Sport Hurling

Thursday 21 September 2017

The first great rivalry of the 21st century

Cork's Diarmuid O'Sullivan battles with John Mullane
of Waterford during the All-Ireland SHC quarter-final
at Croke Park in 2007. The latest episode in the rivalry
will take place at Semple Stadium tomorrow
Cork's Diarmuid O'Sullivan battles with John Mullane of Waterford during the All-Ireland SHC quarter-final at Croke Park in 2007. The latest episode in the rivalry will take place at Semple Stadium tomorrow

Christy O'Connor

The day after Waterford defeated Cork in the 1989 Munster semi-final replay, some Deise fans from the south-west of the county moved the celebrations across the border and into Youghal.

It was Waterford's first championship win over Cork in 15 years, but the victory also represented liberation from a decade of tyrannical oppression. In their three previous championship meetings in the 1980s, Cork had beaten Waterford by an aggregate of 72 points. Massacres.

That Waterford had taken Cork down in a shoot-out, made the win even more satisfying. After Cork put 5-31 past them in the 1982 Munster final, the joke around Youghal was that Waterford had confused the scoreline with a train timetable. So hitting 5-16 in '89 -- nine points more than Waterford had ever scored against Cork in the championship -- finally gave their supporters a reason to walk tall. To boot, Pat Murphy from the border town of Tallow had scored three goals.

Most of the Waterford fans gathered in Treacy's pub. There was one Cork old-timer seated at the corner of the bar. He hadn't said a word all day, but all the ham-fisted bravado eventually made him crack. He launched an incendiary comment, hoping the explosion would have maximum effect.

"I've been listening to yere s**** there all day about how great ye are," he told them. "Who the hell do ye think ye are with yere two All-Irelands and one ambush?"

ambushed

As well as juxtaposing Waterford's two All-Irelands beside Cork's 27 titles (at that time) for effect, it was a crass reference to the Burgery ambush during the War of Independence, when IRA volunteers of the West Waterford flying column ambushed a British military convoy about a mile and a half northeast of Dungarvan. Highlighting the historical past of the Rebels, both on and off the pitch, was the Cork old-timer's way of dousing the celebrations with perspective.

Normal service resumed in 1990 when Cork scolded Waterford for their insolence, hammering them by 16 points. The trend of the Waterford-Cork relationship continued throughout the 1990s. Cork took care of them in the '91 championship and they beat them by seven points in the '98 National League final, Waterford's first appearance in a national final in 35 years. In '99, Waterford went into the Munster semi-final as favourites, but Cork turned them over again.

By the end of the following decade though, the texture of the Cork-Waterford relationship had been completely transformed. 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 has been Cork-Waterford.

After the Kilkenny-Offaly relationship of 1980-2000, Cork-Waterford was hurling's most satisfying rivalry during that epochal period. As with Kilkenny-Offaly, the relationship wasn't mean or poisonous. Most hurling rivalries that developed in the intervening years were laced with a more physical and sulphurous undercurrent, but Cork-Waterford games promoted total hurling. In their 11 championship meetings since 2002, there have been a total of just 43 yellow cards (an average of four per game) and just two reds.

The relationship soured briefly at the end of '06 and early '07, due to 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 '06 -- 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."

Yet the storm blew over quickly and two of their three championship meetings in '07 were in the top-10 games of the last decade.

In their 11 championship games between 2002-2010, Cork's five-point victory in the '05 All-Ireland quarter-final was the highest winning margin. That scoreline misrepresented a taut and absorbing match, in which Cork took control only in the last five minutes.

Waterford changed their style after Davy Fitzgerald took over in '08 and there was a more measured and tactical approach to their hurling as opposed to the more liberal, swashbuckling style played under Justin McCarthy. Waterford put a premium on shutting down puckouts and getting men behind the ball and they were no longer set up to play 70-minute shoot-outs.

The 2010 drawn and replayed Munster finals were huge tactical battles, but they were still laced with spell-binding drama. Tony Browne scored the equalising goal in the 74th minute of the drawn game; Dan Shanahan scored the winning goal late in extra-time of the replay. In that context, those games were still faithful to the Cork-Waterford relationship of high drama and electricity.

Having won their last three championship meetings against Cork, Waterford are ahead 5-4 (with two draws) in the current championship rivalry and the county has been more competitive against Cork than at any time in their history. Cork had always stood in Waterford's way. When Waterford finally landed their first Munster title in 1938, they defeated Cork on the way, their first win against them in 19 attempts.

Although Cork and Waterford had a brief rivalry between 1957 and 1967 -- when Waterford had their greatest team -- Cork's historical domination over their neighbours stopped a fervour developing. Before they played in '02, the counties had met 50 times in the championship. Cork had won 39, Waterford just eight.

Waterford's public never had any truck with Cork and they still largely don't. The hurling powerbase in the county is in Waterford city and their beef has been with Kilkenny. The rivalry with Tipperary in north Waterford has been fairly fractious, but there has never been the same level of tension along the western border with Cork. That has been even more noteworthy, given how the power shifted from Waterford city to the western part of the county over the last decade.

Aside from Waterford becoming a serious threat to Cork, that two of their own -- Gerald McCarthy and Justin McCarthy -- coached Waterford teams against Cork sharpened the Rebel hurling public's focus even more during the last decade. When Gerald returned to manage Cork against Justin in three games in '07, the drama increased even more.

Yet no matter where you turned, Cork-Waterford has always been laced with drama. Ken McGrath's coming off the bench to hit the winning point in '02; John Mullane's three goals in '03; Paul Flynn's wonder goal in the '04 Munster final, possibly the greatest hurling game; Brian Corcoran's drop-shot winner in the '05 All-Ireland quarter-final; Donal Og Cusack stopping McGrath's late free going over the bar in '06; Eoin McGrath going for bust in the drawn All-Ireland quarter-final in '07 -- which Cusack saved -- and the subsequent equalising free; Shanahan's winning goal in 2010.

The immense quality of the games between Tipperary and Kilkenny in the '09 and 2010 All-Ireland finals, and the sustained expectation surrounding those teams, has relegated the impact of Cork-Waterford in the minds of the public.

The teams may not enjoy the same profile now as they had during the last decade, but there has always been something special about Cork-Waterford matches over the last 10 years. Tomorrow is the latest instalment in the first great hurling rivalry of the 21st century.

Irish Independent

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