And, as long as the game was being contested in this fashion as it did, more or less, all the way the result was not going to change.
Bad defending, which saw Cloonan unmarked when the ball came through from the half-forward line, led to him scoring a second goal in the 28th minute. That was a serious blow to Waterford confidence, which took a further hit when Shanahan kicked inches wide after winning possession from a Ken McGrath clearance and was challenged by 'keeper Liam Donoghue. That was in injury time, after Waterford showed a slight improvement in attack when John Mullane made a strong effort, without much of a return. At the break, it was 2-6 to 0-6.
On the resumption, Galway missed a few early scoring opportunities, but it didn't really bother them because of the manner in which they were to increase their grip in defence. They were more forceful at midfield, where Fergal Healy prospered after Bennett faded (before surprisingly being replaced). Mullane made a few openings but couldn't finish and it was much the same story with a more involved Seamus Prendergast and Eoin Kelly, while Flynn had very little impact. Damien Joyce was superb against Mullane as well as in general play and, of added significance, was the contribution of Derek Hardiman at right half-back with a brilliant second half.
Waterford were to do better at half-back, where Ken McGrath was prominent at stages without ever being able to stamp his authority on the play. Both Tony Browne (in the centre) and Brian Phelan battled hard. However, there was no real indication of a recovery, even after Shanahan goaled in the 62nd minute, and they added three points with just one in reply.
However, five minutes from the final whistle they were two goals behind and it needed a serious comeback of the type that they were incapable of producing to end that long wait for a national triumph. Galway made certain it didn't happen.
Referee Tommy McIntyre's standard wasn't up to what would be expected at this level of competition.
Scorers: Galway: E. Cloonan 2-4 (1-3 frees); A. Cullinane, D. Hayes, K. Broderick, A. Kerins and D. Forde 0-2 each; D. Hardiman 0-1. Waterford: D. Shanahan 1-3; P. Flynn 0-5 (0-3 frees); E. Kelly 0-2; D. Bennett, J. Mullane and S. Prendergast 0-1 each.
GALWAY: L. Donoghue; D. Joyce, D. Hayes, O. Canning (capt.); D. Hardiman, D. Hayes, D. Collins; F. Healy, T. Og Regan; A. Cullinane, D. Forde, A. Kerins; D. Hayes, E. Cloonan, K. Broderick.
Subs: F. Moore for Regan (27th minute); R. Gantley for Collins (50th); D. Tierney for Cullinane (70th); O. Fahy for Hayes (72nd).
WATERFORD: S. Brenner; J. Murray, T. Feeney, E. McGrath; B. Phelan, T. Browne, K. McGrath; D. Bennett, M. Walsh; D. Shanahan, A. Moloney, E. Kelly; S. Prendergast, P. Flynn, J. Mullane.
Subs: J. Kennedy for Moloney (29th minute); P. O'Brien for Kennedy (54th); E. Murphy for Bennett (55th).
Referee: T. McIntyre (Antrim).
*Attendance: 16,750 (last year 17,153).