Anthony Daly: How Waterford took a sledgehammer to Kilkenny's aura and mystique

Liam Cahill has done some job but one of his greatest achievements has been getting Waterford to play with the flair and natural abandon that almost became encrypted into the county’s DNA after the great Waterford team of the 2000s
Anthony Daly: How Waterford took a sledgehammer to Kilkenny's aura and mystique

Jack Prendergast, left, and Shane McNulty of Waterford celebrate the win. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

At half-time on Saturday, one of my WhatsApp groups was lighting up with messages about Kilkenny’s awesome power and all-consuming aura, and predictions of another imminent doom and gloom All-Ireland semi-final defeat for Waterford. 

I won’t name and shame some of the experts in the group but, in their minds, the match was already over. 

‘Hi,’ I texted back, ‘this isn’t football, seven points is nothing in hurling. This game is far from over.’ 

You might be less inclined to believe that’s possible against Kilkenny but I never felt that the game was gone from Waterford. They’d had a raft of wides. The theory of fatigue from playing three games inside 14 days was being bandied about on the WhatsApp group but I didn’t think Waterford looked tired or lethargic – they just appeared to be caught up in the occasion and the whole hype and mystique of Kilkenny.

I’ve seen it myself with Dublin how players can get spooked by Kilkenny’s aura. They don’t have that same mythical status that they had earlier in the last decade but, no matter how much you try and guard against it, players can be intimidated by that black and amber jersey and what it stands for. Despite all their experience, you could say that happened to Galway late on in the Leinster final.

I was nearly roaring at the TV at half-time. ‘Just throw off the shackles and go for it.’ I could nearly picture what Liam Cahill was saying to his players at the break. ‘What are ye standing back admiring them for? If we play our game and go at them, these boys won’t be able to hold us back.’ 

Once Waterford went for it, they blew Kilkenny away. Winning the third quarter by 1-11 to 0-4 showed what Waterford were capable of once they cut loose and began to express themselves and use their pace. Similar to Cavan, they also look like a side surfing on huge waves of momentum and confidence at the moment.

I’m sure Liam would nearly prefer if the All-Ireland final was on next Sunday. The last thing he needs now is sideshows. There isn’t the same propensity or scope for the public circus to pitch its tent in the current environment but an All-Ireland final is still an All-Ireland final. Cahill will want to keep playing this down as much as possible because remaining under the radar has suited Waterford all year long. I’d say he’ll hardly even be looking for new gear.

Liam has done some job but one of his greatest achievements has been getting Waterford to play with the flair and natural abandon that almost became encrypted into the county’s DNA after the great Waterford team of the 2000s. This team may not have the same sterling cast of Hall-of-Fame players. They may not be kissing jerseys or firing up the crowd (well they can’t now anyway!) but you still always feel that Waterford are at their best when they play like they’re out in the back garden having fun.

That just seems to be the Waterford way. We don’t know these lads now like we knew and loved Ken, Tony, Dan, Flynn, Mullane, Brick. But I’m sure all these guys were inspired by those players, and Cahill seems to have plugged back into the electricity of that Waterford character.

When Waterford took Tipperary apart in the last quarter of the 2016 Munster U21 final, the party started when Stephen Bennett sublimely flicked the ball over his head, near the sideline when facing out towards the crowd, onto an onrushing Peter Hogan to finish to the net. Bennett may not have been as audacious on Saturday but his goal smacked of that champagne attitude he showed as an underage player. 

The easy option would have been to take the point but Bennett’s attitude screamed: ‘Why not?’ 

Bennett was absolutely brilliant all evening but he really led the charge in the third quarter. He’s definitely in the running for Hurler-of-the-Year now but his form has nearly been a metaphor for this team’s improvement and development in 2020. Because Waterford have just been getting better, more expressive and more courageous as the season has progressed.

In many ways, his goal summed up the difference between the teams. Bennett just took off on a run and went for it and Kilkenny couldn’t catch him. By the time he struck the ball, there were five Kilkenny defenders around Bennett, and they still couldn’t stop him. Bennett is nowhere near the fastest player on this Waterford team. If you go through the side, you can list five speedsters and sprinters immediately off the top of your head; Calum Lyons, Jamie Barron, Jack Prendergast, Dessie Hutchinson, Shane McNulty.

Waterford have pace and runners all over the field but who is the fastest player on the Kilkenny squad? I can’t say but I don’t see pace anywhere in that team. Billy Ryan probably is the only player with speed to match up with Waterford’s pace but he was cleaned out on Saturday.

In the modern game, you can have all the skill and class in the world but pace is nearly every bit as much of a requirement. That is a worry for Kilkenny going forward. Even when you look at all the All-Ireland Colleges titles that St Kieran’s won over the last decade, I don’t recall any standout player with breakneck pace.

The other reality is that, apart from TJ Reid and Richie Hogan, Kilkenny just don’t have those X-factor players any more. You could argue that the players Waterford have in that category – particularly Austin Gleeson – weren’t really producing it over the last couple of seasons. Yet Gleeson showed all those X-factor qualities on Saturday. Gleeson was all over the shop in the first place but he was everything he is capable of being after the break. Some of his scores, especially the one he fished out of a ruck before turning and striking in less space you’d find in a phonebox, were outrageous.

Playing that third game inside three weeks was a concern we all flagged beforehand but this squad looks to be one of the fittest I’ve ever seen. They had the advantage of finishing their county championship in late August, but Waterford still look like a side with professional conditioning levels.

We all saw the photos earlier in the year of Gleeson’s chiselled body shape but that seems to be a theme throughout the squad; every sub that came on looked to be as lean and mean as anyone else. 

I don’t want to sound harsh, especially when 2020 has been such a challenging year, but other teams had fellas that looked completely out of shape, and nowhere near the conditioning levels reached by Waterford.

They are just a different animal this year. Guys who nobody heard off or knew anything about have just blown the lights out. Jack Fagan’s shot selection early on underlined his inexperience at this level but he just grew into the game and was an absolute colossus in the second half. Fagan dropped back deep to work like an extra defender and cut out ball but he had the pace, energy, athleticism and desire to get back up the field at every opportunity. He was also incredible under the dropping ball; I haven’t seen a player win as many clean puckouts in the air in years.

Saturday was all about Waterford but Kilkenny will be still be asking themselves hard questions. Brian Cody is Brian Cody. Kilkenny are Kilkenny. Cody and Kilkenny will just dust themselves down and go again next year. 

They will always be a threat but you’d still wonder what their All-Ireland ambitions are in the short, and long, term after Saturday? The Leinster final showed how and why they’re never beaten but TJ and Richie Hogan were central to that fightback. But how much longer can those two keep going? TJ will be 34 next year, Richie 33.

Kilkenny’s aura and mystique was always a weapon but Waterford took a sledgehammer to it in the second half Saturday. And I’m sure Galway, Wexford and Dublin in Leinster – and everyone else in Munster - will have learned a lot from how Waterford ripped it up and tore it down.

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