Dogged Deise scent blood but lack bite to kill off Cats
IN THIS epic season of hurling, could Michael Ryan's Waterford possibly pull off another seismic shock and give Kilkenny the heave-ho in Semple tonight?
Between all the slurping of cones and ice-lollies, that has been the burning question on the scorching beaches of the sunny south east all week.
The Deise are the latest to step up to throw a sidewinder at a Kilkenny team many believe are lying on the ropes.
But redemption day, when the Cats gave Tipp an early holiday in a dramatic performance that will surely outdo anything Bruce Springsteen can produce at Nowlan Park in the coming weeks, indicated that the All-Ireland champions are not as mortally wounded as many believed.
As expected, the return of All Star corner-back Paul Murphy proved pivotal to helping the Kilkenny defence rediscover its mojo.
Michael Rice, significantly, wasn't ready to start last weekend and he and Aidan 'Taggy' Fogarty are back starting now at the expense of Lester Ryan and the hamstrung TJ Reid.
And the sight of totems like Henry Shefflin and Michael Fennelly now back purring on the Cats' subs bench, also indicates that they've regrouped and massed the troops after their crisis.
But they're facing their fifth game in six weeks now and will need an unprecedented eighth to retain their All-Ireland crown.
Those are the sort of statistics that yield hope for everyone else, and Waterford are the latest outfit eager to take advantage of their war wounds.
History is stacked against them.
They haven't beaten Kilkenny in a championship game in 54 years and not in the league since February 2009, losing to them by five points this season.
They have never played Kilkenny in championship hurling any earlier than an All-Ireland semi-final, and never outside Croke Park.
Yet, given the circumstances, this is regarded as Waterford's best chance to beat the neighbours since they were pipped by a point in the 1998 All-Ireland semi-final.
They flew under the radar that summer until they took out Galway and are similarly written off at present, after losing to Clare and staying alive by beating Offaly and Westmeath.
Tony Browne was epic in that '98 clash, scoring 1-3 from midfield and, if they lose tomorrow, hurling's Peter Pan, who recently turned 40, may call it a day – a further nugget of motivation if Ryan's side needed any extra.
Since losing Ken McGrath, John Mullane, Stephen Molumphy and Eoin Kelly over the past two years, Waterford are regarded as a transitional side, with their best players in defence and midfield.
Jamie Barron, Paudie Prendergast, Darragh Fives, Brian O'Halloran, Pauric Mahony and Jake Dillon were all U-21s last year, and freetaker Mahony is out injured tonight.
Apart from Maurice Shanahan, Waterford's attack has not looked varied enough this summer to do damage to a team of Kilkenny's stature and experience. They have a problem scoring goals, which are always necessary in big championship games.
But youngsters like Barron (Fourmilewater) and Jake Dillon (De La Salle) dug out victory over Tipp in one of the most competitive leagues in many years, where they lost to Kilkenny (2-15 to 0-16) on the March Bank Holiday Monday.
The Cats were without Shefflin, Reid, Rice and Michael Fennelly that day and lost Jackie Tyrrell and Murphy during it, yet kept their first clean sheet of the league due to Eoin Murphy's installation between the posts.
Dublin's heroic run has since destroyed all the old axioms of the game – Kilkenny don't lose, Kilkenny don't lose replays, Tipp will make the 'final four', Galway will find form when there's a cup at stake – in a summer that has seen hope bursting out across the hurling landscape.
If Waterford's half-back line and midfield can hang tough and they play smart up front, avoiding the long bombs that are meat and drink to Kilkenny's defence, they believe they have an outside shot.
Kilkenny's performance against Tipperary restored some of their great aura and reputation.
But the summer so far has removed their invincibility and, like sharks circling a wounded body, everyone now smells blood, even if they may not have the technical equipment needed for the kill.