I was walking out by Barry’s Hotel after yesterday’s All-Ireland semi-final when I came across a group of Waterford supporters, broken up and beaten down by the result.
“We’ve blown our chance,” one of them said to me.
“Ye haven’t,” I said back to them. “It’s still there for ye.”
The natural and reflex action when you lose a game that you should have won against Kilkenny is to feel, and believe deep down, that the chance is gone.
With what I saw from Waterford yesterday, I really believe it isn’t.
What will have changed in six days? Waterford can be better again.
Why shouldn’t they believe they can be?
I made the Pádraig Harrington analogy here on Saturday about taking it to the edge, that if you keep bringing it to that frontier, you’ll eventually reach a tipping point. Waterford are right there. They can almost feel it.
And there is no reason why they can’t grab it now.
I’ve been here in this position myself facing a replay against Kilkenny. When TJ Reid hit the equalising point in the dying moments of the drawn 2013 Leinster semi-final, the Dublin supporters were thinking just like the Waterford fans are now.
We could almost hear what was being said but we shut all that stuff out. We should have won the drawn game. We believed we could win the replay. And we did.
That’s the mindset Waterford need to have now this week because it all comes down to belief now. It’s going to take good management but Waterford have that. They don’t need to train much this week, maybe even go for a dip in Clonea Strand, and then sit down and trash out why they couldn’t close the game out.
If they have a sports psychologist, get him or her to sit down for a raft of one-to-ones with the players to find out what they’re really thinking. If they’re doing video analysis, show all the positive clips of where Waterford could have won the game. Keep asking the questions of Kilkenny. Can they keep coming up with the answers?
Waterford did retreat too deep too early but that is only human nature, especially for a young team, when the finishing line is in sight. You always run the risk when you invite Kilkenny on, and they nearly paid the ultimate price. They could have if Paul Murphy had nailed that late chance.
It would have been a travesty if he had because Waterford didn’t deserve to lose. It was an epic match. The 77 minutes went by in a flash, which is always a great sign. It was an enthralling occasion.
You couldn’t have scripted the drama. After all the negativity and poor hurling matches over the last two seasons, this was a game for the ages.
This was hurling how it should be played; no holding back, gung-ho stuff. At times, we have a tendency to overcomplicate matters in hurling, to believe that strategies and gameplans and gimmicks are more important than being manly and winning your won ball. Waterford went toe-to-toe from the start and they proved they can live with Kilkenny on those terms.
If anything, it was Kilkenny who played more withdrawn by sitting Richie Hogan so deep. In response, it was natural that Tadgh de Burca wouldn’t want to get dragged down the field and leave the full-back line completely unprotected.
Waterford tackled and harried like demons but Kilkenny are like a platoon of vampires; you need to stick the dagger in their hearts, nail the coffin shut and trample the earth down on top of them before you have them buried.
Waterford were a credit to themselves in how they went about their business. You always felt they would need a goal and 22 or 23 points to get them over the line and they almost hit that target. When the finishing line loomed into view though, they just couldn’t mine those extra couple of scores which would have been enough to get the job done.
Kilkenny never give up. They kept going even when it wasn’t happening for them, when it didn’t look like it would. They will believe now too that they will be far better the next day. They will expect far more from TJ Reid, Michael Fennelly, Conor Fogarty, Jonjo Farrell, Kieran Joyce. They will be better on Saturday, but some of Waterford’s players can be too.
Apart from Richie Hogan, who nailed four unreal points from five shots, Waterford had all the big performers, especially Pauric Mahony and Austin Gleeson. Mahony scored every chance he had.
Gleeson was phenomenal. Are we looking at possibly one of the greatest talents the game has ever seen? He certainly has that potential. Channelled properly over the next few years, this guy could be anything.
The pace and power and scoring ability he showed yesterday should be the starting point for Waterford now this week. Kilkenny may still have all the big names but Waterford have some outstanding young players who can reach, or possibly surpass that level. They don’t need to wait around for it to happen. It will on Saturday if they fully believe it can.
Finally, a magic day began for me in the curtain raiser with the emphatic win by the Limerick minors. After the hiding we got from Tipperary in the Munster final, the lads have shown super character to bounce back and reach an All-Ireland final.
We played Wexford and Dublin twice this year in challenge games and knew we were as good as both of them. A chance to reach an All- Ireland presented itself and the lads grabbed it with both hands.
Next weekend now is going to be a hurling utopia. An intriguing replay on Saturday in Thurles. We’ll know our minor final opponents after the Galway-Tipp semi-final. Then the Galway and Tipp seniors will go at it.
Kilkenny are like a platoon of vampires; you need to stick the dagger in their hearts
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