Dermot Crowe: Liberation or doom the stark choice as we reach the business end
Each of today's four quarter-finalists has reasons to be hopeful and plenty of reasons to be fearful
There were days like this, too, when Tony Browne hurled for Waterford. One arrived in his prime, drawing an exemplary Browne performance, and the other fell near the end of his playing tour, when he was defying age and still contributing. Now out of the loop, a spectator, he will be curious to see if Waterford can find similar inspiration this afternoon.
In 1998, Waterford had a week to prepare after losing the Munster final replay to Clare by 12 points, an experience soured by controversy which engulfed the match and polluted relations between the counties. Galway were expecting to profit but Waterford dug out a performance and won the quarter-final by 10 points. Five years ago they had two weeks to recover from a Munster final hammering identical in proportion to the one Waterford suffered a fortnight ago. Again, with Galway in form and optimistic, they triumphed by 10 points.
Neither feat presupposes that today's quarter-final against Wexford will follow the same line. But it offers a body of evidence that atonement can he found even in the wake of the most harrowing defeats.
Each of today's quarter-finalists has a cross to bear, having fallen along the way. Waterford's wounds are the most graphic and recently inflicted. But every team has suffered a blow to confidence and must handle the pervasive doubts that follow losing.
Backs to the wall, what do you do? Raise the white flag? Hang your head and wait for the end? They all come to Thurles facing the prospect of liberation or doom: a team torn asunder in a provincial final; another riding high in May, shot down in June; a third pilloried for their fade and surrender in the Leinster final; the fourth carrying older scars from a bad Leinster championship loss to Dublin, the healing process accelerated by a win over Cork.
"I am waiting on that call," jokes Browne of Waterford's predicament. "I've a funny feeling they will want me back again."
When they lost by seven goals to Tipperary in the 2011 Munster final, Waterford were reigning provincial champions but still outsiders. Tipperary were All-Ireland champions. In '98 the context differed. Waterford were still searching for a long-awaited provincial title win. Now the team dealing with a traumatising loss is one that has been steadily working its way to the forefront of All-Ireland contention. Most of the players involved are young and would never have experienced a drubbing of that kind.
"A Munster final is a huge occasion and the value that Munster hurlers have in a Munster final is still a huge thing," says Browne. "Particularly for this Waterford team. Last year, I won't say they were happy to be in it, they wanted to win it, but they were growing; they were after coming off the back of winning a National League and I suppose deep down they were probably happy to be getting to a Munster final. But this year they felt it was time to push on and it was time to actually win it. I think everyone felt, even outside the county, Waterford had a fantastic chance of winning it. I think Tipp were very much favourites in 2011 when we went into it. This time the feeling was that this Waterford team was ready and that is probably the most disappointing thing about it."
In 2011, Browne believes they approached Tipp with excessive caution which hampered their own game. The alchemy wasn't there. Michael Walsh started the match at full-back, but was moved out to the centre for the second half, from where he started the Galway game. By half-time in the Munster final Tipperary were 17 points up, out of sight. Kevin Moran moved into midfield against Galway two weeks later and was man of the match. Defeats can expose structural flaws, but the psychological impact of a bad defeat is something that's impossible to quantify.
"We went out the next day and we really didn't have anything to lose," says Browne of 2011 against Galway, "and we really opened up and let ourselves go a little bit and played off the cuff. We had taken a lot of criticism. I feel that if this team can do something similar they have a very good chance. Our approach was we knew we were better than that. We knew as a group we were better than that. We also knew we had won a couple of Munster titles and our real aim was an All-Ireland title to tell you the truth, and we were still in the picture for that. Even though it was a devastating defeat, we had in mind a different goal. And I still believe if the guys see this as an opportunity to get into an All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny, that there is a massive opportunity there, and that will help. There is a big prize on offer. If they win they are 70 minutes away from an All-Ireland final and at the end of the day that is what Waterford are crying out for."
Because of his unruffled, self-contained nature, Browne was better able to cope. In '98 and 2011 he felt confident walking on to the field against Galway. "The first two days (after losing) are really important in what way you deal with it. You get a fair idea going into training either Tuesday or Wednesday whether the whole group is able to deal with it. You get a fair idea that you know a performance is coming. You can sense it in looking around and seeing what way people react on the first night back at training. Whether you are mature enough, whether you are going to sink or swim. You get it very early on the first night."
What did you see? "I saw fellas were training at that kind of same intensity that we had been training at all along. The thing for us in '98 was getting back to Croke Park for the first time in a long time. We wanted to perform up there. We said very early after that game (Munster final replay), we were going to go there and express ourselves and that is what happened."
Wexford's last big stand in the championship until their recent win over Cork was the 2014 qualifier victory over Waterford, which followed a replay win over the reigning All-Ireland champions Clare in Wexford Park. In the quarter-final they were destroyed by Limerick, 4-26 to 1-11. Their form never picked up in 2015 and this year's failure to win promotion from Division 1B was followed by the dispiriting loss to Dublin in the Leinster quarter-final, when they lost by 13 points. They had six weeks until they played Offaly in the qualifiers.
"They are not as bad as they were against Dublin," says Liam Griffin. "They lost a lot of leaders with injuries. Lee Chin was injured so they were getting injury after injury. They got two more since the last game against Cork. In the lead-up to the Dublin game there were five rounds of club championship games played, two rounds of football and three of hurling. But they had proper preparation for the next two matches. They had time to prepare. That is why that (Dublin) game was an aberration. I am not saying they would have beaten Dublin but they had a clatter of injuries. To be fair to Wexford, we don't have the strength in depth to deal with that. They recovered very well against Offaly. I know you can make all sorts of claims about Cork but whether you think that or not it was a mental challenge for Wexford to beat Cork.
"In my opinion, Wexford are now at the stage that Waterford were when Wexford beat them in 2014. Keith Rossiter is gone, Rory Jacob is gone. We have a completely different team and to Liam Dunne's eternal credit, next year Wexford will end up with a completely new team. Some people in Wexford would not be satisfied that that is progress. But he has introduced almost a completely new team.
"They will want to do well again on Sunday, they will want a good fighting, battling performance. If they give that, they'll have had a good season."
He sees Waterford as a team still developing who were widely tipped against Tipperary, allowing their conquerors to come in slightly under the radar. Defeat of that magnitude might not prevent Waterford from winning today, but he feels it will damage their future prospects in the short term.
Tom Dempsey, an All-Ireland medal winner with Wexford 20 years ago, agrees that the "doom and gloom" after Dublin was overplayed due to injuries. He regarded Offaly as a good draw for Wexford but beating Cork caught people by surprise and they achieved something in that which Dublin failed to match. Ultimately, they are among the last six standing. Of today's four they are in the best place psychologically.
"I would not overstate the role of Lee Chin and Conor McDonald, who led from the front against Cork," says Dempsey. "Beating Cork had historical significance for Wexford and for this team to come and beat Cork it gave a little boost and a little bit more optimism. I suppose they re-energised themselves in the weeks after losing to Dublin but very few people saw the Cork result coming.
"One of the things that will suit Liam Dunne is that a lot of the focus will be on what way Waterford react to the Munster final. I have seen them a number of times this year and I don't think one defeat will bury this team; I think they will react positively. They have a lot of good players all over the field. My gut feeling is Waterford will win the match but we are hoping for another good performance."
Dempsey read the substitutions of some marquee players by Waterford in the Munster final as indicative of a management team already thinking of the next day. "Maybe it will be seen now as a masterstroke, I think he was right in doing that."
Galway's shortcomings in the Leinster final fuelled a scathing attack on their temperament from Ger Loughnane, which might have been more offensive than the defeat itself. It can be reasonably assumed that the old canard of the players not reading the papers doesn't apply in this case. The depiction of a spineless bunch cut to the quick and provides a challenge to Galway to deliver some message to counter this charge.
That is not where teams usually derive their motivation, supposedly, given that the modern approach to game preparation is more about focusing on areas within one's control. But Galway's interpretation of their defeat to Kilkenny has invariably been coloured by Loughnane's judgement, with Ollie Canning's intervention merely stoking the flames.
Last year Galway ended a run of six All-Ireland quarter-final defeats in eight years when trouncing Cork. But they will feel they have more to prove, to themselves as much as to anyone outside the fold.
Clare's affliction dates back to defeat to Waterford in the Munster semi-final and the poverty of the performance. Wins over Laois and Limerick haven't fully healed those wounds. A win over Galway has the potential to restore the team's equilibrium but whoever comes through will still carry doubts as they prepare to meet the undefeated side waiting in the semi-finals.
Browne brings up Tipp's 18-point loss to Kilkenny in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-finals as a reminder that every team, aside from Kilkenny, has had to deal with these dark days in recent years. Over the long tradition of Kilkenny-Tipp championship matches this was Kilkenny's biggest win.
"I hope this will be a valuable lesson learned," Browne says of Waterford's Munster final meltdown. "I think the ultimate goal now is an All-Ireland. I believe they can win an All-Ireland. I believe they have the talent to do it. But first there is the elephant in the room; can they get over Sunday? And if they can I think they will be very, very dangerous opposition."
Clare v Galway
The counties have clashed 14 times in the championship with Clare holding a 9-4 advantage and there has been one draw. This will be the fifth All-Ireland quarter-final clash between them, with Clare winning in 1999 (after a replay), 2002 and 2013
Their last championship meeting was in the 2013 All-Ireland quarter-final, which Clare won by 1-23 to 2-14 in Thurles.
Galway are bidding to reach the All-Ireland semi-finals for a second successive year.
How they got here: Waterford 1-21, Clare 0-17 (Munster semi-final) Clare 5-32, Laois 0-12 (All-Ireland qualifier round 1) Clare 0-19, Limerick 0-15 (All-Ireland qualifier round 2) Galway 3-27, Westmeath 0-19 (Leinster quarter-final) Galway 2-19, Offaly 2-9 (Leinster semi-final) Kilkenny 1-26, Galway 0-22 (Leinster final)
Last two C'ship clashes: 2013: Clare 1-23 Galway 2-14 (All-Ireland quarter-final, Semple Stadium) 2011: Galway 4-25 Clare 0-20 (All-Ireland qualifiers, Pearse Stadium)
Wexford v Waterford
They last met in an All-Ireland quarter-final in 2008 when Waterford won by 2-19 to 3-15, while their most recent championship clash was two years ago when Wexford won a qualifier tie by 3-15 to 2-15.
Their most recent competitive clash was in this year's Allianz League Division 1 quarter-final in March when Waterford won by a point (0-17 to 1-13) in Innovate Wexford Park.
Wexford are bidding to reach the All-Ireland semi-final for the first time since 2007 while Waterford were there last year, losing to Kilkenny.
How they got here: Waterford 1-21, Clare 0-17 (Munster semi-final) Tipperary 5-19, Waterford 0-13 (Munster final) Dublin 2-19, Wexford 0-12 (Leinster quarter-final) Wexford 1-21, Offaly 1-13 (All-Ireland qualifier round 1) Wexford 0-23, Cork 1-17 (All-Ireland qualifier round 2)
Last two C'ship clashes: Wexford 3-15 Waterford 2-15 (2014 All-Ireland qualifiers, Nowlan Park) Waterford 2-19 Wexford 3-15 (2008 All-Ireland quarter-final, Semple Stadium)
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