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Never-say-die Déise reap

HEARTBREAK for Limerick at the end of this magnificent Munster senior hurling championship yesterday, denied by that most cruel of strikes, the late, late goal, but Waterford, Waterford — what a display of true grit and character to dig out a win from a game that looked lost.

They trailed by two points as the game headed into injury-time, a rampant and rejuvenated Limerick with their tails up and looking set for the hurling upset of the season. A 25 metre free by Eoin Kelly in that final minute of normal time, mis-hit in an attempt on goal and comfortably saved, had looked to be Waterford’s final chance. However, intense pressure applied by their forwards kept the ball alive and Limerick were unable to get in a telling clearance. It bobbled, it broke, it fell to Eoin Kelly again, this time in the wide left position, no opportunity to score himself. But beyond all the bodies massed in around the Limerick goalmouth and lurking over in the opposite corner, Eoin spotted a blue and white jersey and a red helmet, sent a telling cross.

Oh so unfortunate for Limerick that the red helmet belonged to the deadly John Mullane, so fitting that the final lethal strike should come from one of Waterford’s greatest players of the past decade. John gathered, aimed, fired one of his missiles, and a cruel/kind deflection took it past the faultless Nicky Quaid in the Limerick goals — two-point deficit transformed instantly to one-point lead.

It still wasn’t game over and Waterford had to defend for their lives in the two minutes of added time as Limerick came in desperate search of an equaliser. It didn’t happen for them however, the champions survived, and now Waterford get an opportunity to do what they’ve never done in their long and proud history, retain their Munster title.

But, how many thrillers is this we’ve seen Waterford involved in, over the last glorious decade and more? If it’s not Cork it’s Tipperary, if not Tipperary it’s Limerick – first in 2003, and now again.

!The game started with a Limerick point, outstanding midfielder Donal O’Grady from distance after a short stick-pass from centre-back Brian Geary, and this was to set the tone for the day – no hit-and-hope from either side here, two well-coached sides going about their business with true hurling intelligence and tactical awareness.

It was soon obvious too that Limerick had come to Thurles to play and in the opening quarter they matched Waterford score for score, trailed by two points after 21 minutes, 1-3 to 0-4, Mullane with the Waterford goal after Tom Condon had slipped on the greasy surface.

Waterford then began to pull away, opened up a six-point gap (1-7 to 0-4) as Limerick struggled for composure in front of the posts, shooting a succession of wides. Just before the break, however, they halved that lead, wing-back Wayne McNamara (great tussle with Pauric Mahony) surging forward for a cracking goal, and at 1-9 to 1-6 at half-time, Waterford in front, it was still finely poised.

Into the second-half, and suddenly Limerick found their rhythm. A long-range free from Geary got their supporters in the disappointing crowd of 15,650 going, then a virtuoso goal from teenage championship debutant Kevin Downes, slipping past Wayne Hutchinson and sending an angled drive past Clinton Hennessey from point-blank range, had those fans on their feet.

One thing we knew now for certain – second division or not, this Limerick team was very much for real. They built on that lead, points from O’Grady and the flying Graeme Mulcahy, but then we also know the character in this Waterford team and a superb solo goal from yet another championship debutant, Shane Walsh, soon had the Decies back on level terms, 2-9 apiece, 44th minute.

A titanic tussle this was turning out to be, fortunes swaying this way and that; Waterford now took the lead, points from the outstanding Mahony, Mullane and the flying Brian O’Sullivan; back came Limerick, points from Richie McCarthy and Niall Moran, then another Downes special – Limerick now ahead 3-11 to 2-12. Frantic stuff, mighty stuff, and in the 60th minute they were level again, 2-15 to 3-12.

Two long-range points then seemed to have put Limerick on their way, sub David Breen with one, Moran with the other, setting up the late, late drama.

Opportunity missed, definitely, for Limerick, some very bad wides, but – not for the first time in recent years – opportunity superbly taken by Waterford.

Scorers for Waterford: J Mullane 2-2; P Mahony 0-7 (0-4f); S Walsh 1-1; M Shanahan 0-2; B O’Sullivan 0-2; S O’Sullivan 0-1.

Scorers for Limerick: K Downes 2-1; N Moran 0-4; W McNamara 1-0; D O’Grady 0-3; R McCarthy 0-3 (frees); G Mulcahy, B Geary (free), D Breen, 0-1 each.

Subs for Waterford: J Nagle for Hutchinson (55); S Prendergast for Shanahan (58); E Kelly for Mahoney (67).

Subs for Limerick: D Moloney for Reale (58); P Tobin for McCarthy (64); D Breen for S Tobin (66); M O’Riordan for Browne (70).

Referee: B Kelly (Westmeath).