Thursday 18 January 2018

Vincent Hogan: Waterford's young guns hold nerve to deliver a much-needed statement

Maurice Shanahan celebrates
Maurice Shanahan celebrates
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Well now we know, Division 1B was just a blackboard to this Waterford experiment. The practicals could take them to the moon.

True, it is usually inadvisable to draw too many conclusions from April hurling, particularly from a sun-dappled Nowlan Park day left to unspool in the landlords' absence. Brian Cody and his lieutenants watched from the stand with those native, card-shark smiles that reveal less of what lies beyond than a bolted door.

We got two fine contests of utterly contrasting textures, both settled by injury-time scores. But it was Waterford alone who made the one truly audible statement. In beating Tipperary, they all but shattered the glass in any argument that Derek McGrath is trifling with the faith of his county, by doing the hurling equivalent of lining a garden wall with barbed wire.

They stayed faithful to their system without ever looking especially repressed or - for that matter - negative. In fact, once Tipp's early storm had blown itself out, Waterford took the notion of support-play and selflessness to the very borders of Camelot.

McGrath's young team was wonderful, especially coming down the home straight, the honour of their performance already well secured.

Because it was then, the concept of a famous victory forming in their young heads, that they hurled at their most coherent. McGrath described it simply as being "in the zone", a kind of independent state where the end result could not corrupt the essence of what they had already achieved.

"It was a nice place to be," he smiled after. "To be as competitive as we were. It was lovely. It didn't really matter about getting the win, it was about going toe to toe with a team like Tipperary."

The jibe has been that Waterford's hurling now was taken direct from the tactics board of Colonel Custer. That it's the circling of wagons on a grand scale. That they regard numbers in attack as subversive. But it wasn't how it looked in a defining second-half pocket between the 44th and 52nd minutes when they outscored Tipp 1-3 to 0-1, all of their scores coming from play.

It's not how it looked, as Maurice Shanahan began laying waste at half-forward or the free-running Colin Dunford came knifing through for that venomously taken goal.

The suspicion is that the deeper this young team slips into its education, the more freedom they will find.

Ultimately, they had too much energy for Tipp here. Having absorbed the sickening blows of conceding two picture-book goals inside 13 minutes (everything McGrath must have feared for them), they forced their way into the game by dint of sheer humility. All but two of their 11 first-half points had come from Pauric Mahony-placed balls yet, Tipp just couldn't shake them.

"Even on the line we struggled a bit, dealing with the crowd and so on" agreed McGrath of the early flurries. "There was a Championship feel to it and we were saying we'd learn a lot from today. We were trying to simulate as best we could what'll happen on June 7 (when they play Cork in the Munster Championship).

"We came up here for a run last Saturday week. We went to the Newpark Hotel, but I thought we were a bit giddy. Then again, you probably don't want to quell giddiness in a young team."

To some degree, everything we know about Tipp was reinforced. At their most expressive, they create eye-stingingly perfect pictures with their hurling. To that end, 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer's goal, gorgeously contrived between Jason Forde and Brendan Maher, belonged more on a museum wall than in a hurling ground.

But their Achilles heel is the plain, unromantic stuff. When a game gets squeezed tight and possession can only be accessed by individual courage, they are inclined to turn a little inward. If it is a cliche to suggest that Waterford looked like they wanted it more yesterday, might we counter that not every cliche is empty.

Eamon O'Shea talked afterwards of his men lacking energy and composure, lamenting the absence of rhythm to their hurling. He was, largely uninterested in sifting through the small detail though. Tipp, to be fair, had a decent League and will still arrive into Championship with heavyweight odds by their name. But it will sting to have forsaken a League final place that they will have considered within their province.

As ever, the denial of space was at the heart of the story.

O'Shea has been one of the more astute coaches in navigating maverick routes through heavy traffic, but denied the quarterback precision of Noel McGrath to feed an inside line, Tipp found Waterford's numbers suffocating.

Relative old stagers like 'Brick' Walsh and Kevin Moran were central to summoning that force-field of Waterford intensity around the middle third. As Moran explained: "It's all about just getting numbers behind the ball, working really, really hard and seeing where it takes us. There's nothing won, but it's great the Waterford public are beginning to take interest again. We had a couple of bad seasons and we're just trying to get a bit of pride back in the team, back in ourselves and I suppose that was evident today.

"You know we haven't beaten a big team, a Kilkenny, a Tipperary or a Clare or what have you in a couple of years, so it was important that we did beat a top team today. The team really needed that.

"We knew we weren't as bad as the last year or two. It's a big statement. We just needed a big win like today. It was badly needed for Waterford hurling."

The suspicion is it will take Waterford time to find their true voices but they have surely bought the patience of their people now.

Someone asked McGrath if the proximity of their Championship clash with Cork might, perhaps, reduce the League final from a Solemn High Mass to some kind of giddy wedding recital, and he smiled at the very notion.

"We're not the type of team that can park League finals" said the Waterford manager.

Take it they won't be.

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