Wednesday 13 December 2017

Vincent Hogan: Cats' heat too much to bear for Waterford

Kilkenny's intensity wears down brave Waterford challenge as Cody sets sights on another final

Colin Dunford of Waterford in action against Kilkenny’s Cillian Buckley at Croke Park
Colin Dunford of Waterford in action against Kilkenny’s Cillian Buckley at Croke Park
Waterford and Kilkenny players battle for possession
Michael Fennelly gets upended by Waterford’s Kevin Moran
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

So Waterford's sun finally bowed down beneath the relentless press of men who have a quaintly dysfunctional relationship with celebrity.

Kilkenny attain greatness just by being themselves. It is both their beauty and their glory, a kind of maddening ordinariness. They hurl in a way that lacks little but the accompaniment of capes, yet carry themselves with all the pomp and self-regard of road-sweepers.

"It's immense, incredible, absolutely incredible," sighed Derek McGrath when asked about them. They came to Croke Park with two of their biggest names nursing fragile backs and their most ferocious defender left in rehab. And yet, their demeanour never changed, never softened.

For just under an hour, Waterford threw all the windmills a brazen young team could throw and Kilkenny did precisely what they always do in return. They rolled with it. They took every shot they had to take and came back swinging. It was thrilling while it lasted yet, ultimately, you could sense the Cats were always the more comfortable at that temperature.

Waterford began making mistakes and when forced to chase, when obliged to part company with their system, open their shoulders and hurl, they equivocated. Why?

Because Kilkenny's capacity to contaminate the mind is almost as venomous as their hurling. They bring the pessimist out in people. They cauterise ambition. Their very colour scheme triggers panic.

It seems written into most teams' nervous systems that you cannot beat them in a shoot-out. So the only viable refuge is a buttressing of defence, like the addition of extra layers to suppress a winter breeze.

When McGrath needed his team to be truly bold yesterday, they made the mistake of blinking. And against Kilkenny, that's the equivalent of a lighting a match to see if there's fuel in a tank.

"We found it hard to push on and it didn't even look like we were trying to push on, a little bit of inexperience as much as anything else in the last 15 minutes and I'd be disappointed with that," said McGrath.

No need for recrimination, mind. Not an ounce of it.

Irrespective of what happened here, his team has been the summer's sweetest grace note. They came from nowhere to dance across our imaginations and if, at rainbow's end, they found themselves under the calm manipulation of stripey men, what shame was there? Whole generations of great hurling teams have entered the same prison.

Kilkenny create wrinkles in your system, they force mistakes, they spook you. Look at TJ Reid's critical 17th minute goal. See Tadhg de Burca's hand up, looking for a free unaware that it was his own man, Shane Fives, who'd just bulldozed him to the ground. And TJ? The ultimate pickpocket, already half-way down the street.

Kilkenny maybe struggle for our love simply because they have been too good, too constant, too insatiable in their hunger. Yet yesterday encapsulated their greatness. Michael Fennelly's back issues have been well documented in recent times but, last week, Richie Hogan joined him in the infirmary.

Just a simple tackle in training and his back locking up like a car with a jammed handbrake.

Had he been afraid he might not make it?

"I surely was, I couldn't walk last Friday!" Richie told us with the smile of a man just mildly bemused by miracles. "I had a prolapsed disc and I had damage to a couple of joints, so I got a few injections and a week's rest, a bit of physio and stuff like that. I didn't think I'd be playing up until maybe Friday when I was feeling a little bit better.

"So it's huge credit to the medical staff there as well. Everybody only sees what happens on the field but for the last week, I've been going to physio every single day, twice a day sometimes, doing exercises, getting needles, getting cortisone injections, that sort of stuff, just to get ready.

"I'm doing exercises in the morning and trying to just move, let alone run like. I didn't even run until yesterday, just trying to rest and trying to free up the back. It was a nightmare of an injury."

Waterford's nightmare was that he overcame it.

For a man barely out of A&E, you could not put a price on the Danesfort wizard's contribution of 0-5 from play. Two of those points came in rat-a-tat style on the hour mark, effectively squeezing the last breaths from a Waterford team slowly sensing reality come crowding in.

Until then, it had been, as Brian Cody averred, "serious, serious stuff".

The memory of those last 10 minutes will be just one big callus to McGrath now, little flash-fires of immaturity breaking out in his young team. But they have travelled a small eternity from his first nights with them, training under a single light in Clashmore, by-passing expenses, by-passing meals after training simply to make life easier on the county board.

They got to August with just a single defeat to scar them, yet McGrath's refreshing honesty propelled him away from declaring this season as a mere starting-gate.

Asked if they could, eventually, get to Kilkenny's level, he reflected: "I'm not sure, I'm not sure. I'm trying to be as honest as possible. You'd hope but there are certainly no guarantees.

"I think Limerick were probably in a dressing room this time last year, saying 'we'll be back this time next year'. We had 14 under-21s in the squad this year I think next year will actually be more difficult for Waterford

"I don't think in year one we achieved anything in my management anyway under my tutelage. In year two, we made big decisions at the start of the year that were absolutely treated with disdain in Waterford, particularly in local press

"But I think the journey from there, even personally, from heading into the Laois game in Dungarvan, there were almost question marks over your tenure. It's gone Premiership like that in terms of your whole...

"Look we're hugely disappointed. We were in Clontarf Castle before the game and we just felt we had a right chance. We felt that our game could trouble Kilkenny.

"But we never really got our game going freely if you like."

It is the familiar lament of men who've just fallen under the spell of Cody and Kilkenny.

Summer's endless acoustic.

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