Sunday 23 October 2016

'We all just went hell for leather - pure intensity, loads of action. It was hurling in its purest form'

Molumphy and his fellow former combatants hoping Waterford and Cork can reignite high-octane rivalry that lit up the game in early 2000s

Christy O'Connor

Published 05/06/2015 | 02:30

Sean Og O hAilpin tries to get away from Stephen Molumphy during Cork’s battle with Waterford in 2007
Sean Og O hAilpin tries to get away from Stephen Molumphy during Cork’s battle with Waterford in 2007

Kieran Murphy had just been pulled down by a combination of Aidan Kearney and Ken McGrath. Neil Ronan was standing over the resultant penalty. Cork's Tom Kenny was waiting for it to be taken when Dan Shanahan ambled over.

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"Is he going to stick it, Tom?" asked Shanahan.

"I hope he does anyway, Dan," replied Kenny.

Ronan drove it hard and high. The net bulged. "I knew he'd score it," said Shanahan as he ran off to make himself available for the puckout.

There was still 28 minutes to play in the 2007 drawn All-Ireland quarter-final. The drama was only beginning. As two brilliant teams refused to yield to each other, the game developed into an opera. A beautiful symphony was about to reach an enthralling climax.

Cork led by four points with three minutes remaining. A Stephen Molumphy goal put Waterford back in the hunt but they still trailed by one deep into injury-time.

Suddenly Eoin McGrath found himself through on goal with only Donal Óg Cusack to beat. The point was the safest and most logical option. It was the percentage play but that Waterford team didn't trade in percentages. McGrath went for broke.

"I knew the point was the right option but I still fancied myself," says McGrath now. "I hit it as hard as I could have on the run. I probably should have hit it lower but it was an unbelievable save from Cusack."


After the ball ricocheted from Cusack's hurley, Paul Flynn let fly on the rebound. It hit Diarmuid O'Sullivan. As a pack of Waterford players descended on the loose sliotar like hungry wolves, Cusack fell to the ground to protect it. Referee Brian Gavin blew for a free-in. Eoin Kelly drove it over for the equaliser.

"When the ball was around the goal, I had my hands on my head," says McGrath. "I was saying to myself, 'if we don't get a free-in here, I'm going to America in the morning'. The ref could just as easily have given a free-out. If we hadn't got the free, I'd have been shot."

McGrath's willingness to gamble the collective toil of several seasons on one shot instead of taking the safe option encapsulated that Waterford team. It was what made them unique and so universally loved. That's what they did. It was what Cork expected them to do.

"The way McGrath went for the goal summed up the Cork-Waterford rivalry but it also summed up Waterford's attitude," says Tom Kenny. "They always wanted to go for the jugular. They had a go. If it didn't happen, they'd live with the consequences and come again the next day."

That 2007 drawn game was an epic match but nobody expected anything less from Cork and Waterford during the last decade. In their 11 championship games between 2002-10, Cork and Waterford usually stood for classics.

Along with that '07 drawn All-Ireland quarter-final, the '04 Munster final, '06 All-Ireland semi-final and '07 Munster semi-final were among the top 15 hurling matches of the last 20 years.

"We all just went hell for leather," says Molumphy. "It was pure free-flowing stuff, pure intensity, loads of action. They'd score loads, we'd try and score more. There was never any negativity or cynicism. It was always good, honest, hard hurling, man against man, let the best man win. Hurling in its purest form."

Mostly, the matches were total score-fests, skills executed at breakneck pace, all underpinned by a relentless feeling that anything could happen next. The games always pushed up the heart-rate. And repeatedly nourished the soul.

"We always went out with tactics or some plan but for some reason against Waterford, it never worked," says Kenny. "They had such characters who played off the cuff, that we nearly had to play off the cuff to match them.

"We never felt any kind of system would work against that Waterford team. The matches were brilliant to play in because they were end-to-end, high-scoring games.

"It was nearly like letting a few kids off into a park and see who could get the most scores."

The games were so absorbing, the quality and intensity so high, that it created a unique and glorious rivalry. Over the previous three decades, nascent rivalries had revolutionised the sport and defined an era: Kilkenny and Offaly, Galway and Tipperary, Clare and Limerick, Clare and Tipperary. The first great rivalry of the 21st century, though, was Cork-Waterford.

Apart from the Kilkenny-Offaly relationship of 1980-2000, most hurling rivalries that developed in the intervening years were laced with a more physical and sulphurous undercurrent. But Cork-Waterford had an easy relationship and the games promoted total hurling.

The relationship soured briefly at the end of '06 and early '07, after a passage in Brian Corcoran's book, Every Single Ball.

Corcoran spoke about two posters Cork had put up in their dressing-room prior to their clash in 2006, one outlining Cork's world, another outlining Waterford's: "Losing; Fighting; Blaming others; Playing for oneself, not the team; Relying on luck; Bringing others down to their level."

Several Waterford people condemned the comments but the storm blew over quickly.

"There was never any bitterness between us," says Kenny. "Even after Brian's book, there was no issue. During games, there would always be casual, relaxed chatting, good banter, good craic.

"Like any Cork team, we always believed we could win but they had great confidence in their ability.

"It was unfortunate they never won an All-Ireland because they deserved to win one. They had some brilliant players, huge characters, big personalities. They had the X-factor. That's what endeared them to everybody.

"The two teams had great talent. If you lost to Waterford, you knew they had beaten you in hurling terms, that they'd beaten you with sheer endeavour and skill. There is an honour coming off the field knowing you've been beaten by that level of skill.

"It was a brilliant rivalry that won't be matched for a long time."

Although they are neighbours, traditionally there had never been a rivalry between the counties because Cork never allowed it to develop. They had a brief rivalry between 1957 and '67 but before they met in '02, the counties had clashed 50 times in the championship. Cork had won 39, Waterford just eight.

Everything changed after '02 but Waterford's public still never had any real truck with Cork as the relationship developed. The only place where it really fizzed was along the western border.

"The city boys never had an issue with Cork, it was all about Kilkenny," says Molumphy. "The lads in the middle of the county didn't like Tipp.

"Up here, we only cared about Cork but Cork had always beaten us. When we finally started beating them, the rivalry really took off around here. Above any other team, I absolutely loved playing Cork."

Molumphy is from Ballyduff, the most western village in Waterford, which sits just four miles from the Cork border. When Waterford defeated Cork in the 2010 Munster final replay, Molumphy was captain.

Afterwards, the team got the bus back to Clonmel to pick up their cars before reconvening in Dungarvan. Davy Fitzgerald, then Waterford manager, told Molumphy to bring the cup home first before going onto Dungarvan.

"In fairness to Davy, he knew how much the rivalry meant to people in Ballyduff," says Molumphy.

"There are only three pubs in Ballyduff, but most people were in one of them. When I walked in, the place went nuts. It was absolute magic. The pride in beating Cork was unreal. It was an unbelievably special moment."

By that stage though, the texture of the relationship had already begun to change. After Fitzgerald arrived in 2008, Waterford changed their style to a more measured and tactical approach as opposed to the more liberal, swashbuckling hurling played under Justin McCarthy.

Fitzgerald led Waterford to an All-Ireland final in 2008, and a Munster title two years later, but they were no longer set up to play 70-minute shoot-outs. The 2010 drawn and replayed Munster finals were huge tactical battles.

"Looking back now on some of those Cork games as a forward, you'd be asking yourself, 'Did we defend at all?" says McGrath (below)."Everyone used to go forward and we conceded some crazy goals that killed us in big games.

"From that point of view, you could understand the change in style. But being honest, I don't think Waterford had the personnel to carry out some of those tactics. A lot of lads had big mileage on the clock and couldn't get around the field as easily.

"I just don't think playing a defensive game suited us as much. The games with Cork certainly weren't as good. The excitement was still there but even the 2010 final replay was a terrible game to watch."

Both games that summer were still laced with spell-binding drama: Tony Browne scored the equalising goal in the 74th minute of the drawn game; Shanahan scored the winning goal late in extra-time of the replay.

When the teams met in the 2012 All-Ireland quarter-final, the match went to wire again. In that context, all those games were still faithful to the Cork-Waterford relationship of high drama. But they never crackled with quite the same electricity.

"It wasn't vintage Cork-Waterford hurling," says Kenny. "You'd see little snippets of individual skill but it was nothing like old games. The crowds were smaller. The same belief wasn't there either.

"Those matches were also a sign of how the game had changed. Hurling had become more tactical, physical, and athletic. The free-flowing hurling of old was nearly defunct."

When the sides met again last year, Waterford almost took Cork down in the drawn game with a clever system. When Cork adapted for the replay, sitting Mark Ellis and Daniel Kearney deeper, and Bill Cooper playing a more withdrawn role, Waterford never coped. Cork took complete control. They won by 14 points.


"Losing to Cork in 2012 hurt a lot but I absolutely hated that replay defeat last year," says Molumphy.

"We hadn't got a beating like that from Cork in a long time. Derek (McGrath) was rebuilding but I still remember thinking, 'I don't want to go back to the old days again'."

Those days are over. Waterford are back. This is a new team with the hunger and ambition to match their talent. After their ten-point League final defeat, Cork are looking for retribution.

The teams may no longer have the same profile or characters. Cork-Waterford games don't carry the same iconic status they once did but the edge is back. They both have a cause again, a point to prove to each other.

And one spark is all it might take to reignite the first great hurling rivalry of the 21st century.

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