MORE volleys of lead into the Munster skies yesterday as Limerick hurlers kept the furnace lit, barging past Waterford at Páirc Uí Chaoimh.LIMERICK 4-11
MORE volleys of lead into the Munster skies yesterday as Limerick hurlers kept the furnace lit, barging past Waterford at Páirc Uí Chaoimh to reach their first provincial final since '96.
The rhythm was familiarly helter skelter, just one score separating two proud teams for the third consecutive Sunday. How far can Limerick go? "I honestly don't know," gasped Eamonn Cregan, his face still red and moist from the roaring tumult.
A fountain of goals carried them past the bewildered Waterford men who had led 2-6 to 0-1 after just sixteen minutes, their hurling a white blur of pace and boldness.
At the time, Gerald McCarthy's men were light on their feet and carefree, breezily throwing the sliotar about like a frisbee. Then, suddenly, Ollie Moran knifed a goal at the city-end and the Waterford storm abated. Same old, same old?
Sadly, there is the suspicion of a pattern here.
"Nearly-men, Gerald?" ventured a reporter when it ended. "I don't like that expression," sighed the departing Waterford manager. "But I can probably see where it comes from."
All the ticker-tape promise of '98 has been ground to dust now. They were primed beautifully yesterday, hitting the field so fast that goalkeeper Brendan Landers collided with a drummer in the band. Limerick, admittedly, looked agitated too, scattering from the tunnel like startled forest creatures.
Then the customary huddles, packed tighter than clenched fists. It wasn't Clare-Tipp in primal wattage. But it wasn't exactly riverboat tempo either.
Then the ball went in and, within seconds, Paul O'Grady had the green hordes in orbit, scoring a free. It was the falsest dawn since Gerry Cooney threw his first punch as a heavyweight.
Less than two minutes had elapsed when Seamus Prendergast soared high to collect Peter Queally's long delivery, turned casually away from TJ Ryan and goaled beautifully off his left side.
Two minutes later, John Mullane skinned Brian Geary in the right corner under another Queally drive to score a point and Waterford led 1-2 to 0-1, two debutants already in fiery pomp.
Then eleven minutes in, another Waterford goal. This time, Tom Feeney and Mullane combined, the latter sending a low, diagonal ball to Paul Flynn who shrugged off Stephen McDonagh, ran ten yards and finished with slide-rule precision.
Ken McGrath immediately pointed on the run and, soon, Fergal Hartley lobbed another with the casual air of someone flicking lint from their tie. Cregan, his team already eleven points adrift, stood on the line, fearing the worst.
"I just thought 'Oh God, not again'," he smiled later. "We were not going to the ball, we were not winning ball. Waterford were taking score after score. And then, it suddenly dawned on our fellas that we were in a match."
A catalyst may have been the brief departure of Queally for attention to a head-gash, Fergal Hartley reverting momentarily to centre-back. For the Ballydurn man's departure seemed to thieve the attention of Waterford's rearguard and, in the 19th minute, a TJ Ryan delivery broke off Brian Begley to Ollie Moran and the centre-forward lanced a beautiful, angled shot past Brendan Landers.
By now, Cregan and his lieutenants had performed minor surgery on the back-line, Geary coming out to centre-back, Ciaran Carey stepping to the right-wing and the combustible Clement Smith taking charge of Mullane at number four.
The tempo was changing and Waterford, a light wind at their backs, seemed to sense it.
Twenty five minutes in, a small catastrophe for McCarthy and his staff. Mullane was spotted sprawled and distressed off the ball; referee Pat Horan sprinted upfield, consulted his umpires and dispensed the Banana Republic sanction, booking both Mullane and Smith.
Having assisted with the spelling, the poor Waterford man then hobbled out of the championship.
Bad vibes now positively came in a flood for McCarthy, though Mullane's replacement, Micheal White, scored a point within seconds of arriving. Barry Foley had switched with the ineffective Mark Keane while, at the far end, Flynn was now loitering in the right corner, Stephen McDonagh still following.
So we arrived at mid-point, Waterford leading 2-7 to 1-4 but looking suspiciously like men being spooked by footsteps from behind.
They will have been thankful that Horan played just 73 seconds of the two minutes allotted injury-time, though the sense of thanks did not prevail for long.
Within 25 seconds of the resumption, Limerick substitute Jack Foley scored a sniper's point and the old ground seemed to shudder with a sense of impending slaughter. But the green tide came slowly, almost hesitantly at first.
Indeed, with just fourteen minutes remaining, Waterford still led by six points when the heavens jolted. In a sense, you could see it coming too.
An outbreak of foostering detonated in the Waterford backs and, when the sliotar spilled from a copse of legs, James Butler pulled first time, almost ripping the net with the velocity of his swing.
Seconds later, Brian Flannery materialised miraculously on the Waterford goal-line, scooping Paul O'Grady's shot out for a '65', but Waterford didn't need lifeboats now. They needed prayer.
O'Grady miss-hit the '65' and, as it dropped short, Brian Begley stepped into the consciousness for the first time all afternoon. It was to be a rollicking intrusion. Fetching imperiously from the Heavens, Begley swivelled in mid-air and struck a venomous shot past Landers. Sides level. Game on.
Ken McGrath countered the mounting presumption with a fine point in the 26th minute, but this was no more than a suspension of the truth. The colour of the day was now, unmistakably, green.
Eight minutes from time, the kill-shot. Mark Foley, a tumultuous presence all afternoon at wing-back, intercepted and cleared in one, blurring movement. The sliotar soared, the stadium creaked.
Sean Cullinane seemed to lose the ball in the sun, Begley didn't. Two sweet touches, another Limerick goal.
Soon O'Grady lobbed home his sixth free and Waterford's collective bearing became that of men who have dropped bank notes in a gale.
Paul Flynn was out the field looking to crank up a revival and, when Stephen McDonagh fouled Prendergast, the Ballygunner man narrowed matters to a single score. Then O'Grady reciprocated at the Blackrock end, before Waterford torqued again for freedom, McDonagh penalised this time for over-carrying.
From the free, Flynn blazed at a kind of ambivalent height, the sliotar skimming Timmy Houlihan's crossbar. Near, but no cigar.
And on it went until, Horan spread his arms, throwing Cregan and Mossy Carroll into a riotous bear-hug.
Just yards away, McCarthy stood, momentarily frozen with grief. Five years and nothing. The sun was beaming down, but he was lost in a wretched, private gloaming. The championship had dispensed another victim.
MAN OF THE MATCH Mark Foley (Limerick).
SCORERS Limerick: P O'Grady 0-7 (all frees), B Begley 2-0, O Moran 1-1, J Butler 1-0, J Foley 0-2, J Moran 0-1. Waterford: P Flynn 1-4 (0-4 frees), K McGrath 0-4, S Prendergast 1-0, T Browne 0-2 (frees), D Shanahan, F Hartley, J Mullane and M White 0-1 each.
LIMERICK T Houlihan 7; S McDonagh 8, TJ Ryan 7, B Geary 7; C Smith 7, C Carey 8, M Foley 9; M O'Brien 7, J Moran 7; P O'Grady 7, O Moran 8, M Keane 5; J Butler 7, B Begley 8, B Foley 6. Subs: J Foley 7 for J Moran (half-time), O O'Neill 7 for Keane (39 mins), D Reale (not on long enough to be rated) for Geary (69 mins). Yellow cards: B Geary, C Smith, M O'Brien and B Foley.
WATERFORD B Landers 7; T Feeney 7, S Cullinane 7, B Flannery 8; J Murray 7, P Queally 7, J O'Connor 7; T Browne 8, J Brenner 6; D Shanahan 7, F Hartley 7, K McGrath 8; J Mullane 8, S Prendergast 6, P Flynn 7. Subs: M White 7 for Mullane (27 mins), E Murphy for Shanahan (61 mins) and A Kirwan for Brenner (64 mins) (neither on long enough to be rated). Yellow cards:
REF P Horan (Offaly).