So, not all Munster Championship games come with a ticket to the pantheon after all. Yesterday in Thurles the 14,737 in attendance for Cork-Waterford saw a procession of fumbles and fluffed pick-ups, wayward passes and intercepted clearances.
Perhaps those who stayed away had a premonition. There won’t be any ballads composed about this round-robin game.
Waterford wake today with a sharp sense of what might have been, as they led deep into the closing stages, a performance which featured crisply-struck long-range points leaving Cork in their wake for much of the game. A powerful Seamus Harnedy finish on 67 minutes gave Cork the impetus to beat them to the tape, but it was a win to file under functional rather than flashy.
Any sense that Waterford were fulfilling the fixture evaporated as they hit the ground running, with players who haven’t seen much game-time carrying the game to Cork.
The Munster champions’ sharpness and fluency were absent in all sectors, but some of the points conceded with errant passes out of defence were enough to keep backs coaches all over Leeside up at night. Before the break, Cork had handed Waterford at least four points from misplaced passes — the exact margin at the half, 0-15 to 0-11, with the Déise rewarded for their long-range accuracy.
The winners were better in the second half without moving smoothly. A Brian O’Halloran goal for Waterford in the 55th minute gave the men in white and blue a sniff of victory, but a driving finish, and Harnedy’s goal, booked Cork’s place in the Munster final. They hit three points in injury-time and were driven forward by Mark Coleman and Bill Cooper, but the good news ended there.
John Meyler and his management team will not enjoy replaying the first half, in particular, on video, but if the men in red and white have any designs on succeeding in the late summer they’ll have to swallow hard and absorb the lessons.
There were some guilty glances at the TV monitor in the press box, but the yearning for Cusack Park was understandable. By any metric the game in Semple Stadium was a poor one — one score in the first 10 minutes of the second half by either team; Waterford’s last point from play a Cork pass that went directly to Maurice Shanahan; the Waterford puck-out spilled over the line by a defender; the sight of two Cork defenders converging to contest a dropping ball.
Afterwards, Meyler acknowledged Cork needed to improve, particularly on that first half.
“It was a strong wind but we just needed to calm down [at the break]. Our options and decision-making in the first half weren’t great and we needed to improve that.
“We did that in the last ten minutes but we hadn’t done it up to then. That’s over now, we need to look at the learnings from today and to bring those into the Munster final.
“Clare have brought in the likes of Podge Collins and left Seadna Morey off; we hope the likes of Mark Ellis and Robbie O’Flynn will be available for selection.”
Derek McGrath in the Waterford corner felt his side tired as the finishing line came into sight.
“You don’t always get what you deserve, first and foremost. I thought they were fatigued by the end of it.
“We were out on our feet and Cork were kind of coming at the right time. They got their goal at a crucial time. After that, we were fighting on our backs to kind of maintain a certain equilibrium in the game.
“I think we did that and then we made a couple of errors at the end to hand Cork a couple of points. That was only natural given the amount of energy that had been expended in the 77 minutes.”
Cork’s chances of qualification for the Munster final meant the game was never a dead rubber in the strict sense of the term, but it was also billed unofficially as a celebration of Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh, the Waterford player who broke the record for appearances in senior inter-county hurling with yesterday’s game.
It wasn’t a pro forma appearance by Walsh either. Though he didn’t influence proceedings around the middle of the field as he did in his heyday of a decade or so ago, Walsh still provided the vital link in the chain of passes that led to O’Halloran’s goal, delaying slightly to ensure that when he placed his teammate there’d be clear separation from the Cork defender hurtling back to cover.
It was neat, deliberate and cool-headed, and showed off a keen grasp of the skills of the game - all the attributes that enabled Walsh to survive for a decade and a half in a fast game getting faster all the time.
It wasn’t all bad news for Cork, though that seems an odd way to sift through the findings for the winners.
Meyler and his backroom can take some comfort from their tactical move in the second half, deploying Conor O’Sullivan as a sweeper when Waterford withdrew down the field. O’Sullivan processed plenty of ball and stretched the Waterford defence to the wings, and eventually Cork benefited, even if those benefits accrued very late in the game.
That kind of lateral thinking may be required against Clare, who seem to have more stratagems and tactics than Rommel and Patton put together.
Which brings us to the Munster final and the struggle for supremacy, a struggle which is always sequential.
The new format casts a shadow here as well. In past years if a team got a good championship win over another side, or two wins in back to back championships, you’d say the winning team had the upper hand and could expect to dominate encounters between the two for a few seasons.
This is a recognisable syndrome. In a far more genteel context Harold Bloom used to describe the anxiety of influence, when a writer struggled to shake off the example set by his or her role model; for a long time sports have tracked that example, with teams bursting out from under the shadow of a dominant rival to establish their own identity.
Not now. The flurry of games undercuts that sense of challenges, of wrestling the initiative from a winning side over a couple of years. Take this Munster Championship: Cork reasserted their dominance over Clare since 2013 with a tidy win in Páirc Uí Chaoimh last month, but now Clare face the provincial final with the wind at their backs.
John Meyler said that meeting counts for nothing now. It counts for nothing and yet it counts for everything, all depending on how Sunday week plays out.
An hour after the final whistle sounded yesterday in Thurles, by the way, Brick Walsh was still on the field signing autographs and standing in for photographs.
It was good to see that those in the queue weren’t all wearing white and blue either, and when he finally headed to the dressing room there was a round of applause from those near the tunnel.
If yesterday was his goodbye, he did it the way he played. The right way.
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