A Kilkenny win but a watershed for Waterford hurling

Back in Cleere’s on Saturday night two of the customers were looking remarkably fresh and spruce for chaps who’d been in Semple Stadium. 

Explanations were eventually forthcoming. Drenched in sweat after getting home, they’d hopped into the shower and changed their clothes before coming out.

And these were spectators.

Had they revealed they’d just undergone open-heart surgery necessitated by the tension of the closing stages it wouldn’t have come as all that much of a surprise either.

In the course of 140 minutes, plus ample injury time, Kilkenny and Waterford simultaneously saved and elevated Championship 2016.

In the process, they elevated the spirits of everyone who attended the two matches. What, after all, is sport if it does not lift us to a higher and happier place?

While Michael Fennelly’s injury may have been the moment that decided the outcome of the All-Ireland, let’s leave that one for another day. 

As in 2013, Kilkenny are a more interesting and engaging team for their imperfections. 

One of their shining virtues has long been the manner in which by their sheer existence – simply by being Cody’s Kilkenny – they force other teams to man up or slink away.

The number of teams who’ve succeeded on the former count can quickly be counted. Tipperary 2009-10. 

Galway 2012. Now Waterford 2016. Matching Kilkenny is not so much about the outcome as it is the process. 

Being in front of them at the final whistle is almost an afterthought; the challenge is to stare them in the eye, to see their honesty and spirit and unyielding will and, if possible, to equal it.

Derek McGrath’s did all of that at Croke Park and Semple Stadium. They came up two points short. What of it?

Last Sunday it was the vibrancy of their hurling that enthralled. On Saturday it was the obduracy of their attitude that compelled. All the way through the second half they were chasing the champions, who led by five points after 44 minutes.

The game, instead of stretching, contracted. Scores became harder to find, had to be quarried from rock. Yet the underdogs kept punching and through nothing but old fashioned doggedness brought themselves level two minutes from the end.

Cody would have approved. And surely did. A few weeks ago, after the Wexford match, the feeling existed Waterford had plateaued. In itself there was nothing very wrong or even vaguely remarkable with that. 

Ask Clare, Cork and Dublin what happened to them after 2013. Waterford had at least managed to reach another league final, another Munster final, another All-Ireland semi-final. Consolidation can be progress too.

Over the past week, however, all has changed. Utterly. Waterford have become a true championship team and McGrath a better, wiser manager. They’ve crammed half a lifetime of learning into one summer. The Munster final? What Munster final?

The All-Ireland semi-final was a story of two thrilling parts and two absurdly talented individuals. 

Next time the counties meet, McGrath will doubtless task one of his midfielders to lie deep and sit on top of Richie Hogan. Deploying a conventional formation, or near enough to it, meant they didn’t have a bodyguard in front of him.

It cost them on both days because nobody in the current game finds, and hurls in, the grey spaces as well as Hogan does. But that was the tradeoff Waterford made, the devil in the detail, the Peter for Paul transaction. Hogan fired the closing point. Apt.

Austin Gleeson fired the opening goal. Equally apt. In the pub on Saturday night they were wondering if PTT Gleeson might end up Hurler of the Year – and this was a Kilkenny pub. Probably not, but you can see where they were coming from. Twice in the past week the 21-year-old has pulled fire from the skies, as well as dropping balls.

If he wasn’t quite as scintillating in the replay he was never going to be allowed to be. But he was still very, very good. As for the two balls he caught in the second half and charged forward with before directing them weakly at Eoin Murphy, experience will improve his decision-making.

In Waterford’s macro it would also help if McGrath could find a target man full-forward for next season. Someone to make the sliotar stick. Someone Gleeson can find with the occasional out ball so that he’s not under pressure to make every effort a Hollywood ball.

Kilkenny? The cupboard wasn’t quite bare after all. Liam Blanchfield, the rabbit from the hat, had a stormer. 

TJ Reid worked a double shift in midfield and frequently behind it. Walter Walsh, a monument to application over style, has done enough to earn himself an All Star.

Talking of monuments, isn’t it time Waterford put up one to Brick Walsh?


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