Derek McGrath mentioned it in passing last week but it’s a game worth revisiting.
Back in 1996, Waterford played Tipperary in the Munster championship at home in Walsh Park, the last time the venue hosted a senior game in the provincial series.
McGrath was a Waterford sub that day, but he’s not the only one who remembers the game.
“It was an unusual build-up because there hadn’t been too many games in Walsh Park,” says Colm Bonnar.
“And on top of that it was a Munster semi-final. It was a big occasion for Walsh Park. They said there were 16,000 at the game but I’d say it was closer to 20,000. The place was bursting.”
Waterford had good players on hand — Sean Cullinane, Stephen Frampton, Fergal Hartley. Paul Flynn on the frees.
Bonnar was part of an experienced Tipperary outfit with plenty of quality in its ranks, though. He and Nickey English went back a decade in the blue and gold, John Leahy and Tommy Dunne supplied plenty of class, while Michael Cleary was the sharpshooter up front. Bonnar was under a little pressure ahead of the game, however.
Living in Waterford and working in Waterford Institute of Technology, he had more reason than most to do well, even though he was coming back from a broken finger and had had no hurling for five or six weeks.
“It was a time when you didn’t have opponents analysed to the same extent you do now,” he says.
“We didn’t do it and I don’t think other teams did, really. It was a game where you had fifteen on fifteen and you just went out and hurled.
“You played against these teams in the league and in challenge games, from club hurling and so forth. If anything, though, you knew fellas better because there were no faceguards and even helmets weren’t compulsory.”
There was a backstory to the clash. There always is.
Tipperary had beaten Waterford in a notoriously bad-tempered Munster final in 1989, and six years later the Premier had too much quality again in another Munster championship game. Waterford needed to put down a marker that better days were ahead.
They had won an All-Ireland U21 in 1992 and the feeling was that graduates from that team — the likes of Tony Browne and Paul Flynn — were ready to raise the bar.
“We’d won comfortably in 1995 and I remember the Waterford manager, Tony Mansfield, was looking for them to take a step forward,” says Bonnar.
“They were able to get results against the other teams — they’d beaten Cork in 1989 — but they found us a tough nut to crack.
“We knew Walsh Park would be a lot tighter than Thurles, and that there’d be a partisan crowd roaring them on. We were expecting a tough game, and we got one.”
It was a tight game, with Cleary’s frees significant. Waterford shipped their goal early on, when debutant Ken McGrath was blown harshly, according to local observers, and Tipp found the net in the resulting attack. They got their own goal — a close-in Flynn free — late, and Bonnar says Tipperary never felt the game was safe until the end.
“We just kept our noses in front. The fact that we had some very experienced fellas playing helped, definitely. We were never at our ease until the final whistle went”
The day worked out well for the Cashel native. He picked up the man of the match award, which helped etch the game in his memory.
“I didn’t get too many of them over the years,” he says. “I was delighted with my own performance that day, I was living in Waterford and if I’d gone badly or been taken off, I’d never have heard the end of it. Working in WIT, too, there were a lot of players studying there, so the slagging could have been fairly sharp if we’d lost.
“We were confident we had the players to win but we weren’t over-confident, certainly.”
The game was more significant in Waterford’s evolution. They started a fair-haired teenager that year who’d already played minor for the county. It was Ken McGrath’s first senior championship game and he ended with a point. Another teenager, Dan Shanahan, was on the bench. Paul Flynn was already contributing. The foundation was there.
“I’d say Tony Mansfield would have done his homework on the Tipp lads, he was passionate about hurling and about Waterford,” says Bonnar.
“I’d say it was more a question of impressing on his lads not to be giving too much respect to Tipperary, to make their own careers and to start their own legacies.
“You’d never be happy with a defeat, but it was definitely a game that Waterford could take something from. They brought in Gerald (McCarthy) as manager the following year, and within twelve months they’d beaten us in the Munster semi-final below in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
They were coming, though that was the first time I’d been on a Tipp team beaten by Waterford. I retired after that.”
Bonnar fell in with the enemy soon afterwards. Some of his opponents in 1996 — Ken McGrath, Shanahan — were still underage when the Tipperary man took over as a physical trainer with the Waterford U21s. So was Derek McGrath.
“Damien Byrne was concussed up in Walsh Park that evening,” says Bonnar. “We went looking for him afterwards to see if he was alright, myself and Nicky (English).
“We ended up having a couple of pints in the Granville with him, which wouldn’t be the recommended action nowadays if you pick up a concussion.”
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