PM O'Sullivan: Waterford's nerve, especially for a hurling culture that doubts itself, is the most valuable kind of verve

Waterford's hurlers created a new identity for themselves, the boyish wonders that did not blink down the home straight, as everything rattled but a crowd.
PM O'Sullivan: Waterford's nerve, especially for a hurling culture that doubts itself, is the most valuable kind of verve

SPEED MERCHANT: The rampaging Calum Lyons of Waterford is tackled by Kilkenny's Paddy Deegan in Saturday's dramatic All-Ireland SHC semi-final at Croke Park in Dublin. 

November is not your usual month for seaside arcades but Kilkenny and Waterford, on a drear midwinter night, became pinball wizards.

The game joined in. Few hurling contests witnessed such reversals of fortune, such inversions of momentum. 

Waterford did not merely win an All Ireland semi-final via quickness and nerve. They created a new identity for themselves, the boyish wonders that did not blink down the home straight, as everything rattled but a crowd.

Kilkenny just about held on, amid as serious a buffeting as received in recent years while 15 of their men remained on the pitch. They held on, to their immense credit, but never looked like winners after an Austin Gleeson wonder point brought Waterford level in the 50th minute, at 1-18 to 2-15. The 19 scores to 17 scores aspect deceived not. Two minutes later, Neil Montgomery slotted for a lead riffed out to four points at the final whistle.

Waterford will be happy that Kilkenny held on, that these opponents were not swept clean out the door. Nerve, especially for a hurling culture that easily doubts itself, is the most valuable kind of verve. These opponents elicited a response in the closing minutes that served notice Waterford can knock out controlled passages as well as the wild abandon that outscored the stripy men by 1-7 to 0-4 in a frenetic third quarter.

A typically calm 68th-minute TJ Reid point established a two-point gap, 2-23 to 2-21. Other days, other evenings, there might have been worry about Kilkenny stealing a march to progress, as happened against Galway in the Leinster Final.

Synthetic worry, on this occasion. Even a seat at sitting room remove in South Kilkenny left scant doubt about Waterford toughing out the verdict.

Gleeson found room for another pitch-perfect point and the chasers' music died, even though they twice more prised the margin to two. Further brilliancies by Tadhg de Búrca and Gleeson carved out that deserved four-point one at the death.

Astonishingly enough, the latter man did not count as his crowd's hero. This status went to Stephen Bennett, who scored 1-10 and gripped Waterford's bootstraps at their lowest moments, either side of halftime. 

Bennett, deceptive because not elegant, turned himself into a contender for Hurler of the Year. He hurls as a free spirit, lead guitarist rather than bass player, and the faltering rhythms of Waterford's last two seasons were utterly obliterated.

Come a fortnight's time, this panel might become the county's third one to win a Senior title. Still more, they built a platform for the next four or five seasons. So decisively making yourself a contender, especially against the old engine of Déise despair, means staying a contender in the medium term.

Kilkenny went home to a drawing board the size of an empty auditorium. Another day's topic. They were predictably poor in midfield when Waterford amplified exchanges in this zone and cleaned out on their own puckout after the break, an equally predictable aspect. Recourse to short puck-outs in the second half brought scarce little joy. Even the greatest bands need to rehearse.

Call it workrate. Call it hunger, Call it intensity. Call it an arcade fire. Waterford had all and more. Smells like spirit, Brian Cody's mantra.

This win is likewise a triumph for the wider game of hurling. Liam Cahill's management and Michael Bevans' coaching represents innovation by a return to core values. The two men's almost frenzied celebration when Conor Fogarty got hooshed out over the sideline in the 63rd minute recalled similar moments over the last two decades when men in a black and amber jersey were doing bouncer duty where the sideline was concerned. Their demeanour, as the wonder scores flew over, remained notably calmer.

The biter got bit. Kilkenny were outworked and then outplayed, the correct sequence for the excellent resources established by new management in Waterford.

Pinball wizards... Turned out a day for listening to The Who, once the loudest band in the world. Once Waterford turned up the volume in that hectic third quarter, Kilkenny were all but blown off the stage.

A day for The Who. And tomorrow as well. Remember the title of that compilation album?

Galway and Limerick is shaping up as meaty beaty, big and bouncy.

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