Sport Hurling

Monday 27 February 2017

Waterford will never truly be recognised until they win All-Ireland

Cyril Farrell

IN the end, GAA teams are always judged by their title haul and not by how consistent they were over a period of time. It's completely different to soccer where -- in the English game at least -- finishing fourth in the league is regarded as a major achievement.

It's not quite open-top bus territory, but fourth place equals success because it carries a Champions League place. In the Olympics, third place is seen as a triumph, as indeed it should be in a global competition.

Back in GAA land, third place counts for damn all, as Waterford can testify. They have been a consistent third for the last three years, but with Kilkenny and Tipperary lording it so impressively out front, Waterford have got little credit.

That will continue for as long as they fail to win the All-Ireland and if this squad end their careers without a visit from Liam MacCarthy, they will be no more than a footnote in hurling history. That may sound harsh, but it's true. What's more, they know it.

Of course, the good news is that this Waterford squad -- and their irrepressible manager Davy Fitzgerald -- are still in there, fighting with everything they've got to make the great dream a reality.

Whether they make it happen remains to be seen, but, whatever their eventual destiny, the manner in which they have turned their season around has to rank as a very special achievement. The gloom which hung over Waterford in the days after the seven-goal defeat by Tipperary in the Munster final was so thick that it looked for a time as if the players would never emerge from underneath it.

Yet, on the following Sunday week, they hit a Galway team that had come off two confidence-boosting wins over Clare and Cork, so hard that my beloved home county were seeing stars for a week afterwards.

It was hugely impressive stuff by Waterford, based on their traditional game, where they get in among the opposition and hurl with the flair and abandon which comes so naturally to them. That's what they must do again tomorrow if they are to have a real chance of beating Kilkenny.

Not that the level they reached against Galway will be enough to see them through against a Kilkenny team whose motivation indicator has been in the red zone since losing to Tipperary last year. Kilkenny are a totally different proposition to Galway, so Waterford will need to take them on from all angles.

You don't beat Kilkenny by trying to contain them. Several teams tried that throughout the last decade and failed and then along came Tipperary with their all-out attack strategy. It worked a dream in last year's All-Ireland final, admittedly against a Kilkenny team that was weakened by injuries.

Still, it did show that if a team can power up the tempo early on and maintain it through to the finish, anything is possible, even against Kilkenny.

One of the key ingredients of Waterford's win over Galway was the manner in which their lead men stood up. 'Brick' Walsh, Tony Browne, Kevin Moran (still under-rated, but one of the best in the business), John Mullane and Shane Walsh all did exceptionally well, drawing a big response from their colleagues.

It was all so different to the Munster final which, in fairness to Waterford, had a certain freak element.

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Waterford didn't hurl well for the first half-hour, but were still only six points down before being hit for four goals before half-time.

That sort of goal-burst doesn't occur very often and all Waterford could do was put it down to a bad experience and try to rebuild for the second chance against Galway.

That they recovered so successfully underlines the spirit in the camp and the off-pitch organisation which made it all possible.

And so to Kilkenny and what we're to make of them in their recovery season. They were always going to come back with essentially the same team which lost last year. Rightly so.

After losing just one championship game in five seasons, they were entitled to a chance to get it right again and, so far at least, they have been making the most of it. Granted, they lost the league final in a manner not usually associated with Kilkenny, but so what?

They were way below full strength against Dublin, but still managed to reach the final and while they didn't perform against the Dubs, it was never going to be a reliable pointer to their championship prospects.

Two games -- and two wins -- later, they are back in familiar territory as hot favourites to win an All-Ireland semi-final.

Much has been made of their defensive lapses, which presented Wexford with several goal chances in the first half of the Leinster semi-final, but I wouldn't dwell on it. That can happen and, besides, Kilkenny were much tighter against Dublin in the final.

Still, there's no way of knowing precisely where Kilkenny are until the really intense pressure comes on from a team which believes it's capable of beating them. Most of this Kilkenny team have been on the high-flying circuit for a long time, so obviously the time will come when they lose altitude.

Was last year's All-Ireland final defeat the start of that process or merely a one-off blip?

Only time will tell and I don't expect the answer to arrive tomorrow. Waterford have the capacity to test Kilkenny in all departments, but, in the end, I expect the Cats' scoring power to be the decisive factor.

Irish Independent

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