A season of surprises keeps on giving as Waterford return to All-Ireland final

Searing second half from Déise breaks Cats resistance at Croke Park
A season of surprises keeps on giving as Waterford return to All-Ireland final

CRUCIAL: Waterford's Darragh Lyons celebrates after scoring his side's key second goal in Saturday night's All-Ireland SHC Semi-Final Croke Park. 

All-Ireland SHC semi-final: WATERFORD 2-27 KILKENNY 2-23.

Shock and awe hurling has been the trademark of Kilkenny for so many years but on Saturday those rights were transferred across their southern border.

A blitz of 1-11 in the third quarter by Waterford felt unprecedented. Not only because of the opposition but given the fact it had been accomplished by a team who threatened to roll over in the opening half.

Flair and diligence, those juxtaposing traits of the two most famous Waterford teams over the last 20 years, were on exhibition here. How Liam Cahill managed to convince his players to produce at half-time when they trailed by seven was an act of alchemy.

Not that he was claiming anything such. “It wasn’t anything dramatic, I can assure you of that. It was down to the players. Their decision-making was costing us big time in the first half, we left quite a number of easy plays and chances behind us. We just seemed to be off it a little bit, but I thought it was more mentally (than physically) so we just tried to address that and see could we turn it around. We looked for a green flag or two, we needed that to give ourselves a chance of getting back into the game and thankfully we got that.” 

HAPPY CHAPS: Austin Gleeson, left, and Jack Fagan of Waterford celebrate after the final whistle. 
HAPPY CHAPS: Austin Gleeson, left, and Jack Fagan of Waterford celebrate after the final whistle. 

Waterford couldn’t have been much worse in the first half. Their touch was awful, they looked leaden-footed (Stephen O’Keeffe being untypically stuck on the line for Martin Keoghan’s goal) and despite what Cahill suggested afterwards nerves seemed to be an issue. 

The inordinate amount of time they were taking out of the ball also demonstrated uncertainty. Few teams will have soloed as much as Waterford did in the first half and so much of it was aimless. As he was in the second half, Calum Lyons was a leading player and he took two fine points but a lot of his work ended up in blind alleys.

It wasn’t that Kilkenny were outstanding - they hit seven first-half wides to Waterford’s nine. They simply weren’t as bad as their opponents. Their goals made a difference, obviously. O’Keeffe did well to deny Richie Hogan before Keoghan beat him in the 11th minute. After Kilkenny led 1-5 to 0-3 at the first water break, TJ Reid showed impeccable anticipation to add the second in the 25th minute when Conor Prunty, challenging Hogan, broke down a long ball into his path.

It seemed only a question of when not if Kilkenny would build on that 2-11 to 0-10 advantage.

BOTTLED UP: Kilkenny's Conor Delaney of Kilkenny is tackled by Dessie Hutchinson, left, and Austin Gleeson of Waterford during Saturday's thrilling All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park.
BOTTLED UP: Kilkenny's Conor Delaney of Kilkenny is tackled by Dessie Hutchinson, left, and Austin Gleeson of Waterford during Saturday's thrilling All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park.

Worryingly, for the second time in the space of four weekends, Kilkenny surrendered a hefty lead. Against Dublin, they were 16 points to the good and it wasn’t enough. On Saturday, they were nine up coming towards the end of the first half and it disintegrated by the second-half water break. Those fadeouts are an alarming trait that Cody must address as a matter of urgency. He agreed: “We had a lead against Dublin as well, a much bigger lead at half-time, and we made it very difficult for ourselves as well. But, no, the quality of Waterford was serious and they deserved to win the game. We had seven points of a lead, they get a goal, suddenly it’s four and it’s very little.” 

He wasn’t as forthcoming with his explanation as to why it’s happening but it wouldn’t be remiss to suggest there will be personnel changes next year. Why there were so many changes to the forward line when it was their midfield and half-back line that was malfunctioning should also be questioned.

That shouldn’t detract from Waterford's charge in that third quarter, and the brilliance of Stephen Bennett, continuing his rich form. For both his and Darragh Lyons’ 59th minute goal, Jack Fagan was the instigator with impeccable catches but Bennett’s coolness to ground-stroke the ball past Eoin Murphy was a display of maturity.

“He’s having a marvellous year, isn't he?” smiled Cahill. “He always was a good forward, it's just that he's now delivering consistently. He's a massive player. He makes mistakes but I don't think he's beating himself up as much as he used to. He's always concentrating on the next ball.” 

Kilkenny twice cut the difference to two points in the closing minutes but scores from Tadhg de Búrca and Austin Gleeson completed the transformation and an 11-point second-half turnaround. After two barren Championships, a team capable of pretty much anything under the guidance of a serious management team are in an All-Ireland final.

GAME IN 60 SECONDS

IT MATTERED: Darragh Lyons’ goal. The water break couldn’t have come at a worse time for Waterford but their momentum was only arrested momentarily and when Lyons found the net, their ascendancy was restored.

CAN'T IGNORE: The exuberance of youth in this Waterford team combined with a group of players so hurt after back-to-back championships without a win is quite the cocktail. Waterford won’t be favourites on December 13 but that tag hasn’t meant much to them this winter.

GOOD DAY: Liam Cahill’s tough love is working a treat in Waterford. The honesty he is demanding of his players is being delivered in spades. They may have had to take a hard look at themselves after these last two seasons but many of those players have redeemed themselves. But one question remains: is that enough?

BAD DAY: Just a third-ever All-Ireland semi-final loss for Brian Cody but what will sting him more is that this was yet another second-half collapse by his charges. This is a team struggling to protect leads, which is not an affliction which Cody teams usually suffer from.

PHYSIO ROOM: Liam Cahill says Shane Fives could be an option for the All-Ireland final providing he recovers from a quad injury.

SIDELINE SMARTS: When Waterford stopped taking so much out of the ball, they prospered. In the first half, they seemed to go against everything that Cahill has been espousing since he took charge. In the second, their aggression and snappiness couldn’t be matched by Kilkenny and it was the Cats who looked as forlorn with their options as they did in the closing stages of last year’s All-Ireland final.

BEST ON SHOW: Stephen Bennett was a force of nature after half-time. That was when this game was won and lost. He personified the relentlessness of his team. Neil Montgomery drove into the game and the second half was Austin Gleeson’s best period so far in the competition.

MAN IN THE MIDDLE: Composed performance by Fergal Horgan. Not his fault that he was put in a position with a former team-mate on the sideline but there was no suggestion of bias here. May have missed a late Kilkenny call for a free in but other than that he was solid.

NEXT UP: Waterford’s second All-Ireland final in three years awaits them in two weeks' time.

Scorers for Waterford: S Bennett (1-10, 0-6 frees); D Lyons (1-0); A Gleeson (0-4); C Lyons, J Prendergast, D Hutchinson, N Montgomery (0-2 each); S McNulty, J Barron, J Fagan, I Daly. T de Búrca (0-1 each).

Scorers for Kilkenny: TJ Reid (1-14, 0-12 frees); M Keoghan (1-1); E Cody, R Hogan, J Donnelly (0-2 each); C Buckley, P Deegan (0-1 each).

WATERFORD: S O’Keeffe; I Kenny; C Prunty (c), S McNulty; C Lyons, T de Búrca, K Moran; J Barron, K Bennett; J Fagan, J Dillon, J Prendergast; S Bennett, A Gleeson, D Hutchinson.

Subs for Waterford: N Montgomery for J Dillon (18); D Lyons for K Bennett (49); I Daly for K Moran, C Gleeson for J Prendergast (both 61); P Curran for J Fagan (68).

KILKENNY: E Murphy; T Walsh, H Lawlor, C Delaney; P Walsh, C Buckley, P Deegan; C Browne, C Fogarty; J Donnelly, TJ Reid, M Keoghan; B Ryan, R Hogan, E Cody.

Subs for Kilkenny: W Walsh for M Keoghan (39); A Murphy for C Browne (blood, 48-52); C Fennelly for B Ryan (49); N Brassil for R Hogan (56); G Aylward for E Cody (58).

Referee: F Horgan (Tipperary).

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