Here is the thread of the game. As Waterford supporters streamed onto the turf in Semple Stadium yesterday after a comprehensive victory in the NHL final, a trim gent in his thirties threw his arms around a player in white and blue.
Ken McGrath, so often an electrifying presence in Thurles for the Déise, wrapped his clubmate, Austin Gleeson, in a bearhug as the young defender was making his way to the Ryan Stand for the presentation. McGrath’s father Pat, another Mount Sion icon, was playing for Waterford 40 years ago. There they are, the links in the chain, going all the way back to the seventies.
Yesterday was a great day for all of Waterford, and not just because Kevin Moran collected a trophy in the New Stand. It finally ends the old era and ushers in the new.
The swashbuckling men of the noughties have gone, replaced by the current crop: vive le roi and all that.
For Cork it was a painful weekend, the second in a row: seven days after a double-digit beating in the football league final, a double-digit beating in the hurling final. William Blake would have called that fearful symmetry, and he wouldn’t have been wrong. On both occasions, Cork were outmanoeuvred and beaten long before the final whistle sounded. Add the departure of two key forwards with hamstring problems yesterday and the recent squall of bad weather approaches pathetic fallacy.
Jimmy Barry-Murphy was offering no excuses after the game, saying his side had never reached the level that was needed.
“I thought they (Waterford) were brilliant today, the system of play they use, their use of the ball, their athleticism, their skill level was very high,” said the Cork manager.
“People can talk about systems and all that, but their skill level and their score-taking was fantastic, all we can do is stand back and admire them, and say well done.”
In the Waterford corner, Derek McGrath wasn’t dwelling on his side’s now-famous style of play so much as the hunger of his team.
“It probably didn’t pay off today (for Cork), and I’d said that if Cork were to beat us it would be because they were better on the day.
“We were probably that bit better in this game, and it’s probably as simple as that. I don’t think we can park league final appearances, or trophies, so our need was probably that bit greater.
True, Waterford were more urgent from start to finish. They had three early points (and two wides) before Cork got off the mark, and they dominated the middle third of the field. Their only wobble came on 19 minutes, when Seamus Harnedy’s goal effort was superbly saved by Stephen O’Keeffe; at half-time they were four up and vowed not to let O’Keeffe exposed again, and they didn’t. Tom Devine’s late goal came when they were already six points up and cruising, dominant all over the field.
Neither manager returned to the dressing-room without the championship meeting in a few weeks being raised, though. What did Sunday tell us about that? Those wearing red and white will hope the answer is little enough; the opposing supporters won’t agree, obviously, but the question is valid.
Take the first half, for instance. Austin Gleeson sighted a free from his own half, spotted Jamie Barron 20 metres further upfield, and slipped him the ball for a snappily taken long-range point.
Here is the quandary for McGrath and his management: when they roll into Horse and Jockey for a cuppa ahead of the Munster championship tie against Cork, will they give the same orders to Gleeson or search for variety? The Waterford wing-back is a terrific striker but put a couple wide yesterday; will Cork learn from the series of short diagonal frees played by their opponents yesterday and respond?
For Cork, the placement of Conor Lehane at full-forward presents a similar challenge: withdraw the Midleton man to the half-forward line, where he has room to slot four or five points, or keep him near goal in order to rattle the crossbar as he did yesterday, when a green flag might have electrified the Rebel challenge?
The emphasis on structure in the pre-game build-up might have infected some players’ thinking, because both sides were guilty of aimless deliveries at times — one first-half exchange resembled an old-fashioned game of slogging, one end to another.
Next month, one would be genuinely surprised to see three Waterford defenders with space and time enough to nominate one of their number to pick off a Cork clearance and return it downfield, yet that happened more than once yesterday.
At the other end, Cormac Murphy was left spare to sweep in front of the Cork full-back line and given seventy minutes, more or less, to get accustomed to the role; will Waterford allow him to play the spare role in June?
McGrath was mindful of that approaching date.
“Nobody does better lying in the grass than Cork, and nobody does ambushes better than Cork. My guess is if you go into Paddy Power, Cork are probably still favourites. We might have narrowed it.”
It was an interesting gambit as a ten-point victory in a national final would be more than enough to install most teams as warm favourites in a return encounter so soon afterwards.
Waterford will certainly take huge encouragement from their victory, which Jimmy Barry-Murphy described variously as a setback and a slap across the wrists. Whether mental or physical, the punishment was genuine. One of yesterday’s highlights? You only need wait four weeks for the rematch.
Even as the crowd was dispersing yesterday, a full three-quarters of an hour after the final whistle, one Waterford player was still battling his way off the field. Austin Gleeson was bearing the cup through the crowds knotted around the entrance to the dressing-rooms, standing in for photographs and signing hurleys for pre-schoolers who wheeled away in delight.The thread continues. The links continue to be formed.
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