Monday 26 September 2016

Deise show there's more to them than the system

Published 04/05/2015 | 02:30

Waterford players celebrate their Allianz NHL final victory over Cork
Waterford players celebrate their Allianz NHL final victory over Cork

They were the men who kept walking under ladders, but Waterford can stop mourning them now. The unluckiest team never to win an All-Ireland has finally been properly succeeded.

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Not tassle for tassle of course. Not in terms of hurling from the hip as if life might somehow have a conscience and would reward such eye-watering flamboyance with a visit to the mountain-top. Every day was a wedding day to that Waterford.

This one? They are cut from plainer cloth, Derek McGrath placing his trust in young legs and open minds We fixate upon their structure when, in reality, they don't actually have one. We call it "defensive", yet here they stockpiled 1-24 alongside the extravagance of spilling 15 wides.

What on earth might they become?

Truth is, Waterford's third National League title win felt like the stirrings of a new dawn. They didn't beat Cork so much as chaperone them to the exits.

ESCAPE

Third favourites to escape Division 1B at the beginning of the year, they became the first team in almost a quarter of a century to take the Dr Croke Cup from a second-tier starting position.

They have become defined by their system, but this was a day that showed them to be so much more.

Jimmy Barry-Murphy, typically, acknowledged that. Cork weren't beaten because of the opposition's layered defence yesterday, they were beaten because they were out-hurled.

"Probably our motivation and hunger were that bit greater," suggested McGrath after, mindful of a room at the bottom of the dressing-room tunnel now housing some biblically bad moods.

The teams meet again in championship next month and he knows how quickly a fly-past can take the unsuspecting into a thunderstorm.

"Look, no-one does lying in the grass better than Cork and that's what they'll be doing for the next five weeks," added the Waterford manager.

"My guess is if you go into Paddy Power in the morning, we may have narrowed, but Cork will still be favourites for five weeks' time."

Still, he has overseen something remarkable here. Something nobody could have foreseen even two months back when the only noise in his ears was that of local belly-aching over an unsentimental winter cull.

McGrath evicted some much-loved old faces from the group through a conviction that the game-plan Waterford needed to follow all but demanded asbestos lungs.

In a county known to covet individualism, he went selling the power of the collective.

Yet, we maybe over-play that notion. In his glorious prime, were Ken McGrath's shoulders any more open than Austin Gleeson's were, torqueing down the right tram-line after maybe half an hour yesterday, breaking tackles like kindling, then firing a point over the Killinan end goal that was still rising as it cleared the scoreboard?

The most ignorant thing we can do with this Waterford team is to imply a lack of spontaneity in what do.

Some of their hurling yesterday, the first touch under pressure, the tackling (Gleeson's wonderful dispossession of Rob O'Shea on 17 minutes), the blocking (Philip Mahony's remarkable robbery of Pat Horgan on 32 minutes), maybe the support play especially, spoke of a team tuned to the one crystal-clear frequency.

Where did it all come from?

When these counties met in a League final 17 years back - JBM on the line that day for Cork too - McGrath was a 21-year-old forward sitting in the Waterford dug-out.

He was of the Harlem Globetrotting generation in that sense, a man who hurled with men like McGrath and Paul Flynn and Big Dan. He knew the beautiful tumult of what it was those men could do.

But he knew, too, that not everyone could hurl that way.

He has been building this team, essentially, in a way that buys them time. He worries for when they have a flat day, for when someone gets a run on them and, forced to chase, they fall prey to a bad beating.

"There was definitely more emotion in our build-up to the game today," he told us. "In our own family environment, even leaving the house this morning. . . all the boys leaving their families, they acknowledged that.

"I remarked before the Tipperary match that they were very giddy, today they were the opposite extreme. We were extremely quiet in the dressing-room. I know it sounds very old-school to say it, but we just probably wanted it that bit more."

It was a shock to see Cork looking so wrung-out and drained by Waterford's energy.

Across the field, they held conventional positions, then seemed confused when swamped by numbers in the middle third. Waterford led by four at half-time; it should have been twice that. They were setting the terms of engagement, hurling harder, better and with infinitely more clarity.

Cork sporadically threatened danger though Conor Lehane and (before his injury) Seamus Harnedy, but these were just sniper raids against army saracens. Horgan was ineffective against Noel Connors and the experiment of parachuting Aidan Ryan in to full-back was aborted before the hour mark.

They looked a team either in need of the stewards' attention or one mired in some kind of crisis.

Yet, they get a quick opportunity of atonement and that undeniably makes them dangerous.

As defender Stephen McDonnell put it: "It is up to us whether we treat it as a blow or as a blessing now. Me, for one, I am definitely going to treat it as a blessing. I learned a hundred per cent from that game and that is the way I am going to look at it. I know the lads are the same."

The final had ceased to be a contest even before Tom Devine's 64th-minute shot trickled under the bodies of Anthony Nash and Cormac Murphy for the only goal.

True, Stephen O'Keeffe's first-half save from Harnedy and Lehane's 53rd-minute shot that snapped back off the crossbar hinted that, tight as Waterford's defence might have been, it wasn't quite hermetically sealed.

And you could read that wariness in McGrath now, the worry that his young team might so easily be set up for a Championship fall.

"You know we need this," he told us. "It's a big achievement. But we're not a team that can relax. We weren't even relaxed on the line ourselves, so I think we'll probably learn a bit from that.

"But it's bad world when things go wrong."

His nine-year-old son, Fionn, hasn't been to a game this year because of the badness decanted by a hiding against Kilkenny last year.

"We just feel that we maybe needed to do things differently to be successful based on the group of players that we have," said McGrath.

"You know if you were in the 2004 Munster final, you know Ken was centre-back but you had a forward line that day of Seamus Prendergast, John Mullane, Eoin Kelly, Paul Flynn, Dan Shanahan. . .

"I think Waterford will be at a stage to possibly play more open hurling in the next year or two There will be a forward-line capable of flamboyance in the next few years in Waterford."

It could be, they already have one.

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