I took my place behind the Waterford dugout in Nowlan Park yesterday, disguised and muffled up with a hat and scarf, trying to stay as anonymous but close to the action as possible.
I wanted to observe Derek McGrath and his management team in action and I smiled to myself at the final whistle when he and Dan Shanahan high-fived.
It wasn’t a John Mullane-esque show of raw emotion but you could tell how much the win meant to them.
They were right to be delighted because it was the first time Waterford had got a win in Nowlan Park against Kilkenny since 2004.
Similar to their victory against Tipperary in Thurles last March, it was another milestone for Waterford on this journey, another important signpost pointing them towards their intended final destination.
Everything is in place for them to have a real rattle at this All-Ireland. It might still take another year to get it done but Waterford have proven that they can match the best of them now.
They may have lost to Kilkenny twice over the last two summers but very few teams, if any, have beaten Brian Cody’s side in successive league seasons.
There was a sweetness to the taste, too, given how up for this Kilkenny really were. There is a real edge to this rivalry, which is a further sign of the respect Kilkenny now reserve for Waterford.
Big Dan was up and down the sideline, and in and out of the pitch like a larger version of Davy Fitz, but the heat was really turned up when Stephen Daniels nailed Pat Lyng after half-time. Brian Cody certainly wasn’t happy.
The referee Fergal Horgan did well to leave the red card in his pocket because there were plenty of other saucy exchanges and digs. Tadgh de Burca got away with a high challenge.
TJ Reid and Richie Hogan were lucky a couple of times. Hogan’s was out of pure frustration because Noel Connors gave an exhibition of corner-back play. Beside Connors, Barry Coughlan and Shane Fives gave no change to Liam Blanchfield and Jonjo Farrell either.
Walter Walsh came on at half-time and made a difference but Kilkenny had to come deeper to get their hands on the ball. Cody goes on about his ambivalence towards tactics but they blatantly brought a man back to provide more cover in front of Padraig Walsh at full-back.
I don’t think that experiment worked for Cody because Padraig doesn’t look comfortable at full-back. I often said it to Brian Lohan, that you nearly need to play like a wing-back inside at full-back in the modern game.
You need to take chances and attack the play. It’s amazing the amount of lads who are handed the No 3 jersey and think they have to morph into something from another world, that the position is almost alien to anything they had previously done as hurlers.
t’s not. You just need to play with a high-risk atti- tude. When Peter Kelly went back in as an emergency full-back for Dublin against Galway in the 2011 Leinster semi-final, after Tomas Brady tore his cruciate, I said to Kelly, ‘What’s the difference? Just play this like wing-back’.
He did and he was superb in the position for a finish.
Waterford were the better team yesterday. They were gritty more than clinical, which is what you’d expect for this time of the year.
Stephen Bennett typified their wastefulness at times with a couple of Hail Mary efforts but the Waterford management whipped him off and brought in Brian O’Halloran to carry the ball more.
Patrick Curran’s goal also underlined the good coaching going on in this set-up. As a coach, it was the goal you’d dream of concocting, with three straight catches.
Kevin Moran caught Eoin Murphy’s puckout before driving it down the channel to Tom Devine, who got out in front of Walsh and played a hurley pass across to Bennett, who rifled it to the net.
It showed the composure and steadiness McGrath is trying to instil in the players; they are getting there. They showed good character. They also displayed some serious conditioning, especially Jamie Barron who was everywhere.
TJ Reid and Richie Hogan are still two of the top four players in the country but when you compare the teams now, Waterford have more talent and class.
If you took the 52 players listed in the programme, I’d estimate that, in terms of touch and speed and ability, 32 of the top guys were in white jerseys. And yet Kilkenny almost dug out a draw.
It’s just incredible what Cody is getting out of these Kilkenny players.
The culture he has instilled is just phenomenal because they fought on their backs for every inch. They’re like a greyhound at Clonmel that doesn’t break the clock in the first round but who is going up the field the sixth time as fast as the first. Steady relentlessness.
GAA Podcast: Kilkenny revenge mission another step forward for Waterford
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