Waterford under starter’s orders for replay

Tramore in August, and heat rising up out of the ground like the breath of a snoring devil. The race meeting in the Waterford track usually takes place with the southeast riviera looking its best back down the hill, the long beach wheeling east, and it was the same last Thursday for the first evening of races.

Except for one thing. The August race meeting is also a main fundraiser for the Waterford supporters’ organisation, Club Déise, which helps to provide money for all the Déise GAA teams. A diehard racing fan who might not have seen their turnstile outside would have been surprised, then by the number of kids in white and blue with their faces painted on hand along the rails and in the stand.

Often the inter-county teams have been out of contention by this stage of the season, which allows players to let their hair down and mingle with the supporters.

In past years, the evening has gone on and around and beyond, coming to a series of conclusions in the fleshpots of Waterford itself, back the road.

Or so this reporter has been told.

Last Thursday was different, then. The memory of the previous Sunday’s draw against Kilkenny cast a long shadow. The players weren’t around, as they needed to prepare themselves for tonight’s replay, and nothing drains away the energy like hours of the same rote phrases exchanged with a hundred different people.

Which isn’t to say that the racecourse didn’t boil and seethe with discussion and rumour.

Brian Cody had never been so animated at a game, confided one racegoer; he was bound to bring in at least two (“at LEAST two”) players to shake things up for the replay.

As for Waterford, I was solemnly informed that manager Derek McGrath was in Spain on his holidays, long-booked, a friend of my confidant had seen him up in Cork Airport, sure, how could you win a game if the manager wasn’t going to be there...

Hence the coupling of discussion and rumour. Derek McGrath wasn’t in Spain, of course, but in Tramore, sipping a Coke and standing in for photographs, accepting the best wishes of a stream of people in white and blue.

He’d been out to Spain for a day, but he was back.

In situ, with a couple of mates from his club.

Down the side of the marquee were a couple of his near-contemporaries. John Mullane was studying the race card, and further along Ken McGrath was fending off inquiries about his forthcoming memoir.

Both of them looking trim enough to participate if called upon this evening. As exemplars of the swashbuckling side of 10 years ago, you couldn’t help but wonder how they might have fitted into the team that fought Kilkenny to a draw on Sunday, or how they would have suited the style McGrath the coach used to bring his players to that peak last weekend.

The background to the idle wondering and speculation all the time, though, was the unseen presence far to the east. It would have been a fine gift to any observer to see some kind of vast cloud loom up and roll in from that direction as some kind of symbolic overshadowing, but the atmospheric conditions wouldn’t play along: the sun continued to colour faces with that particular late-summer light.

Even so, more than one conversation eventually wheeled in the direction of Ireland’s ancient east, and the question was asked: what are they doing over there? What are they planning?

The specifics ranged from placement — where would Richie Hogan line out tonight — to preparation — rumours that Brian Cody had actually whistled up a practice match last week because players were hurting each other. Eventually, those discussions petered out and usually the speaker would nod or have a drink or a drag on a cigarette and find themselves unconsciously looking in the other direction to the sunset.

The races rolled on and the crowds ebbed and steered in the space between the stand and the railings. Before the last race, though, the ripple went through the spectators: Kilkenny had named their side. No change.

It was still warm, but the shadows were getting longer now.


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