Thurles thriller tees things up for summer full of fireworks
Published 09/05/2016 | 02:30
You can take the nails out of hurling's coffin because what we saw at Semple Stadium yesterday highlighted everything good about the game with Tony Kelly standing tall to save the Banner's bacon before firing the winner.
From the first play you knew it was going to be different with Waterford launching in a long ball which led to Patrick Curran's goal. Positivity immediately replaced the doom and gloom from the drawn encounter and an epic unfolded before our eyes.
The last day left a sour taste in many people's mouths and while there was still a lot of short passing, highlighted by Pat O'Connor's cross-field pass being intercepted for Waterford's second goal, this was one for the purists.
It shows how one good game can change the climate of hurling and it's the perfect tee-up for the championship. The game was nip and tuck from start to finish with some great scores, great catches and some fearless tackling.
Both sides had four or five forwards up front which was refreshing to see and it helped to reduce the middle-third traffic. There was always a sweeper back but teams are well used to that and you can deal with one extra man to some degree.
Clare only led twice and trailed by two in injury time and you always felt there was a chance of a goal but to score three points in a row at the death was anything but predictable. It could easily have been different, however, as Waterford were a point up when Jamie Barron was clearly fouled, but no free was given.
That turned the game on its head and Kelly was subsequently fouled before dusting himself off to send over a huge free. Cometh the hour cometh the man and he grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck when he was needed most.
You just have that feeling when great players step up to a free that you know where it's going and he didn't even hesitate. I saw him do the same for UL in the Fitzgibbon Cup final last year and his performance epitomised his leadership on the pitch.
He assumed responsibility when Colin Ryan and Conor McGrath were both off target from earlier frees and popped up yet again in the next sequence to score the clincher. He was immense over the 70 minutes.
I wrote in Saturday's column that even his genius needed more space to flourish and by Davy Fitz setting up in a more orthodox fashion, it allowed him the freedom of the park. Once he gets space he's deadly and 1-5 from play is outrageous scoring.
He got more free rein as the game went on and he showed his class with every touch. He made every contribution count and his goal was just what the doctor ordered when the game was slipping away from Clare. Hurling needs players like him.
He typified Clare's resilience because they had every reason to admit defeat but they just hung in there when another team, bar Kilkenny, would have vanished. Fitzy won't admit it but they were on the ropes and being pushed further back with every blow.
But they just couldn't be pushed to the canvas and it's a credit to their conditioning to take that type of punishment from Waterford and bounce back. I'm not saying Waterford aren't fit but Clare were the ones who were finishing stronger and are probably fitter than any other team in the country right now.
People won't talk about it much afterwards but Clare also got three consecutive points just before the break which kept them in a game which they easily could've been out of. That enabled the late smash and grab.
Fitzy never won a league medal as a player with the great Clare team of the 1990s but it's on his CV now and they've gone the year unbeaten thus far. Only four more games to win and they'll be crowned All-Ireland champions. If only it was that easy.
Derek McGrath will feel that Waterford should have pushed on and will be disappointed they couldn't make it back-to-back wins but up until the 70th minute they looked like winners and that'll tell you how tight it is between them.
They'll be very disappointed with the result but they won't be downhearted by the display. Tadhg de Búrca was unreal, same with Austin Gleeson and Jamie Barron, while Curran had an outstanding first half and it's tough on them to lose.
Waterford showed exactly what they can do and I can't wait for them to become reacquainted come championship time where I expect more fireworks. If yesterday is anything to go on it's going to be an absolute classic.
The attendance was poor but there'll be at least double at the championship game on June 5 as both counties will realise that they're very near to being the team. With a small bit of tweaking either of them could do the business come September.
Maurice Shanahan and Pauric Mahony are set to come back for the Déise while David McInerney and John Conlon will boost the Banner when they return. Clare got the lucky breaks yesterday but it'll be a point or two either way and the team that loses in that Munster will still be live contenders, as we've seen before.
Both camps will be delighted with the contributiion of their benches and the likes of Tots O'Connell, Aron Shanagher, Brian O'Halloran and Tommy Ryan could make a real statement before the summer ends.
Elsewhere, it was essential that Offaly made no mistake against Carlow and despite serious resistance, they eventually got the job done. I know right well that those lads are training very hard but when you're losing it's very hard because everyone is coming down on top of you.
Eamonn Kelly will have really felt the heat but they're still in a good position. Westmeath's win in Tralee was a huge boost to their development because that's not a simple task. Offaly welcome the Kingdom to Tullamore in two weeks and I still think they'll get through to the Leinster Championship proper.
Things are really starting to heat up.