Dillon holds his nerve to hand Banner reality check
AT the final whistle, the contrasting body language of the players said everything.
There was a kick in Waterford's stride during their warm-down at the town side of the Cusack Park pitch.
In contrast, Clare's heads and shoulders were stooped as they gathered in the opposite corner.
Even though it was only the opening day of the league, this match always appeared to carry more weight than just the two points on offer.
Clare expected to win. They have staked a great deal on survival in this division, and their superior fitness levels during the Waterford Crystal Cup suggested they were primed to hit the ground running.
With games against last year's four All-Ireland semi-finalists still to come, two points against Waterford was seen as a critical catalyst in building confidence and momentum for a young side which had spent the previous three seasons in the second tier.
For Waterford, this was a massive result.
Clare's pre-match favouritism was based on their anticipated superior fitness and the big names Waterford had lost.
Yet, that premise discounted the experience and quality Waterford still had in their squad. Banner manager Davy Fitzgerald said as much afterwards, admitting that the negative public portrayal of Waterford's chances may have triggered Clare complacency.
There was nothing in this match and the game had a stalemate feel to it from early in the second half. Both sides had each other by the lapels and any time either threatened to break free, they could feel the warm breath of their opponents on their neck.
By injury-time, they had been level 11 times, and it wasn't really a surprise when the winning score came from the last puck – a Jake Dillon free after Shane O'Sullivan had been fouled.
In some ways, it was similar to the dramatic denouement at last year's closely contested Munster semi-final.
"It was the very same as last year and there is very little between these teams," said Waterford manager Michael Ryan.
"Maybe we got that little break at the end but we kept going and we worked hard. We lost Liam Lawlor before the game but we didn't let it affect us.
"Our defence was magnificent and we had a couple of trump cards up front. Brian O'Halloran was outstanding. Early on, when we were struggling up front, he kept us in the game."
O'Halloran was the most productive player on the field, scoring four points from play, but other young players also really stepped up.
Stephen Daniels was outstanding, while Dillon showed admirable leadership when he took over the free-taking duties after Paraic Mahony went off. Dillon hit Waterford's last four scores.
Clare were very flat in the opening quarter.
They had just one shot at the target from open play in that period and they couldn't get any decent supply into their full-forward line.
Waterford weren't translating their territorial or possession dominance into scores until they finally hit a purple patch midway through the half when hitting 2-1 in three minutes, the goals coming from Dillon and Seamus Prendergast.
Clare had reduced the deficit to one point by half-time – their goal coming from a brilliant Tony Kelly finish in the 23rd minute – and they charged into the front just after the break with four points in five minutes.
Despite their struggles to win possession on their own puck-out – winning just eight of their own puck-outs over the 70 minutes – Clare were still creating plenty of scoring opportunities.
Yet they failed to take three good goalscoring chances, dropped five balls short and hit 13 wides. They were profligate in comparison to Waterford's greater economy and scoring efficiency.
Although this young team are learning all the time, this result at home puts huge pressure on Clare now in their quest to stay in the top division.
For Waterford, the feel-good factor generates more than just the two points they secured.
"There was an honesty and effort from all of us today and the spirit in the camp has been absolutely magnificent," said Ryan.
"I smile when I hear stories that things aren't well in our camp. All that really matters is that there are 30 or 40 guys in our group and they're working really hard."
John Sexton's refereeing was liberal but he still awarded 16 scoreable frees.
In any case, there was no dispute about the free which ultimately decided the match.
After Dillon slotted it, the reaction around the ground and on the pitch underlined just how much had been at stake.
Man of the Match: B O'Halloran (Waterford)
SCORERS – Waterford: J Dillon 1-5 (3fs), B O'Halloran 0-4, S Prendergast 1-1, P Mahony 0-3 (3f), D Fives, B O'Sullivan 0-1 each. Clare: C Ryan 0-9 (5fs, 1 '65'), T Kelly 1-3, S Morey 0-2, F Lynch, C Galvin, S O'Donnell 0-1 each.
WATERFORD –S O'Keeffe 7; S Daniels 9, S Fives 7, N Connors 8; J Nagle 8, M Walsh 8, K Moran 7; S O'Sullivan 7, D Twomey 6; B O'Halloran 9, S Prendergast 7, P Mahony 6; G O'Brien 6, J Dillon 8, B O'Sullivan 6. Subs: D Fives 7 for Twomey (h-t), J Barron 6 for O'Brien (44), R Barry 6 for Mahony (57).
CLARE: P Kelly 7; D O'Donovan 8, J McInerney 6, D McInerney 7; B Bugler 6, P Donnellan 7, P O'Connor 6; S Morey 8, C Ryan 8; F Lynch 6, T Kelly 8, E Barrett 6; J Conlan 7, S O'Donnell 7, P Collins 6. Subs: N O'Connell 6 for P O'Connor (h-t), C Galvin 7 for Barrett (h-t), A Cunningham for Collins (54), S Collins 6 for Lynch (58), J Clancy 6 for Cunningham (63).
REF – J Sexton (Cork)