Tuesday 24 April 2018

Colm Keys: Waterford drive stake through Cats’ heart but find arteries still pumping furiously

Resilient champions find a way as Déise retreat too early in bid to defend lead

Waterford’s Maurice Shanahan squares up to Kilkenny’s Shane Prendergast as he celebrates a point during yesterday’s All-Ireland semi-final. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Waterford’s Maurice Shanahan squares up to Kilkenny’s Shane Prendergast as he celebrates a point during yesterday’s All-Ireland semi-final. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

On Saturday evening, with his team safely billeted away in Carton House, Derek McGrath was able to draw fresh comfort from their sense of togetherness.

The privacy just felt right. They were able to tap into the exclusivity of being shielded away from the tactical din that seems to routinely erupt around them when they hurl these days, the criticism in their own county, as selector Dan Shanahan reflected afterwards, from "so called greats" and people "telling you how to sweep."

Dan Shanahan. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Dan Shanahan. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

They were able to feed off that.

So it was, essentially, their calm before a storm that whipped up 39 seconds in when Jake Dillon launched the opening score and didn't relent until referee James Owens called time after 76 wonderful, spine-tingling minutes.

This was hurling at its purest, so absorbing that it worked almost like a balm for the relatively crude summer that had gone beforehand.

Read more: Match report - Walsh strike destroys Déise’s day in sun

But in the end there was a familiar ring to it. Kilkenny were still standing. The stake went through their heart but the arteries kept pumping and the "60 years of hurt," McGrath referenced in relation to black and amber dominance in this championship fixture remained.

The champions led just once, when Colin Fennelly gave them a 0-5 to 0-4 lead in the 12th minute but were chasing otherwise until a 69th-minute rescue mission was completed by Walter Walsh.

"Classic Kilkenny to stay in it when it looks like you have them. Classic Kilkenny. That's why they're so good," acknowledged McGrath, the offer to draw a 'Dracula' analogy firmly rebuffed!

But if you virtually dominate from pillar to post, if you have in Austin Gleeson an opponent who has enjoyed more aerial success against Kilkenny than possibly any other in recent memory, a free-taker in Pauric Mahony who nails 10 from 10 and you win so many little battles how are you not enjoying the spoils of war? And how, more importantly, do you convince a dressing-room they can go again in six days time?

When the disappointment subsides though McGrath figured that confidence can still be generated.

"I think Waterford people will take great confidence out of how the lads just went for it when they had to.

"That's the most heartening thing from my point of view. We've had a group that has never confessed to anything but hard work and effort.

"But we're disappointed that we didn't close it out. It's not good enough really to not close it out. There's echoes of the end of the league final against Clare where we were two or three points up with a couple of minutes to go. I don't see it as a problem - I see at as something we can use as motivation."

It was through convention that they had defied convention for so long. McGrath regularly rails against the perception that they are a systematic and defensively-orientated team dependent on the protection of a sweeper.

So when they laid out in traditional formation and fixed it that way for almost 60 minutes it was a statement of intent and ultimately the catalyst for a four-point lead, 0-23 to 0-19.

Read more: Cyril Farrell: Cracking contest gives us exactly what the hurling doctor ordered

"We had decided a year ago," laughed McGrath, reflecting on the shift of emphasis that's not as sudden as it appears.

"It's different, we were trying to hunt all over the field but we were trying to get forward too and that's what we have been trying to do over the last three years. I don't see any team not doing that.

"In fact when Eoin Larkin came in he came so deep, Richie (Hogan) came so deep, it was almost a mirror of what we had done in other games but again it probably won't be picked up on."

That they scored just one point in those final 15 minutes was, McGrath acknowledged, a consequence of "retreating too early."

They lost their nerve with their execution at the other end too. Having registered just two first-half wides and another two in the opening 20 minutes of the second half they hit six in succession that smacked of fatigue but also a little of stage-fright.

The imperious Gleeson shot one after a magnificent block on Conor Fogarty while Kevin Moran will regret not lifting his head to see Patrick Curran with a clear path to goal inside him when he snatched the last of his four wides. Hawk-Eye provided no comfort.

All told, they left it behind them in this sequence.

Read more: John Mullane: This Waterford team is maturing fast and they’ll learn from Croker classic 

By then Kilkenny were taking water on board. Kieran Joyce was called ashore and Fogarty stepped into centre-back to illustrate his growing importance to the team. His equalising point showed nerves of steel because, as Brian Cody acknowledged, a wide at that stage would have been "very serious."

Kilkenny could cut no ice aerially to get TJ Reid into the game but on the ground Hogan was supreme, dropping in four first-half points and winning so many frees to stay in touch.

"There is overall improvement in the team," said Cody, admitting the vulnerability of the situation they found themselves in until they engineered a "significant" goal.

"What you always look for is a genuineness, a work-rate and a 'keep-it-going-until-the-very-end' attitude.

"That can't be faulted because Waterford were simply flying and were picking off terrific scores. You could buckle, but it is a great sign of the lads that didn't happen. We just drive it forward and we live to fight another day."

They do so in the knowledge that replays are their thing. That Waterford were able to withstand the psychological blow of a Kilkenny goal so late and steady themselves will add to their character portfolio though.

The next point was theirs and its significance was the shuddering challenge by Gleeson on John Power to put Jamie Barron away to win a ninth free for the metronomic Mahony.

A year ago Gleeson had been rocked by a similar collision with Michael Fennelly that, by his own admission, had him seeing stars for two or three minutes.

Power may not be the physical bulwark of his colleague but if there is an appropriate illustration for the journey they have taken over the last 12 months perhaps this was it.

That they have to take to Thurles.

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