Dogged Déise shade a gripper

A superb Munster senior hurling championship semi-final in balmy Semple Stadium yesterday, with drama right at the death as Waterford’s championship debutant Stephen O’Keeffe saved a rifled 20m free from Clare custodian Patrick Kelly in the final act of the game to deny the Banner men a victory they had been favoured to achieve.

In the end it was a fully merited win for Waterford, and saw them create their own little bit of history, becoming the first team from the Decies to reach four Munster finals in a row.

And yet such was the see-saw nature of this game, so evenly matched the teams, that had Kelly’s last-ditch effort succeeded, or had Clare sub Darach Honan managed to control the bobbling ball on the edge of the Waterford square a few seconds earlier, or had Nicky O’Connell pointed even two of the three late placed-ball opportunities Clare had and the result been a win for the Banner, that too would have been well merited.

It was that kind of game.

Much of the talk beforehand had been dominated by what had come to be known as The Davy Factor, the influence that former Waterford manager (2008-11) Davy Fitzgerald would have now that he had taken his allegiance home to his native Clare.

Always an animated figure on the sideline, engaging on occasion with match officials, opposing managers/selectors and even opposing players, would that be the case on this occasion? Would it turn sour, would the side-show dominate the main event?

Thankfully none of the above ever transpired, not until after the final whistle when John Mullane (an outstanding performance yet again from one of the finest forwards of the past dozen years) ran crossfield to celebrate Waterford’s win in front of Davy, prompted apparently by reports mid-week that his former manager had written him off as being over the hill. Mischief-making, that’s all it was — the opposite is in fact the case.

“I think John Mullane was told something that was untrue,” said Davy; “Listen, let me say this 100% on the record — John Mullane is one of the best players I’ve ever seen and has another two or three years in him big-time if he wants. Sometimes people tell players things to get them riled up and to perform in a game. I have a lot of respect for those guys.”

Even more respect this morning, surely, because while this wasn’t champagne hurling of the type and the style we’ve seen from Waterford teams of the past decade, it was still a performance of outstanding character.

Goalkeeper O’Keeffe was outstanding, always available to take a back pass from his under-pressure defence, struck laser-like puckouts and produced a super block of a point-blank Conor McGrath shot minutes before the final game-saving heroics.

Another debutant, corner-back Stephen Daniels, did a brave containing job on the aforementioned McGrath (a superstar in the making) while full-back Liam Lawlor and Aidan Kearney alongside him also did well.

The half-back trio of Richie Foley, captain Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh and Kevin Moran formed a stout outer defensive wall, Phillip Mahony (yet another debutant) and Stephen Molumphy shaded the midfield battle, while up front, well, six forwards scoring, five of those from play, what more can you ask?

Clare too had their heroes, starting with keeper Patrick Kelly who recovered from an early stumble that gifted Shane Walsh the second Waterford goal to make a super save from Gavin O’Brien, hit a monster free in the second half to put his side a point ahead with just 20 minutes remaining.

Full-back Cian Dillon too recovered from a shaky start to do well, Domhnall O’Donovan was a tiger, Conor Cooney did the same kind of limitation job on Mullane as Daniels was doing at the other end, midfielders Nicky O’Connell and Patrick Donnellan had their moments, while up front Clare too had their scoring heroes, four players sharing the load with McGrath who, even if wasn’t the main scorer for either side, was certainly the main man.

On a day when there was no great wind advantage to speak of Waterford led at the break by two points, 2-8 to 1-9, their goals coming from an Eoin Kelly penalty bullet (13th minute, Kelly himself getting away with an earlier foul) and Walsh’s opportunist effort (20th minute).

John Conlon had Clare’s major after a fine cross by late call-up Padraig Collins. Twice in that period Waterford led by four points and were looking the more balanced side, but two Conlon points just before the break kept Clare in touch.

Early in the second half Waterford again went four clear thanks to fine points from Mullane and Maurice Shanahan, but a five-point run from Clare culminating in that 100m Kelly bomb had them ahead by one in the 50th minute (1-14 to 2-10).

Waterford’s turn then to take charge, five unanswered points restoring that four-point lead; then a change in fortunes yet again as Clare went into the ascendancy, back to a point in the 65th minute (2-16 to 1-18).

Again and again Clare were going to McGrath and he almost delivered, but Daniels was always doing just enough to frustrate him.

Sub Martin O’Neill had the final word on the scoreboard, scoring with his first touch for Waterford to put them two clear, setting up those last-minute dramatics. Enjoyable, hugely enjoyable — pity there were only 12,296 there to see it.

Scorers for Waterford: M Shanahan 0-7 (5f); S Walsh 1-1; J Mullane 0-3; E Kelly 1-0 (pen); P Mahony, S Molumphy, S Prendergast, G O’Brien, M O’Neill, R Foley (f), 0-1 each.

Scorers for Clare: J Conlon 1-2; N O’Connell 0-5 (4f); C McGrath 0-4; J Clancy 0-3; C Ryan 0-3 (3f); P Kelly 0-1 (1f). Subs for Waterford: N Connors (Kearney 35); P O’Brien (G O’Brien 49); T Ryan (S Walsh 59); D Twomey (Foley 62); M O’Neill (Kelly 68).

Subs for Clare: L Markham (McInerney 44); F Lynch (Barrett 54); D Honan (Collins 59); S Morey (O’Connor 59); A Cunningham (Ryan 65).

Referee: J McGrath (Westmeath).

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