Ground rule gives Déise men deserved second bite
IT ended in controversy with referee Brian Gavin awarding a last second free which earned Waterford a reprieve but only Cork and the most mean-spirited of neutrals could possible quibble with the result after an epic encounter in yesterday's Guinness All-Ireland hurling quarter-final at Croke Park.
Cork goalkeeper Donal Óg Cusack was adjudged to have lay on the ball as it broke after a Paul Flynn ground stroke had been blocked and Eoin Kelly slotted over the resultant free, much to the relief of a Waterford side that had spent the afternoon jumping from one roller-coaster to the next.
There were times when it seemed likely that they were poised to finally beat Cork in an All-Ireland contest but those gave way to a period of misery just after the hour mark when Cork appeared to have timed their recovery run to perfection.
A goal down at the three-quarter stage, they battled back to within two points of Waterford before Kieran Murphy batted in Cork's second goal in the 61st minute to put his side in front for the first time.
Waterford equalised before skidding into another major problem when Neil Ronan rattled in Cork's third goal in the 65th minute, followed shortly afterwards by a point from sub Kevin Hartnett which gave Cork a four-point lead. In their less experienced days, this Waterford side might have capitulated under the force of such a heavy hit - but not anymore.
They're a resourceful, confident bunch these days and showed no signs of panic as they calmly set about working their way out of their difficulty, a process which was helped enormously by Stephen Molumphy's 69th-minute goal, whipped to the net after Cusack had saved from Flynn.
Then, deep into stoppage time, Waterford had a chance to win the game when Eoin McGrath had a clear strike on goal but his effort was saved brilliantly by Cusack. Flynn tried to poke the rebound to the net but it got stuck in heavy red traffic.
As a pile of bodies went to ground, it all hinged on Gavin's view of events and he opted to penalise Cusack for laying on the ball and preventing Waterford from playing it. It's quite unusual for referees to penalise defenders in these situations and, more often than not, play is re-started with a throw-in but Gavin gave the benefit of the doubt to Waterford which allowed Kelly to stroke over the equaliser.
Whether Gavin would have taken a different view had the scores been level is a matter for conjecture, even if it is totally irrelevant. Cork were furious with his decision but, in fairness, he had no option but to award a free in once he adjudged that Cusack had prevented Waterford from playing the ball.
It was a fitting finale to what was the best game of the 2007 Hurling Championship so far, brimming with energy, effort and enthusiasm and decorated with the highest skill levels which enthralled the crowd all day.
In the circumstances, it would have been roughest of justice had either side lost.
In Waterford's case, it would have been absolutely heart-breaking as they have been at the wrong end of some very close calls in recent years. Perhaps that's why the gods finally decided to give them a break by persuading Gavin to award that crucial match-saving free.
Whatever the background, a second chance was the least Waterford deserved on a day when they looked like a side that really believe in themselves as All-Ireland contenders.
They were first to make an early break with Dan Shanahan thumping in a goal in the tenth minute, followed by a wonderful point from way out on the sideline a minute later.
Shanahan hasn't always done his vast array of talents full justice against Cork in Croke Park but he delivered in style yesterday, scoring 1-3 and always looking dangerous both in open play and under the high ball. John Mullane threatened more than he achieved, ending up with just two points but then he didn't enjoy any luck as the ball squirted away from him on a few occasions just as he was primed to make a break.
Molumphy did well, scoring 1-2 as did Flynn who had a quiet first half before making a dramatic impact 20 seconds in the second half when he fired in Waterford's second goal to give them a three-point lead which they extended to four before Cork pared it back to one when Neil Ronan smashed a penalty to the net in the 41st minute.
Waterford's advantage alternated between one and three points between then and the 61st minute when Murphy's goal swung the momentum Cork's way.
It wasn't the first time that Cork had battled back, having recovered from a five-point deficit in the first half to be level at half-time (0-10 to 1-7). Cork shot five unanswered points between the 19th and 28th minutes, a period in which Tom Kenny and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín were especially effective.
A point from a '65 by Ken McGrath was Waterford's only score of the second quarter, a down period which Justin McCarthy will, no doubt, address in his team talks this week. Cork scored 0-6 in that stretch which left them with a psychological edge at half-time.
Flynn's early second strike changed all that and set up an absorbing second half which remained at the highest possible intensity all the way to the finish line.
While Waterford were mighty relieved to earn a second bite, Cork returned home feeling that they were the victims of a miscarriage of justice.
However, when they analyse the game in an overall context, they would have to admit that Waterford deserved to take something from it, even if it was delivered in controversial circumstances.
Neil Ronan, Kieran Murphy and Ben O'Connor were pick of the Cork attack which was helped enormously by the outfield service provided by Tom Kenny and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, while Brian Murphy did well at corner-back. However, none could match Waterford centre-back Ken McGrath, who turned in an inspired performance, marred only by a few misses from frees.
He will be forgiven those because his all-round solidity and leadership qualities did so much to anchor Waterford's effort through good and bad times.
SCORERS - Cork: N Ronan 2-2 (1-0 pen); J Deane 0-5 (4f); K Murphy 1-0; B O'Connor 0-3 (1f, 1 '65); S Og O hAilpin 0-2; T Kenny, J O'Connor, J Gardiner, K Hartnett 0-1 each. Waterford: D Shanahan 1-3; P Flynn, S Molumphy 1-2 each; E Kelly 0-4 (3f); J Mullane, K McGrath (1f, 1 '65') 0-2 each; S Prendergast 0-1.
TEAMS AND PLAYER RATINGS
CORK - D Og Cusack 8; S O'Neill 6, D O'Sullivan 6, B Murphy 7; J Gardiner 6, R Curran 6, S Og O hAilpin 8; T Kenny 8, J O'Connor 6; B O'Connor 7, T McCarthy 5, P Cronin 6; N Ronan 8, Kieran Murphy (Sarsfields) 7, J Deane 7. Subs: N McCarthy 5 for T McCarthy (45), K Hartnett 7 for J O'Connor (57), C Naughton for N McCarthy (71).
WATERFORD - C Hennessy 7; E Murphy 7 D Prendergast 6, A Kearney 7; T Browne 7, K McGrath 9, J Murray 6; M Walsh 7, J Kennedy 5; E Kelly 6, D Shanahan 8, S Molumphy 8; J Mullane 7, S Prendergast 6, P Flynn 8. Subs: E McGrath 7 for Kennedy (29), B Phelan 6 for Murray (ht).
REF - B Gavin (Offaly).