If it’s 20 years now since Saipan, well, that means it’s 20 years since Waterford beat Cork on a drizzly Sunday in Thurles and put themselves in position to end their Munster famine.
Amidst all the attention that a fellow Corkman was commanding at the time, that achievement of Justin McCarthy as well as the frustrations the Cork hurlers were experiencing regarding their own preparations didn’t get much of a look-in.
Although that would change somewhat that winter when on the same Friday Waterford were honoured with three All Stars up in Dublin, seven Cork hurlers walked into a room of journalists and declared that they and their colleagues had withdrawn their services; somewhere there’s a thesis written or to be written on how the example and spikiness of Keane influenced a raft of GAA players’ disputes in the noughties, especially in his native county.
Regardless, something special began for Waterford hurling that day in Thurles. About an hour after Ken McGrath playing with basically one arm swung over the winning point and his teammates out of a blend of ignorance and innocence refused to participate in the new post-match drug-testing protocol, the Waterford party finally emerged from the dressing room.
I caught Tony Browne’s eye and struck up a conversation with him in which he declared that the win was possibly even sweeter than ’98 – because it showed there was still more in this team after ’98. He was right.
A month later down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh Browne was scoring another goal from midfield and McGrath had recovered sufficiently enough to score six points from play in the Munster final meaning no World Cup figure, not even Ronaldo who bagged two goals in the final the same day, could overshadow him. Brazil had only gone eight years without winning the World Cup. Waterford had gone 39 years without winning a Munster. The day belonged to them and no one else.
The current Waterford team of Liam Cahill are essentially the children of that Waterford team of Justin, and Gerald, McCarthy. They grew up watching, idolising, modelling those players and were reared on watching them light up Thurles and Cork and eventually even Croke Park. Winning Munsters, winning leagues, and in time All Ireland quarter-finals and even semi-finals.
After the spring promise of ’98, the silverware delivered in 2002 proved to be the launch pad for more. Within a decade the county had won four Munsters. They’ve had three different managers deliver national league titles, just as they’ve had three bring the county to an All Ireland senior final. Where once the county contested only one All Ireland semi-final in 38 years, it has reached 13 in the past 20. There’s a certain baseline of performance and achievement the county has established since Roy and Mick fell out and Ken and Justin hit it off.
That’s what makes this past month so shocking and so disappointing. For all the county has won over the past two decades, including this season, the Big One still eludes them and after the scale and nature of their capitulation in Ennis last Sunday it seems as distant as it has ever been this millennium.
As a county they still obviously have quite a bit to learn, such as in managing as well as dealing with expectations. Derek McGrath has been one of the main architects of the Waterford renaissance – it having featured several micro-cycles and revivals since the breakthrough of 2002 – and is one of the most knowledgeable, intelligent as well as passionate Waterford hurling men there is. If he had to have it back again though he or certainly his county folk would have preferred if he’d contained his excitement upon Waterford winning the league.
Even – especially – in Kerry where they are used to going all the way and won a league themselves in some style this spring, any former player or coach tends to temper expectations and at every chance points to someone else – a Dublin in the football, a Limerick were they already in the Liam McCarthy in the hurling – as still the team to beat.
With so many commentators taking their lead from such an astute technical analyst as McGrath, it created a narrative – This is Waterford’s year! – and instead of being a compliment, such favouritism became a burden, much like it has crippled more than one Irish rugby team at a World Cup.
Where Waterford go next is anyone’s guess. Within a year of being at the peak of his powers McGrath stepped away, feeling a certain arc had run its course. Cahill could come to a similar conclusion, although the suspicion and hope is that he’ll stay on and suitably reinvent or at least improve himself and his methods as well as the panel.
But whoever coaches Waterford in 2023 inherits a considerable challenge as much as an opportunity. The reality is the core of this team have shown a capacity to bounce back – like coming out of nowhere to win the league in 2015, or rebounding from two dismal round-robin campaigns to reach two consecutive All Ireland semi-finals.
But they have also a worrying tendency for a defeat to morph into an absolute capitulation; last Sunday was not only their 10th defeat in 12 round-robin games but the fifth they’ve lost by at least a dozen points. There’s a way to lose, like how they did to Limerick last month, but too often now when they’ve lost they’ve continued to lose and lose the wrong way.
Time and history could still be kind to this Waterford team and Cahill. Maybe they’ll be back next year, wiser and fresher when it counts, and when the totality of Cahill’s reign is assessed it will be noted he delivered a national league title amongst other things, something the county given its history should never sneeze at, not even now.
Meanwhile as one famine continues, another could be about to end. It hardly gets the external attention that Mayo’s long wait without Sam or Waterford’s without Liam attracts, especially given where the latter trophy ended up in the autumn of 2013, but it is now 24 years since Clare last won the Munster championship.
In the intervening years every other hurling county in the province has won at least four. While it would be inaccurate to say that Clare ever reassumed their status as being the whipping boys of Munster, it’d also be fair to say that the likes of Daly, Loughnane and Lohan back in the summer of ’98 never thought the county would go so long without winning their province again.
If there’s one group of people as pragmatic and as unromantic as Brian Lohan though it’s this Limerick team, and Sunday week gives them the opportunity to create a bit of history of their own. Just as another All Ireland this year would surely make them the greatest non-Kilkenny team since the second world war, another provincial title would mean they’d be the first non-Cork team to win four consecutive Munsters since the Mackey team of 1933 to 1936.
As scintillating and promising as Waterford appeared to be in April and as impressive and formidable as Clare are now, there can be no ambiguity as to who is still the team to beat.