WATERFORD ponder relegation as Kilkenny turn to Model tieA GAME of hurling officially lasts 70 minutes, but yesterday's Allianz League mismatch in Nowlan Park lasted just 35. Waterford may have emerged in body for the second half, but, in spirit, they appeared somewhere else.
Maybe their minds were back in the visitors' dressing room, to which they returned at full-time to absorb the relegation play-off ramifications of a galling 4-22 to 0-14 defeat inflicted by an increasingly rampant Kilkenny.
And there they remained for a full 70 minutes (that magic number again!) behind locked doors, presumably dissecting the 20-point massacre just endured, while turning thoughts to that crucial play-off with Dublin next weekend.
There wasn't a hint of raised voices from within, which would indicate either (a) excellent sound-proofing in this relatively new construction or (b) that Derek McGrath was taking a measured approach to this second consecutive defensive collapse by his team.
When the Waterford manager eventually emerged, with an apology to the waiting media, he maintained it was the latter. Squad morale was still "very positive", this despite losing the second half by 18 points, 3-15 to 0-6.
Yet this came just a week after Waterford's first half horror show in Clare saw them lose by 5-18 to 0-20. Do the maths: 9-40 in two games. This from a defence that was earning rave reviews for conceding just 4-36 in the first three league rounds.
Where has it all gone so wrong? Is it all down to the statistically awful away record (one win and one draw from 15 games) in this year's Division 1A? Or the fact that Waterford's young guns aren't yet ready to compete with the real elite?
Whatever your explanation, it was hard to fathom the ease with which Kilkenny scythed through the Déise rearguard while scoring second half goals via Eoin Larkin (40 minutes) and a Mark Kelly brace (48 and 54 minutes).
It was equally hard to fathom in light of the hosts' nervy first half. Henry Shefflin, of all people, had fluffed three frees before Colin Fennelly broke their scoring duck in the 16th minute, whereas Pauric Mahony, with five deadball bullets, was giving a long-range free-taking exhibition at the other end.
Despite wind advantage (albeit a tricky crossfield one) the home side only led 1-7 to 0-8 at the break, courtesy of Jonjo Farrell's 20th minute rebound goal. True, JJ Delaney looked in decent full-back fettle on his seasonal comeback, Richie Hogan was putting in a productive midfield shift and Fennelly and Walter Walsh were making half-forward inroads. But there was a sense of Black-and-Amber vulnerability at the midpoint.
That feeling lasted far less than the 15 minutes it took for Kilkenny to amass another 2-8, as Waterford imploded and the game took on the intensity of a Bank Holiday Monday pitch opening challenge.
"I just think we got overrun," McGrath surmised.
"Basically, a couple of goals went in and we just lost our shape. Kilkenny did what they do when they got a scent of blood. They go for the jugular."
Those killer Cats now travel into Wexford's den for a quarter-final next Sunday. Waterford, meanwhile, must hope to rediscover the 14-man defiance that undid Dublin in Walsh Park just a fortnight ago; the counties will toss for home venue today.
But as McGrath cautioned, he saw Dublin bounce back with an "absolutely outstanding" display against Kilkenny last weekend, while Sky Blue motivation against the Déise will be "huge".
"You go to Paddy Power tomorrow and there's no doubt we'll be 3/1 or 4/1 to win the match, particularly given the beatings we've had the last two weeks," the Waterford boss predicted.
"Look, Dublin are a team that are ahead of us in terms of development," he added. "Bar Ryan O'Dwyer was sent off last year in the All-Ireland semi-final, they would have been in the All-Ireland final, realistically. That's where Dublin are at the moment, and we find ourselves below Dublin."
McGrath insisted it won't feel like "a pressurised match," but that must be open to question.
Meanwhile, one manager who didn't sound remotely pressurised was Brian Cody, who, with Delaney's return, has now used 31 players in this league.
Asked if the rotation policy would persist against Wexford, he replied: "Not necessarily. Like everyone else, we'll start settling things a bit too."