Friday 15 December 2017

Waterford fans fall in love again - but hats off to true champions

Waterford manager Derek McGrath prior to the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final Replay game between Kilkenny and Waterford. Photo: Sportsfile
Waterford manager Derek McGrath prior to the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final Replay game between Kilkenny and Waterford. Photo: Sportsfile Newsdesk Newsdesk

The old saying rang true again on Saturday evening that the best time to catch Kilkenny is at the first time of asking.

I got the feeling that there was something different about them as they went into a huddle during their warm-up, which had much more of an edge about it.

I wouldn't say that Kilkenny were casual ahead of the first game, but this time they were ready - really ready.

Waterford gave it everything and, while you always wonder if a replay can match what's gone before, this one was every bit as good as its predecessor.

I'm immensely proud of Derek McGrath and his Waterford players, and that love affair I referenced a few weeks back is now well and truly in place.

Supporters were searching for a connection - and now they have it. Those seven days will live long in the memory but, ultimately, we were left with tears for souvenirs after it all.

I was at the game with my daughter and to see her break down at full-time had me welling up too.

You could also see the emotion in Derek after the game and I really hope now that he stays on and finishes what he started - because this is one hell of a team.

There's a really bright future there for the Déise, and if anybody is going to bring us the Holy Grail, it will be Derek.

But you've got to hand it to Kilkenny, they're true champions - and look at how Brian Cody learned the lessons from the drawn game.

He based his team around three Hurlers of the Year in the middle third - Richie Hogan, TJ Reid and Michael Fennelly - and went with Conor Fogarty at centre-back.

Bringing in Liam Blanchfield was another shrewd move, and I love when Cody is animated and passionate on the touchline.

Derek and his selectors, Dan Shanahan and Fintan O'Connor, didn't back down in this regard either, and while Semple Stadium was far from full, the atmosphere generated was electric.

A word, too, on the pitch. The ground staff had the Thurles sod in immaculate condition and it certainly contributed to an amazing spectacle.

Kilkenny are just 70 minutes away from three-in-a-row after this latest victory but I stand over my comments in Saturday's edition, when I stated that the fear factor is on the wane and the production line isn't what it once was.

Michael Fennelly's injury, which looks like ruling him out of the final, is another test.

He was enjoying a massive game up until that point and what you'll probably see is Kieran Joyce coming back in at centre-back on Tipp's 'Bonner' Maher, with Conor Fogarty slotting back to midfield.

They'll still prove hard to beat in the final but it's time now for Waterford to lick their wounds and regroup for next year.

We're in a much better place than 12 months ago, even if the 2015 season did yield national silverware.

We should have won the League again and could have beaten Kilkenny on both days in the All-Ireland semi-final.

This team is maturing and they'll learn so much from this. The future is most definitely blue and white.

Pauric Mahony was devastated after that late free dropped short but he won't shoulder any blame for Saturday's loss.

Pauric's journey over the last 12 months is remarkable, and it was great to see this guy back fully fit and showcasing his talents. Better days lie ahead for Pauric and Waterford, I can assure you of that.

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