Wednesday 26 September 2018

Waterford in a league of their own ...


SCORERS - Waterford: Pauric Mahony 0-11 (8f, 1 '65'), T Devine 1-1, K Moran 0-3, A Gleeson (1 sideline cut), M Walsh, M Shanahan 0-2 each, J Barron, S Bennett, B O'Halloran 0-1 each. Cork: P Horgan 0-7f, C Lehane 0-5, S Harnedy 0-2, A Walsh, B Cooper, R O'Shea 0-1 each.

WATERFORD: S O'Keeffe; N Connors, B Coughlan, S Fives; A Gleeson, T de Búrca, Philip Mahony; J Barron, K Moran; C Dunford, Pauric Mahony, M Walsh; J Dillon, M Shanahan, S Bennett. Subs: B O'Halloran for Dunford (58), T Devine for Bennett (61), S O'Sullivan for Dillon (67), M O'Neill for Gleeson (70), G O'Brien for Barron (71).

CORK: A Nash; S O'Neill, A Ryan, S McDonnell; L McLoughlin, M Ellis, C Murphy; D Kearney, A Walsh; B Cooper, S Harnedy, R O'Shea; A Cadogan, C Lehane, P Horgan. Subs: P O'Sullivan for Cadogan (inj 11), B Lawton for Walsh (49), L O'Farrell for O'Shea (49), D Cahalane for Ryan (57), J Coughlan for Harnedy (inj 70).

WIDES: Waterford 15 (8+7); Cork 10 (6+4)

YELLOW: Waterford 2 (Gleeson 36, Shanahan 41); Cork 1 (O'Neill 55)

RED: None

REF: J Ryan (Tipperary)

ATT: 17,559

MAN OF THE MATCH: Kevin Moran (Waterford)

NO ONE saw this coming last winter. Even as this Bank Holiday weekend dawned, you'd have got 7/4 or even better on the Deise delivering only a third ever National Hurling League title.

That was then; today we're in a different place and the words "Waterford" and "All-Ireland contenders" can no longer be deemed mutually exclusive phrases or a reason to explode in laughter.

Is it too early for Derek McGrath and his marauding troops to be mentioned in the same championship breath as Kilkenny and Tipperary? Perhaps. And yet their remorseless consistency this spring, crowned by yesterday's ten-point demolition of Cork, is surely reason enough to start viewing Waterford as the real deal.

Moreover, a more pertinent question to ask after this 1-24 to 0-17 wake-up call for the pre-final favourites is whether Cork - as currently constituted - should even be considered in the All-Ireland equation?

We'll have a far better idea on June 7 when these two sides resume Munster SHC quarter-final battle at the same Thurles venue.


Whatever result that match throws up, what cannot be disputed is the resounding merit of Waterford's victory - their dominance was allied to room for improvement, with a wide count of 15-10 in their favour.

Nor can you question their standout consistency (they are the only unbeaten league team in either code) or the remarkable odyssey they have embarked on this spring.

"I don't think we can park league final appearances or league final trophies so probably our motivation was that bit greater, our hunger was that bit greater in terms of the tackling," McGrath surmised afterwards before quickly issuing the obligatory league form graph health warning.

"No one does lying in the grass better than Cork. No one does ambushes better than Cork," the Waterford manager warned. "My guess is that if you go into Paddy Power in the morning, we might have narrowed but Cork will still be favourites in five weeks' time.


"We're going to celebrate this tonight and tomorrow. The lads deserve it. They've put a huge amount of work into it since the start of the year. It's a good story so far."

Here's just how good: they are the first county in 24 years, since Offaly in 1991, to claim NHL glory while operating outside the top tier. It's Waterford's first league success since 2007 but only their third in history. Before a hurl was pucked last February, they were only third in the betting for promotion from 1B - but after drawing in Limerick on the opening night, they have won seven games on the bounce including three against 1A opposition.

"What's gratifying is to sustain it over the league. You're always waiting for that dip - and the dip hasn't come," McGrath reflected. "You're always waiting for a flat day. Deep down you're fearful that flat day will come today."

He spoke of the "emotion in our build-up" and his desire that this would transfer into an on-field adrenaline rush. Ultimately, even though this will never rank as a league final classic, McGrath's wish came true and instead it was Cork's fate to serve up a performance that was flatter than a Shrove Tuesday pancake.

Waterford were first out of the blocks, landing three unanswered points inside four minutes, and that established a trend that lasted the full 70 minutes. Cork were always chasing and never once drew level. The closest they came to parity was after 20 minutes when, trailing 0-7 to 0-4, Séamus Harnedy bore down on goal only for Stephen O'Keeffe to execute a flying save. Right through that first half of hurling cat-and-mouse, Waterford were winning the possession battle and dictating the agenda - only to be undermined by some loose shooting and even looser deliveries, as the free man in Cork's full-back line (initially Stephen McDonnell, latterly Cormac Murphy) gobbled up lots of ball.

Yet, at the far end, Cork's forwards were struggling far more to escape the shackles of a miserly Déise defence that has coughed up just five goals all spring. Alan Cadogan succumbed to early hamstring trouble; Patrick Horgan won a few frees but otherwise was shunted to the periphery by the adhesive Noel Connors.

By game's end, Conor Lehane (with 0-5 from play and a second half howitzer off the crossbar) was the only Cork forward to emerge in real credit while Harnedy (with 0-2 and a few clean puckout claims) sporadically threatened. By contrast, Waterford had big performers in almost every line. Austin Gleeson, starting on the right flank of defence, maintained his stellar spring standards with a big first half crowned by two audacious points - a sideline cut from well beyond the '45' and then another from the same right touchline after a typically flambuoyant solo burst.


When Gleeson was fouled in first half stoppage time, Pauric Mahony nailed the free and Waterford led by 0-11 to 0-7.

Mahony had a profound influence both from placed balls - he converted nine out of ten - and in open play while skipper Kevin Moran finished with the TG4 crystal for the second game running after another dynamic midfield showing capped by three points.

Three times after the restart, Cork cut the margin to three only for Waterford to reply with the next score. This quarter included several questionable calls (a couple of debatable Waterford frees and an even more dubious Cork 'advantage' that ended in a disputed Bill Cooper wide) but Jimmy Barry-Murphy made light of their significance. Singling out such incidents would come across as "sour grapes", said the Cork boss, adding: "The manner of the defeat was comprehensive and let's be fair about it."

Over the last 25 minutes it became ever more emphatic. Waterford stayed six or seven up before a 64th minute goal from substitute Tom Devine - his goal-bound shot deflected into his own net by Anthony Nash - delivered the last rites on Cork's pallid quest for a first league title since 1998.

There were few redeeming elements for JBM, who admitted Cork have "an awful lot of heart-searching, both on the line and on the team themselves, to see can we ever get back to that level we want to be at in five weeks' time".

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