A fairytale finish from brave warrior

ANYONE who has ever held a hurley in his hand has had the dream, or some variant of the dream.

Your team is two points down with time almost up when the ball comes to you 20 yards from the opposition goal...

For a few, that dream becomes reality. For John Mullane it came true yesterday as he scored the late, late goal to win the Munster SHC game for Waterford against Limerick.

What goes through your mind when that happens? “Eoin (Kelly) showed great ability to get to the ball in the corner and to get it across, and I gave a shout to Brian O’Sullivan, ‘leave it, leave it’,” said Mullane.

“The thing opened up for me then. I got a nice strike on it and thankfully it went in. People have questioned me, about my goalscoring over the years, but thankfully it went my way and I got two. We were just delighted with the result and to get out of jail.”

They broke out alright. Waterford cruised the first half and took a three-point lead in for the cup of tea, only for Limerick, primarily through Kevin Downes, to blitz them on the restart and go ahead by two with 69 minutes on the clock. Mullane’s impersonation of the Count of Monte Cristo saw his side through to the Munster final, however.

At the very least, it’ll banish memories of the first half. At the break yesterday we were thinking of an old classic: man goes to the doctor, gets six months to live. Asks for a second opinion.

“You’re ugly, too,” says the medic.

At 4.37pm we’d had a tepid puckaround between Waterford and Limerick. A second opinion? The crowd was no great shakes either, a mere 15,000 and change.

By then the only silver lining was that the game was at least better than the last time these sides met on a wet field in Thurles. Two years ago the game was so bad it was a wonder that passing birds didn’t fall stunned from the skies, to recycle an old Clive James line.

The second half, however, was Munster championship hurling as it should be: Limerick were transfigured, reeling off 1-4 in five minutes, with Downes getting his first goal. Waterford replied with a Shane Walsh goal. Then Downes hit another. Limerick had momentum, and looked to have the game won until Mullane’s late intervention.

Oddly enough, the play seemed more cat-and-mouse with tactics in that coruscating second half than in the first.

We’d come expecting a game with more tactics than a convention of Prussian generals, but we saw a relatively straightforward game of hurling in the first half.

After the break Limerick withdrew players to leave Tony Browne isolated in the Waterford defence, while Davy Fitzgerald had his two corner-forwards, Mullane and the quicksilver Brian O’Sullivan rotating incessantly to the discomfort of their opponents.

Limerick boss Donal O’Grady sounded last week like a cross between Edmund Hillary and Jacques Cousteau, talking about shark pools and Mt Everest, but his essential point was sound: Division Two, even at the upper end, is no preparation for the Munster championship.

It was noticeable that Limerick were blocked and hooked a good deal in the first half, not to mention getting caught in possession. However 35 minutes was enough for acclimatisation. Limerick were quick over the ground and far crisper in the second half, even if the game’s last twist was a heartbreaking one.

O’Grady wasn’t devastated afterwards, according to himself: “Disappointed is the word.

“You could throw out the old cliche about a draw being a fair result, but the team that scores more deserves the win. We had our chances, Waterford had their chances, it was a ding-dong struggle, and when you lose a game in the last minute you always look for positives. We lasted the pace well, some of our players ran out of steam, they’ve had only four or five nights’ training, but the youngsters stood up well.

“A bit of luck at the end would have brought us home, but that’s the way things go.”

The foundation stones are there, though the Corkman will no doubt work hard on option-taking among his forwards, while Seamus Hickey will likely be moved outfield if Stephen Lucey regains his fitness.

For his opposite number, there are issues also. Waterford have attracted many backhanded compliments for a more pragmatic approach under Davy Fitzgerald, with some operatic commentary about the departure of great characters of the game, but the sleek efficiency they’ve introduced is a reliable engine for progress.

Still, Eoin Kelly’s clever ball to Mullane looked a shot that few of the newer players might have in their locker. Fitzgerald may accommodate the Passage man in the Munster final, but the perennial Waterford issue raised its head when Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh had to be moved to full-back to contain Kevin Downes.

Walsh at 3 and Kevin Moran at 6 for the provincial decider?

The guessing starts now.

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