THEY say that 'winning ugly' is a handy knack to have and Kilkenny are certainly making a virtue of that this season.
Two soft second-half goals off 'Hail Mary' passes -- the second well into injury-time -- gave them a very flattering winning margin at Nowlan Park yesterday and kept the Cats' league final hopes alive, but none too convincingly.
Even Brian Cody conceded that this was a mystifyingly bad match that wouldn't have won any hurling beauty contest.
"Was it flowing stuff? No, but that's not a problem," the Kilkenny boss said. "The object of the exercise is to keep going, and winning today was always going to keep us very much in the hunt. Next Saturday's game with Dublin is now a really crucial one."
Despite perfect conditions, a decent crowd (7,646) and how much was at stake for each side, this was a surprisingly poor game, strewn with errors from both teams.
Yet while it was surprisingly low on the skill factor, there were still plenty of talking points. Kilkenny, forced to start without Michael Fennelly (back spasm) and James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick (tonsillitis), worryingly lost two more pivotal figures -- Tommy Walsh and JJ Delaney -- during the game to add to their already crammed casualty ward.
Waterford, who felt that both of Kilkenny's goals might have been square balls, were particularly aggrieved that John Mullane didn't get a penalty in the dying stages and also lost their captain Stephen Molumphy at half-time in most unusual circumstances.
Eyebrows were raised when Molumphy was replaced by Eoin McGrath at half-time because the Ballyduff man wasn't the worst in their mis-firing attack. The team management were reluctant afterwards to give details but it was revealed that the army officer had to dash off to catch a flight overseas.
"Stephen had a work commitment with the army," a Waterford source said. "The team management was aware of that before the game, but he was keen to play at least the first half of the game."
Management were willing to comment on some of the game's second-half controversies and, with manager Davy Fitzgerald currently suspended, it fell to selector Pauric Fanning to give the Decies' view-point.
"I'd like to see the tape of the two goals, I thought they were in the square," Fanning said, before revealing, "our goalkeeper was told by the umpire that one of them was (a square ball) but that he wasn't in a position to call it to the referee, which I find very strange. That to me is stupid, I can't make any sense of that at all."
Kilkenny's first goal was particularly vital as it put them back into the game after Waterford had just grabbed the lead for the first time. The Decies struck in the 50th minute when a Richie Foley free hit the post and fell kindly for Shane Walsh.
A point from sub Eoin McGrath immediately extended their lead to two points -- completing a seven-point turnaround after they had trailed by five early in the second-half -- and suddenly a complete snoozefest of a game came alive.
But Kilkenny immediately got the response they needed, albeit a lucky one, when Colin Fennelly lobbed a speculative pass into the square and TJ Reid got a touch to beat 'keeper Stephen O'Keeffe.
Having failed to score in 16 minutes, the Noresiders then raced four clear again with a Fennelly point and a great long-range, angled free from Richie Hogan.
A point from wing-back David O'Sullivan kept Waterford's hopes alive but their subsequent penalty appeal was ignored and though Eoin Kelly still went for a goal off the ensuing 20m free, his shot was stopped and the rebound sent wide.
Kilkenny then added insult to injury with another controversial goal in the dying seconds, when PJ Delaney's long-free was flicked into the net by Fennelly and Waterford's league hopes were ended.
In truth they couldn't really quibble because they wasted far too many chances (11 wides to Kilkenny's 10), dropped numerous others short and were far too dependent on Foley's freetaking.
Just 1-2 came from their starting forwards, who were guilty of bunching and not using the space enough against their wily opponents, for whom John Dalton and Noel Hickey combined to keep Mullane very quiet.
Yet apart from their defence, in which returned O'Loughlin's star Brian Hogan was the standout, Kilkenny were no great shakes themselves.
Reid started well until Michael 'Brick' Walsh tightened up on him, Aidan Fogarty showed some good flashes and was the best of their attack but many of Kilkenny's bigger names were anonymous and, even allowing for their many absentees, this was far from convincing.
Cody was clearly worried afterwards about the latest additions to his crammed casualty list.
"Tommy (Walsh's injury) is the AC shoulder joint and JJ's is the hamstring," he said. "We don't know yet how bad they are but it is a worry, we don't need any more (injuries) right now."
Man of the Match -- B Hogan (Kilkenny)
Scorers - Kilkenny: R Hogan 0-7 (5f, 1 '65'), TJ Reid, C Fennelly 1-2 each, A Fogarty 0-3, E Larkin, E Brennan 0-1 each. Waterford: R Foley 0-7 (5f, 2 '65's), S Walsh 1-0, D O'Sullivan, K Moran, J Mullane, S Molumphy, T Ryan, E McGrath 0-1 each.
Kilkenny -- D Herity 7; M Kavanagh 7, N Hickey 7, J Dalton 8; T Walsh 7, B Hogan 8, JJ Delaney 7; E Larkin 5, P Hartley 5; A Fogarty 7, TJ Reid 7, J Mulhall 5; E Brennan 5, R Hogan 7, C Fennelly 7. Subs : PJ Delaney 6 for Walsh (inj 37), M Ruth 5 for Mulhall (46), P Murphy 6 for Hartley (52), C Fogarty 6 for Delaney (inj, 62).
Waterford -- S O'Keeffe 6; D Fives 7, W Hutchinson 6, N Connors 7; D O'Sullivan 7, M Walsh 7, K Moran 7; R Foley 8, J Nagle 7; P Mahony 5, S Prendergast 6, T Ryan 5; J Mullane 6, S Walsh 5, S Molumphy 5. Subs: E McGrath 7 for Molumphy (h-t), E Kelly 5 for Mahony (47).
Ref -- J Sexton (Cork)