Waterford may rue letting Kilkenny out of the bag

At last a match.

Yesterday’s All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Waterford and Kilkenny will go down not just as one of the great games, a thunderous encounter that was alive as a contest deep into injury time, but also as a vivid sketch in redemption lighting up a dreary season.

The draw means that we have a rematch on our hands next weekend in Thurles, a prospect which gives us all the room needed for speculation.

Can Waterford close it out in Semple Stadium? Will Kilkenny change personnel? Relax. You only have five more sleeps to wait.

As for yesterday, Waterford had victory in their hands, a first championship win over Kilkenny since 1959, but in the words of Burt Lancaster in Field of Dreams, it brushed past like a stranger in the crowd.

A disastrous run of five wides late on which might have ended the game gave the Cats a chink of light.

It allowed Walter Walsh to telescope out a long, long hand for the ball and finish cleverly past Stephen O’Keeffe from a tight angle: a goal that tied the game up and saved Kilkenny, who were drifting out of the championship until it arrived.

The only goal of the game, it arrived with such a percussive impact that it seemed odd, somehow, that we were going to have another five minutes of play afterwards. The fortunes of the two teams were summed up in their responses when the clock turned red.

Waterford went one up in injury time thanks to Pauric Mahony, who had a career day in white and blue. The Ballygunner man overcame a horrific leg injury to get back on the field of play, and games like this must have been what drove him through rehab. From play and placed balls, he kept Kilkenny under scoreboard pressure throughout, and it was fitting that his free was Waterford’s last score.

In the black and amber corner there were quite a few malfunctioning circuits, and Conor Fogarty was one of those conspicuous by his lack of conspicuousness for long stretches. Viewed lazily as an unsung hero, Fogarty found the Waterford jerseys streaming through his zone hard to shackle, but he still had the belief to go for a long-range point to level the game after Mahony’s free, and he nailed it.

That persistence in the face of difficulty hasn’t been seen too often from Kilkenny because the latter half of the equation isn’t always present. But when it was present yesterday the Cats found answers.

Patterns in the game? Henry James equipped us to deal with that over a hundred years ago when informing us about the figure in the carpet. The question is simple: where is the figure in the carpet, or is it all just... carpet?

Yesterday was more carpet than figure for much of the 70 minutes. Waterford began with an orthodox line-up, as they did when their previous game, against Wexford, threw in. That day they realigned when Darragh Fives was forced off with an early injury.

After 10 minutes they led by a point, even if Kilkenny nudged ahead soon after, but at the end of the first quarter they were level. At the end of the first half they were ahead, and the 34,432 in attendance, must have been wondering.

When Kevin Moran scythed through soon after the restart to miss a (difficult) goal chance, the sense existed that Kilkenny, as they have done for years, would now take over, but by the three-quarter stage, Waterford were four up and Kilkenny were hitting wides. With 70 minutes approaching, history tapped Waterford on the shoulder, but that wayward shooting will haunt their dreams as much as Walsh’s dramatic intervention.

For everyone else the silver lining is another chance to see the teams next Saturday, but Waterford manager Derek McGrath acknowledged the disappointment.

“Look, we’re just delighted with our lads but we’re disappointed that we didn’t close it out. It’s not good enough really to not close it out.

“There’s echoes of the end of the league final against Clare where we were two or three points up with a couple of minutes to go. I don’t see it as a problem — I see it as something we can use as motivation.

Waterford may rue letting Kilkenny out of the bag

“The fear for the manager is that if you say we don’t fear Kilkenny, they come out the next day and wallop us. They’re capable of that, you know?”

They certainly are.

For his part, Brian Cody accepted there was room for improvement with his side, though he dismissed suggestions that Kilkenny’s fearsome record in replays gives them an advantage.

“I don’t think that (record) is going to be factored into the equation this time because what happened in previous years goes out the window. The only replay that matters now is the one that is coming up shortly. Look, if Waterford had to prove anything to anybody before today, they certainly don’t have to be proving to anyone after today. They didn’t have to prove anything to me. I knew they were excellent. Today merely embellished that further. There is overall improvement in the team. What you look for at the end of the day is what you always look for; a genuineness, a work rate and a keep-it-going-until-the-very-end attitude. That can’t be faulted because Waterford were simply flying and were picking off terrific scores.”

The questions facing the teams ahead of Saturday differ according to the side of the Suir you’re talking about. Kilkenny will need more from TJ Reid and may not maroon Richie Hogan so far from the middle of the field next time.

They’ll also want more barriers in the centre of their defence, not a sentence you would often associate with the Cody regime over the years.

For Derek McGrath, the challenge is to convince his players that what they did once, they can do again, particularly when their personnel are so young and energetic. Perhaps he should consult Billy Morgan about the 1987 Munster football final and replay. The performance and result should also give McGrath some respite from the whispering in the county that the team should abandon their system; that whispering has grown steadily in volume since the county U21s’ stellar displays, despite the apples-and-oranges nature of the grades.

Waterford might have pushed up on Kilkenny late on, particularly as Conor Fogarty’s chance was being crafted, but the way they’d played had them on top, after all; they can also look to more goal chances created, though not taken, than their opponents.

Finally, it was fitting that on a day of superb competition a superb competitor was remembered. There was warm and genuine applause from every corner of Croke Park yesterday for Michael ‘Duxie’ Walsh, who passed away last week.

The Kilkenny man was one of those names which simply stood for an entire sport — handball, in his case.

An icon of his sport, gone far too soon.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh sé.


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