KILKENNY 1-11 WATERFORD 1-10 IN A season bookmarked by quality defensive play, another set of backs was festooned with bouquets at Croke Park yesterday.And the final whistle had barely trailed off before a relevant question dawned: if Kilkenny can get to the final without their forwards sparkling, what will they be like if they do?
This Guinness All-Ireland hurling semi-final saw the death of the last remaining piece of novelty in this year's championship.
Waterford had illuminated the year with their ambition and their colour, but they suffered yesterday from a fatal lack of imagination.
If they had shown more subtlety in their play when faced with a deficit that ranged from one to seven for virtually all of the afternoon, they would have left themselves with a fighting chance of unlocking a fiercely-committed Kilkenny defence.
PICKING OFF POINTS
There is no guarantee that the simple expedient of picking off points in the early to middle stages of the second-half would have seen them through. But by blindly going for goals they served up tea and biscuits to the Kilkenny full-back line.
And it was in that very sector that this match was won and lost. Not since the impenetrable Meath football full-back line of '96 has this line of the field had such a telling impact on a major championship match in Croke Park.
They dominated to such an extent that it almost became embarrassing what matter that their legend is enhanced by Waterford's tactics.
It was as if Waterford felt it would not be decent to shoot without first giving either Pat O'Neill or Willie O'Connor a chance to root out the opening.
O'Connor was a marvel to watch. Corner-backs don't play like he did yesterday! It is in their nature to be caution-first men.
O'Connor gave one of the most compelling displays of this non-vintage year. Michael White's body language told a thousand tales.
By the 25th minute, when his misery came to an end, White had shrunken into himself as the full extent of O'Connor's mastery became apparent to every one of the 50,856 attendance.
O'Connor even had time to nip across the full-back line to cut out developing attacks. That chore became less and less of a necessity as the game progressed, for his old comrade O'Neill took control of his territory.
If ever there was an argument for Waterford shooting from out the field, it was the sight of O'Connor and O'Neill snuffing out each and every danger.
The irony of the Kilkenny defence holding the team together will not be lost on their fans. Some of them had stooped so low as to jeer Canice Brennan at the tail-end of last summer simply because he was the manager's brother Brennan has been re-invented as a centre-back and he's doing nicely.
Kilkenny have stumbled on a potent concoction. Andy Comerford came into the side at the last minute yesterday and he was their most effective forward.
But the attack laboured yesterday. Charlie Carter had his worst match of two outstanding seasons; DJ Carey came into the game but intermittently; and PJ Delaney toiled hard without ever setting the world alight.
Waterford, alas, deserve a similar review and they don't have the opportunity to inspire a better one next month.
Their defence, too, hurled superbly, apart from some poor clearing when they had done the hard work of winning first-time ball.
Their midfield also held its own. Peter Queally can rarely have won as much ball as he did yesterday, but, like so many of his inside colleagues, he did not take the time to settle and good possession was frittered away.
Stand-bound manager Gerald McCarthy tried a variety of combinations to get the attack moving, but they lacked a central figure to steady them up.
They made Joe Dermody look good in goal Dermody handled perhaps a dozen or more times, even though he did not have one big save to pull off.
Both teams were forced to endure long spells without scores. Waterford were shy from the 8th to 20th minutes, and again from the 33rd to the 51st. Kilkenny went from the 19th to the 34th, and the 47th to the 58th, without posting a single score.
Kilkenny went in two points up at half-time, 0-7 to 0-5. Among their appalling tally of nine wides were three frees from Carey, but he did get the score of the match, an 85-yard point from play in the 35th minute.
Fergal Hartley and Seán Cullinane both gifted points to Comerford. But Kilkenny had the breeze in the first-half, and there strong hopes at half-time that Waterford would eventually settle down to play the sort of hurling they managed against Tipperary and Clare the first day.
Instead, Kilkenny thundered into the second-half. On 40 minutes, Carey drilled a free low into the Waterford goalmouth; substitute Niall Maloney pulled on it first-time to score a goal which put Kilkenny 1-7 to 0-5 ahead.
Carey (free) and McEvoy added points to put Kilkenny seven ahead by the 47th minute. Critically, Kilkenny never put Waterford away, even though they had their chances to tack on another score or two.
The best came in the 52nd minute when Delaney blocked down a Waterford back to set up Carter. Landers saved, and seconds later Carter fluffed a chance of a point.
These let-offs convinced Waterford that the door was still open. Ironically, it was their needless pre-occupation with goals which eventually yielded one by a circuitous route in the 57th minute.
Flynn should have taken his point from a free, and when his effort for a goal was saved, Browne came running in to finish it to the net.
Carey (free) and Kirwan, benefitting from a bad clearance by Liam Keoghan, traded points, before Carey gave Kilkenny a four-point cushion with another free in the 63rd minute.
Waterford redoubled their efforts. Flynn collected Landers' puck-out after Carey's point, sliced through the defence, and shaved the post when again a point was there for the taking.
Browne was fouled by Ken O'Shea and he pointed the free. Flynn got the break from the puck-out and scored a wonderful point.
Seán Cullinane robbed Carey heading for goal. Philly Larkin shot a wide. A long ball from Browne ran out wide in O'Sullivan's corner. Comerford fouled O'Sullivan. Flynn pointed it.
This brought us into the 71st minute, but there was no reason for much injury-time, unlike the previous Sunday, when it wasn't played.
From the puck-out, Waterford drove the ball high in towards the goal. And then finally, and fittingly, O'Neill came out to claim it with his hand. Time ran out for Waterford.
The Cats, ragged and disjointed all year, are into the All-Ireland final and they won't be one bit surprised if they win it. And this in the year, the infamous year, when the new manager Kevin Fennelly lost Carey to `retirement' even before a ball was pucked in anger.
Nine lives is that all?
SCORERS Kilkenny: DJ Carey 0-5 (4f), N Maloney 1-0, A Comerford 0-3 (1 sideline cut), B McEvoy 0-2, C Carter 0-1. Waterford: T Browne 1-3 (2f, 1 sideline cut), P Flynn 0-3 (2f), D Shanahan 0-2, S Daly 0-1, A Kirwan 0-1.
KILKENNY J Dermody; T Hickey, P O'Neill, W O'Connor; M Kavanagh, C Brennan, L Keoghan; P Larkin, P Barry; B McEvoy, A Comerford, S Prendergast; DJ Carey, PJ Delaney, C Carter. Subs: N Maloney for S Prendergast (33 mins), K O'Shea for B McEvoy (62 mins).
WATERFORD B Landers; T Feeney, S Cullinane, B Flannery; S Frampton, F Hartley, B Greene; T Browne, P Queally; D Shanahan, S Daly, K McGrath; M White, P Flynn, A Kirwan. Sub: B O'Sullivan for M White (25 mins).
REF P O'Connor, Limerick.