Limerick, with their most complete championship performance in several years, swagger on. Waterford, with not a single punch left in them, stumble out.
Challenge-game pace had replaced championship intensity by the end of this clash. Limerick’s Shane Dowling, Kyle Hayes, Tom Morrissey, and Gearoid Hegarty were guilty of striking a handful of poor wides, but aside from a brief exhale of frustration from Treaty manager John Kiely, no one in the crowd of 23,194 batted an eyelid.
The hosts had this contest sewn up, had long since torpedoed Waterford out the exit door of this championship.
It’s been a while since a Limerick team could enjoy the closing stages of such an important fixture and, while much has been made of this being Waterford’s third game in 14 days, the litany of injuries which befell them on their travels to Ennis and the injustice they endured at this very venue the weekend before last, the simple truth from yesterday’s game is the Déise were hurled off the field.
To illustrate said point, we’re going to hone in on Limerick’s six unanswered scores directly after their opponents had raised three white flags to leave the scoreboard reading 2-8 to 0-5.
After Pauric Mahony threw over his second free to cut the gap to nine on 22 minutes, Nicky Quaid fired the subsequent restart into the paw of Tom Morrissey who had put a gap of 5m between himself and Michael Brick Walsh. Morrissey turned to face the Waterford goal and split the posts.
Shane Dowling, standing over a free around halfway, opted to go short to Kyle Hayes as not a single Waterford defender bothered to pick him up. The youngest man on the field similarly split the posts.
Stephen O’Keeffe sent the resulting puckout to Conor Gleeson. The full-back, with plenty of time to find a fellow white shirt, drilled the sliotar to Morrissey who returned it back over the crossbar with interest. It was so incredibly easy for Limerick.
On 27 minutes, a gaggle of Waterford players engaged in an episode of short-passing just inside their own half. Possession was coughed up, Philip Mahony fouling the Limerick raider. Dowling converted the free and nailed his fifth dead-ball effort in the subsequent action.
The 25-year old, making his first start in a green shirt since July 1 of last year, registered his first from play on the half-hour mark. Waterford defender Shane McNulty stood and waited for a long clearance to fall into his hand, Dowling, meanwhile, sprinted out in front of McNulty, trapped possession, spun on a sixpence and sent the home side 2-13 to 0-5 ahead.
Where Waterford were disorganised, sluggish, and blunt, Limerick were sharp, direct, and so much quicker in speed of thought and movement.
This group of young hurlers aren’t constrained by the county’s previous failings at senior level. Their education was two All-Ireland U21 titles, three Munster U21 titles and four successive Munster minor final appearances. They don’t care, nor have they been in any way intimidated, by what Cork, Tipperary, or Waterford did over the last two seasons.
Three minutes into the second half and their lead still comfortably in double-digit territory, Cian Lynch hunted and hounded Jamie Barron until he succeeded in pickpocketing the 2017 hurler of the year nominee. Possession was smartly worked through the lines, Seamus Flanagan stringing the final pass to Kyle Hayes.
The centre-forward duly obliged in firing over his second of the day. That, and Dowling being spotted deep in his own half lending a hand with the defensive workload, typified the insatiable hunger which Limerick brought to the table.
Their midfield partnership of Darragh O’Donovan and Cian Lynch, neither that long out of the U21 grade, contributed four points from play. The Waterford pair of Barron and Stephen Roche, by way of contrast, were sitting in the stand when Sean Cleere brought proceedings to a close.
Three other U21 medal-winners combined for their opening goal; Hayes, still a teenager, and Flanagan putting through Hegarty on 10 minutes.
Their second green flag four minutes later was far more fortuitous, goalkeeper Stephen O’Keeffe fumbling Seamus Flanagan’s delivery. Graeme Mulcahy was on hand to punish the error. This propelled the hosts 2-7 to 0-2 clear. By half-time, it was 2-14 to 0-7.
Waterford sub Tommy Ryan pulled a goal back for Derek McGrath’s charges. It mattered not an iota. But for O’Keeffe at the other end, Kyle Hayes would have doubled the winners’ goal tally.
Limerick’s youthful vigour has morphed into championship consistency in less than a month.
In the same period of time, Waterford’s championship ambitions have been reduced to rubble.
S Dowling (0-15, 0-13 frees); G Hegarty (1-1); G Mulcahy (1-0); C Lynch (0-3); T Morrissey, K Hayes (0-2 each); S Flanagan, D O’Donovan (sideline), D Dempsey (0-1 each).
P Mahony (0-10, 0-9 frees); T Ryan (1-0); S O’Keeffe, DJ Foran, T Devine, S Bennett, M Kearney, M Shanahan (0-1 each).
N Quaid; S Finn, M Casey, R English; D Byrnes, D Hannon, D Morrissey; D O’Donovan, C Lynch; T Morrissey, K Hayes, G Hegarty; S Flanagan, S Dowling, G Mulcahy.
D Dempsey for Hegarty (54 mins); B Murphy for Mulcahy (60); W O’Donoghue for O’Donovan (64); P Browne for Lynch, B Nash for Flanagan (both 69).
S O’Keeffe; C Gleeson, N Connors, S Fives; Philip Mahony, A Gleeson, M Walsh; J Barron, S Roche; K Moran, Pauric Mahony, DJ Foran; P Curran, T Devine, S Bennett.
S McNulty for Fives (four mins, inj); M Shanahan for Curran, T Ryan for Bennett (both HT); J Dillon for Roche (52); M Kearney for Barron (65).
S Cleere (Kilkenny).
The hosts reeling off 2-6 without reply between the 4th and 16th minute to lead by 2-7 to 0-2. The gap was never less than nine points thereafter.
The confidence of this Limerick group. Their dismissal of Waterford was so brisk as to the point of being impersonal. Ten of yesterday’s starting team have at least one All-Ireland U21 medal in their back pocket.
The Limerick defence.
Waterford’s starting front six managed a terrible 0-4 from play.
Waterford. Last year, they opened their championship season on June 18. This year, it’s over by June 10. Their last championship win - that All-Ireland semi-final triumph over Cork - feels like an eternity ago.
Derek McGrath made two changes to his forward unit at half-time and while they were under the thumb of the Limerick defence, his own rearguard was also crying out for a bit of corrective surgery.
Shane Fives hurt his groin last Friday. The Waterford management opted to start him, but the defender only lasted four minutes. Cian Lynch hobbled off towards the finish.
Shane Dowling was impeccable from the placed ball and also sharp from open play. Worked exceptionally hard. Cian Lynch was another who epitomised the relentless energy of this Limerick side. If he wasn’t bursting forward with possession, the 22-year old was to be found hooking and blocking along his own 45-metre line. Kyle Hayes and Tom Morrissey also deserve mention.
Sean Cleere should have played advantage when Limerick were through on goal late in the second-half. Instead, he called back the play and awarded the home side a 20-metre free. The gap between the sides almost certainly influenced his decision not to show Waterford’s Shane McNulty a second yellow card in the same play. McNulty was one of five Waterford players booked.
Limerick, too, had five players shown yellow.
Limerick travel to Ennis next Sunday, knowing a win or a draw will secure them a first Munster final place since 2014.