The GAA Championship, Week Five – Waterford Wonderland

by | Dec 3, 2020

The first inter-county hurling match I remember was the 1976 All-Ireland semi-final (and there was only one back then…long story) between Galway and Wexford. It ended in a 2-24 to 4-18 draw, 30 points each. And as I started following the sport, I quickly realised how phenomenally high-scoring 60 points was.

Forty-four years later, sixty-point matches have almost become an All-Ireland championship norm. Five of this year’s 16 encounters have had 60+ points. A mere 51 points in Limerick’s four-point win over Galway on Sunday and a nation yawned (“highest scoring game without a goal in championship history makes for sterile tie,” an Irish Times newspaper sub-headline read).

Kilkenny’s 2-23 total would have won all but a handful of their championship matches…ever. Not on Saturday as Waterford powered to 2-27. Their second half 2-17 would have finished off any team. But…Brian Cody. Kilkenny’s manager is a veteran master of getting more than the sum of their parts from his teams. So, despite Waterford’s onslaught, Kilkenny were only two points behind, midway through four minutes’ stoppage-time.

But…Liam Cahill. The new Waterford boss has matched Cody in the “more than the sum” stakes this year. Waterford’s line-up had a host of recognisable names. But as a unit, they were unrecognisable from the team which flopped in the 2018 and 2019 championships. When extra-time loomed (which no neutral would have minded), they powered home. And the visible warmth of Cody’s post-match congratulations showed that he recognised Cahill’s achievement.

Much was made of the first-half chances Waterford spurned. However, RTE co-commentator and outstanding ex-Tipperary goalie Brendan Cummins was convinced Waterford were “motoring”(CHK) throughout (pleased, too, as any Tipp man might be at potential Kilkenny defeat). And Kilkenny missed some doozies themselves. So their two goals were the main difference between the sides at half-time.

On 11 minutes, Richie Hogan received unforgivable time and space to chase a loose ball towards goal. Cummins expected Waterford keeper Stephen O’Keeffe’s “face to be coming up next on the (camera) shot.” Instead, O’Keeffe stood on his line, well-placed to save Hogan’s shot but sat on his arse looking as the loose ball was rolled home by Martin Keoghan (pronounced Martin Keown, disconcertingly). Thirteen minutes later, the inevitable TJ Reid swooped on a VERY momentarily loose ball and his thumping shot would have beaten O’Keeffe, wherever he was stood.

That left Waterford eight points behind after 24 minutes, which became nine approaching half-time and was still eight 90 seconds after it. But they reduced the interval deficit to seven, helped by two key late first-half momentum shifts. First, Stephen Bennett slalomed past half of Kilkenny, balancing the ball on his stick like a professional egg-and-spoon racer and firing over the bar from a tightening angle. Then Kilkenny, one piece of sound game management from half-time, needlessly gave away possession, allowing Waterford another point, and three of the half’s last four scores.

Third-quarter dominance underpinned many-a-Kilkenny success this century. Here, Waterford upended those tables. Bennett netted 31 seconds after they went eight behind and inspired his side to phenomenal heights, confidently shooting from all parts of North Dublin and scoring from most of them. Kilkenny’s management were so discombobulated that they put up Reid’s number when making a substitution, RTE commentator Darragh Maloney rushing out a “Reid is not going anywhere” alarm to avoid panic on the streets of Kilkenny (“I’d say Liam Cahill got control of that board” – Cummins).

Waterford went five-up when Darragh Lyons netted their second goal, on 60 minutes, and still led by five with six-and-a-half minutes left. Yet with Reid embarking on a scoring AND creating spree, Waterford needed a 68th-minute wonder-point from the mercurial Austin Gleeson to steady their nerves/ship. Thereafter, every time Reid conjured up something, Waterford conjured up something else, Tadhg de Burca, a red-helmeted shining light even in Waterford’s darkest days, appropriately halting Kilkenny’s bid for extra-time at least with a point from just inside the Irish border..

Installing Kilkenny as pre-match favourites, and thus framing Waterford’s win as a shock, seemed lazily based on Kilkenny being provincial champions. Because both before and on Saturday, Waterford hurled consistently well and often magnificently, win or lose, where Kilkenny hurled in fits and starts, perhaps slightly over-reliant on random acts of senseless genius. Thus, wonderful comeback and sensational second-half though Waterford produced, they were just following the form book.

Still. Two fine teams. Two great managers. And (yet) a(nother) fabulous match.

Gaelic Football fans are, as they say, getting back to us on their search for weaknesses in Dublin teams. Hurling fans have found Limerick’s…a lack of goals. They’ve only scored three in their four-game run to the final, all in one match, one a mishit effort at a point. And they can’t always compensate with insane points totals, such as their 36 (THIRTY-SIX) against Clare. In fact, goal-shyness nearly cost them on Sunday, as clear chances went begging and Galway were somehow level as stoppage-time began, after being second-best for the previous 55 minutes.

Limerick were all over the place all over the field in the opening quarter-hour, which they finished 7-2 behind. Control best described as air-traffic, star forward Aaron Gillane slip-sliding away like he was in plimsols…etc…. But they had cut the gap to three before the magical momentum-shifting water-break cast any spell. And they outscored Galway 13-4 in a 20 minute-spell of top form.

Galway’s major response was, as per, Joe Canning-shaped. Points from line balls (‘sideline cuts’) were once as rare as 60-point matches. But they are almost as common now, almost entirely due to Canning’s artistry (and it IS art, the way he puts them over). He scored THREE in Sunday’s first-half. The first was his first puck of the ball. The third was the last puck before the interval, which cut Limerick’s lead to two after they entered stoppage-time four-up. And Saturday showed the potential significance of a strong first-half finish.

Galway cut the gap to one, TEN seconds after the restart (before RTE could put up their screen clock). Yet they didn’t then storm ahead, Waterford-style. Though Limerick didn’t pull away, Waterford-style. And wayward shooting increased the prevalent muted atmosphere. Until Canning stood over another sideline cut. “Perfect angle for him, should be routine,” said RTE’s Michael Duignan sarkily, as Canning took aim. “Ah, stop,” commentator Marty Morrissey cried, actual tears nearly, when Canning fired, before Duignan trailed the idea that line balls should be worth two points (“that’d be eight points by Joe and Galway’d be leading”).

Limerick should then have added three points though. Seamus Flanagan shot weakly when through on goal and Kyle Hayes couldn’t get a clean strike at the rebound. But with Peter Casey on impact sub duty, Limerick were soon five ahead and would have put Galway away but for another spurned goal chance, by another impact sub David Reidy. Although, in fairness, Reidy struck his shot well and Galway keeper Eanna Murphy’s save was outstanding.

Thus reprieved, Galway landed four points in-a-row to draw level, but lost Canning in that spell. He’d been in the first-half wars after a whack on the back by a loose Limerick hurley…a rulebook red card, despite RTE pundit Henry Shefflin’s insistence that “sometimes we’re too PC about these things.” Here, Canning suffered a high-speed clash of helmeted-heads with a team-mate and was stretchered off. Mercifully, though, he was “only” concussed and was discharged from hospital that night

Canning’s replacement, Evan Nyland, pointed a massive free with his first touch and Galway’s last score was Fintan Burke’s massive line ball. But Canning and first-half departure Cathal Mannion, were massive losses. Although Gillane was also hospitalised after his late departure through injury. ”Ooooh, the earth moved,” said Morrissey, over a replay of the incident thought responsible, suggesting he needs a lie down before the final. Gillane was discharged on Monday but will likely make that final.

The sides were level twice in stoppage-time. And a woeful miss by Tom Morrissey exposed Limerick’s anxieties. Yet his desire to make amends brought his side home as he got three of their next and last four scores, all more difficult chances than his miss. Nine minutes’ stoppage-time seemed inadequate after the Canning and Gillane stoppages (Canning’s was seven-and-a-half minutes) and eight substitutions. But Galway hadn’t looked like scoring a cousin of a goal all game. So Limerick were safe.

A consensus is developing that Waterford have improved by at least four points since their four-point Munster final loss to Limerick. And largely unfancied though they were against Kilkenny, they are now fancied by some against Limerick in Sunday week’s final, even though Limerick have been palpably superior to Kilkenny throughout this championship.

However, the game is surely too close to call. Even if Waterford haven’t improved as suggested, Saturday will have taught them that four points is half-nothing in hurling. And you can probably be less sure of the result than that the final will befit a remarkable hurling championship, played in remarkable circumstances, by remarkable sportsmen.