Seventeen years now they’ve been on the block and around it. Seventeen years since Waterford re-emerged as an inter-county force. Modern Waterford hurling began in the 1998 league final and the parallels with tomorrow are irresistible.
It was themselves and Cork in Semple Stadium. Waterford, who had emerged from Division 1B, were in their second year under their then manager. The man who’ll be on the sideline for Cork tomorrow was the man on the sideline for them that day too. The man who’ll be on the sideline for Waterford tomorrow was 21 years of age and sitting on the bench, wearing number 23 — punishment, he surmises wryly, for missing “an absolute sitter” in the semi-final win over Limerick.
That’s hurling for you. The same group of counties, the same set of reference points, the same narratives repeated ad infinitum. A historical echo chamber. Most of the time, it’s a drawback. Every now and then, like this weekend, it’s kind of endearing.
Cork haven’t won a league title in the meantime, which hasn’t made all that much difference in the greater scheme of things. Waterford have never dined anywhere other than the top table in the meantime, which most certainly has. The early summer of 1998 marked the moment they returned to the big stage.
At their peak a decade later the county hurled as though backed by mass choirs. Under Derek McGrath, he who missed that absolute sitter all those years ago, they do nothing of the sort and they make no apologies for the oversight. It’s not who they are and for the moment it’s not who they want to be.
Theirs were other virtues at Nowlan Park a fortnight ago, self-belief foremost among them. The concession of the two early goals to Tipp — precisely the type of occurrence their early-warning system is designed to prevent — might have left a young team dead on the table. In the event, it did nothing of the sort.
Waterford were as poised on the ball as their advance publicity had led the attendance to believe. They didn’t overdo their short game, which was a legitimate criticism of Clare this time two years ago. Hit-and-hope attempts from the back were kept to a minimum (although Austin Gleeson might profitably cut down on the blind first-time swordplay), ditto efforts that dropped harmlessly short into the Tipperary goalmouth.
While none of their points from play came from inside 30 metres, nor were they hasty when it came to pulling the trigger. They were patient and they were rewarded for their patience.
But this was on a good day. Therein lies the challenge for the Déise tomorrow and for this summer of tomorrows. What becomes of them on a bad day, when the short passes are overcooked and intercepted? How patient, and how accurate, will they be when five points down with 10 minutes left? As the accompanying table shows, they’re almost absurdly reliant on Pauric Mahony, who in each of their four closest encounters in the competition has contributed at least half of the side’s scores. If Mahony is confined to, say, eight points from frees tomorrow, that will surely be that, for Maurice Shanahan is unlikely to help make up the leeway with the type of improbable points he managed against Tipp.
The run to the final has been founded on superior fitness and hunger, advantages that — as we pointed out here a fortnight ago — will no longer be applicable come high summer. McGrath has, like a finance minister in a crisis, gone to pluck the low-hanging fruit and has done it to fine effect. His team’s shape is formal without being rigid; when they have the sliotar, they get enough runners coming from deep with time and space to scan the field. And two or three forwards can beat three or four defenders if their runs are good and the deliveries to them well angled. A pity McGrath doesn’t have a young Seamus Prendergast as an outlet, however, a man capable of guarding the sliotar after winning it.
One weakness was exposed but not punished by Tipperary. Waterford’s configuration invites the opposition to get their most accurate defender to come charging up, hit the line, take a lateral pass or handpass back and shoot from midfield. Had it been Padraic Maher rather than Ronan Maher who had that trio of shots from distance a fortnight ago it’d surely be red and white versus blue and gold tomorrow. Reckon Cork noticed? We do.
It was easy to dismiss their 0-34 against Dublin at Croke Park as a tally run up in a false match, and Dublin’s performance at Nowlan Park proved that last month’s encounter at Croke Park was exactly that. But there is no dismissing Cork’s 1-27 in the semi-final, a tally all the more impressive for being racked up in a match where they didn’t wake up till the closing 10 minutes.
Of course it may well be 2015 will turn out a championship won in defence rather than attack, in which case this particular attribute of Cork’s will count for less. Still, let us cross Patrick’s Bridge when we come to it. They’ll have plenty of ball, and plenty of time on it, in their own half tomorrow. There will be no excuse for thoughtless, lumped deliveries from front to back, no excuse for overhitting the full-forward line, no excuse for what’s known across the water as “sterile domination”.
In such circumstances, it may be an afternoon for a return to ancient Cork first principles. Even in this day and age — especially in this day and age — there’s something to be said for a first-time ground ball as a means of trying to open up and turn a massed defence. Despite its imprecision, it still discomfits the enemy defender while giving the forward a 50/50 chance. And the Waterford defenders, so good in the rucks, will not be able to swarm around and stand over a sliotar whizzing along the ground.
Conor Lehane will hit three points with you barely even realising he’s in the game; if you’ve noticed he’s in the game, it’ll probably mean he’s hit five or six. But a goalfest is the last thing it’ll be. Cork’s patience and ability to snap points should see them home eventually; 0-23 to 0-21, say.
That 1998 league final again. Waterford were punished for two defensive errors and Cork won by a flattering seven points. Yet for those in white and blue, the story was only beginning.
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