The perfect storm for Waterford
Walsh Park lays dormant this afternoon, left abandoned with the promise of better days to come.
Instead, the Waterford hurlers - preparing for their first 'home' match in the Munster round robin - must decamp to Limerick's Gaelic Grounds with supporters of last year's All-Ireland finalists unlikely to follow them in great numbers. The boldest travelling figure estimates don't reach above 2,000.
A county only recently energised by the prospect of a first All-Ireland since 1959 is now dealing with a creeping sense of fatalism. Relegation in the league was followed by some extraordinary bad luck in Ennis a week ago. The side that finished the match - after injuries, a red card and earlier withdrawals - was missing two-thirds of that which carried the county's hopes in Croke Park last September.
The losses have been unsympathetic, untimely and extensive. Already they were without the Bennett brothers, Shane and Kieran, who decided to take a break from hurling and before the match injury ruled out their former Hurler of the Year, Austin Gleeson, and their experienced marksman, Pauric Mahony. Leading by four points, boosted by an early Maurice Shanahan goal, they made a bright start. Then further disaster struck.
Arguably the team's most critical figure in their defensive stratagem, Tadhg de Burca, had scored a magnificent early point inside the opening minute. But a shoulder injury, later revealed to be a broken collarbone, forced him to leave the field. If you were to take Tony Kelly, Colm Galvin and David McInerney out of the Clare side, it might have evened up the score at that point.
It would get even worse. Five points adrift at half-time, they lost Noel Connors for the second half. He took a knock on his back and, after extensive treatment, has been declared fit for this afternoon's match against Tipperary. As Kelly extended Clare's lead to nine points, Darragh Fives left the field injured, the team's second-choice sweeper, who deputised last year when de Burca was suspended for the All-Ireland semi-final against Cork.
Ten minutes after half-time, Barry Coughlan retired with an injured hand that ends his summer, along with de Burca and Fives. Four minutes later, Kevin Moran was red-carded for barging into Kelly with play stopped. Waterford eventually lost the match by nine points, having scored 2-18. No team in the country could withstand losses of that magnitude but the new championship, which as one of its inequalities has Waterford playing four weekends in a row, gives them little time to recover and take stock.
Their opponents today are playing for a third successive weekend and face another match in a week's time against Clare in Thurles. It is exciting for followers, but is it fair? Even if Waterford's misfortune came at the start of the round robin and could not be attributed to the new format, the time isn't there to enable them recover and treat their injuries.
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Their season could be over in a few weeks unless they can summon up something special in the Gaelic Grounds and in the fortnight ahead that will see games against Limerick and Cork.
Michael Ryan and Derek McGrath have something in common which applies to none of the other Munster managers: that being no break in four weeks. For players and management it is a punishing schedule. The loss of Walsh Park and a mounting player deficit has exacerbated the problem for Waterford.
"I have been against this from the very start, forget about the injuries. It is everyone I meet in the county, the clubs, everyone is giving out about it," says Waterford county chairman Paddy Joe Ryan of the new format. "Could we not have played every two weeks, could we not have done something different, or encompass the league and the championship? We are playing the league in the snow in January, we were pushing the snow away from the goalposts."
Indeed, as late as the league's quarter-finals, in so-called sunny south east Wexford, the home team was seen warming up for their match against Galway outside the endline to spare the soft ground inside the white lines. When Waterford went to Thurles to play Tipp in the second round of the league in early February, the night was so cold the players were windmilling their arms to get the blood circulating in breaks in play. Paddy Joe Ryan defended his board's decision to surrender home advantage on the basis that Walsh Park was not fit to host Munster Championship matches. That decision is coming under some fire now.
"We are taking mighty flak for that," he admitted. "We played the county final last year in Walsh Park, we had about 2,500 there, soon after playing the All-Ireland, and had nothing but complaints on the radio, that Walsh Park was a kip, it did not meet health and safety standards and now the same people are looking to play our round-robin games there."
Ryan is adamant the ground was not suitable, with the dressing rooms inadequate and general facilities needing a facelift that would delay its planned redevelopment, and mean an investment offering a short-term solution at a high cost. He says that they hope to begin work on the venue later this year and reopen for next year's county finals. He concedes that it won't be available for next year's Munster Championship round-robin series.
"It was not going to be enough (capacity)," says Ryan. "Probably be enough for Sunday but we could not know what was going to happen."
According to Ed Donnelly, Communications Officer with the Munster Council, the provincial body said it was Waterford that declared the venue unfit to host the matches. They cited a reduced capacity - estimated at around 8,000 - and concerns over facilities. There has been criticism of Waterford minor teams also having to travel for their home matches, with those games staged on the same day as senior matches. But Donnelly said that moving Waterford minors home games to Saturday to enable them play in Walsh Park was opposed by opponents Cork and Tipp.
Cork, one neutral venue wanted by Waterford to play their 'home' games in the absence of Walsh Park, was unavailable this weekend. Their other home game will take place in Thurles in a fortnight against Cork. A request to have today's game played in Nowlan Park was ruled out by the Munster Council, who insisted all matches played at neutral grounds must be played within the province.
Donnelly said that the Munster Council would be providing grant assistance towards the redevelopment of Walsh Park which is next on the list now that Pairc Ui Chaoimh has been completed and it made no sense to lose gate revenue, including the 15 per cent rental that the Gaelic Grounds will benefit from today. He also noted that followers in west Waterford might find Limerick a more accessible venue than Kilkenny.
Walsh Park's suitability to host Waterford's home games came up at a county board meeting earlier in the year where club delegates were divided on the matter.
"We discussed this with the team management, with everybody, before we went ahead with it," says Ryan. "Most of the executive were of the opinion that we were better off getting our house in order and not spending massive amounts of money to play one or two games."
He said the board had cleared outstanding debts in recent years and looked forward to having Walsh Park revamped to accommodate up to 16,000, including around 10,000 in covered and uncovered seating. "We will have a beautiful stadium and all the moaners and begrudgers hopefully will be happy then," says Ryan.
"We have been waiting for this for years. We have been hearing of years of neglect, I could read you out a litany of stuff. We have cleared our debts. It will be the nicest 15-16,000 seated stadium in the country. People have to be patient. I can't click my fingers and have it overnight, we have to wait for it. I am not accepting one per cent of responsibility for the game not being in Walsh Park."
Ryan, who is in his fourth year as chairman, remains steadfastly opposed to the new hurling format. "Galway, Limerick and Antrim were the only hurling counties that I know of who backed it. We are told that Cork, Waterford and Clare, I think Kilkenny and Wexford too, that they were against it. Laois and Offaly were all against it."
The last Munster Championship game played in Walsh Park was on June 2, 1996, shortly before Waterford's resurgence, when they went down to Tipperary and were eliminated after one game. After getting a hiding from Tipp the previous year in Cork, there was some consolation in a fighting performance. And in the unveiling of an emerging young star in Ken McGrath, who made his senior championship debut before a crowd of 15,655.
Tony Browne also played that day. "We are unfortunate in that we don't have a game coming to our city," he says of today's missed opportunity. "You don't have the circus rolling into town. Waterford are depleted with injuries and I think the best medicine for this team now at the moment would be a game at home.
"Waterford at present are at more of a disadvantage than any other county. There is mixed feeling on it. Number one, why we haven't we our house in order. I mean it is 2018, why we don't have our house in order? The players have bought into their side of things, regarding commitments, with the time they give to it. I think it is tough on them they don't have a game in Waterford this weekend. But I am no expert on the administrative side of things."
Browne believes that the new format needs fine tuning for next year. "I would have liked it because I thought the standard of hurling, through playing week in, week out, would be very high; lads would be razor-sharp. I would not be against it yet. But I do think it needs tweaking. I think you would be better playing two games and then two weeks off before another two games after that.
"A lot of the big clashes are competing with other fixtures and it is taking away a bit from it. It is removing that bit of stardust you have with the championship. I do think it will take a year or two to develop it and get it right. It is throwing up lot of questions regarding player welfare.
"The championship for me going back years ago, you'd build up for a game, you might have two or three weeks off after it, so you could have a beer that Sunday night, either celebrating or dwelling over what went wrong. It must be very strange for a player now to play a championship game on a Sunday, and then to maybe negotiate with work to fit in a recovery session on a Monday to be right for the following week."
Browne has mixed feelings on what might happen today. The odds are weighed in Tipp's favour but he is not without hope. "There was a massive decision for the management to make in whether to push Austin (Gleeson) and Pauric (Mahony) back early or leave them out and really focus in on the last two games."
He cites a similarly understrength Waterford team being unlucky not to defeat Galway in Salthill in the league last year, a result on which Galway's year turned. "This could be an opportunity now for those fellas to really come to the fore. One area that might trouble Tipp is pace. The other thing is maybe Waterford might be forced into letting them off the leash and hurl away. Just leave them at it.
"Maybe it is an opportunity to experiment. Over the last couple of years teams are starting to figure out how to develop a way round the sweeper. Look at Galway last year, they played an outside game, most of the games they were scoring close to 30 points. It will give their new guys a chance but I know we are down some massive players."
The county which drew the shortest straw in Munster, who must wonder is there some Karmic lesson being doled out with the list of absentees, need something special. "The odds are very much stacked against us," says Browne, "but I would be optimistic in the sense that our backs are to the wall. If we introduced a bit of pace into the team we could cause them problems."
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