THERE was much to admire from some of Waterford's championship newcomers but it was the old guard double-act of Eoin Kelly and John Mullane who came to the rescue in Semple Stadium just when as outsiders Limerick had one eye on a Munster final date on July 10.
Limerick appeared poised for victory when Kelly, who had come as a sub a few minutes earlier, saw his 69th-minute 25-metre free blocked, leaving Waterford two points behind as the game ticked into stoppage-time.
However, in a follow-up attack, Kelly delivered a crossfield pass to Mullane, who drove an angled shot for goal which took a deflection en route to beating Nicky Quaid.
Waterford were back in front and while Limerick had possession in their attacking half over the remaining two minutes, they couldn't get in the crucial strike on goal which might have yielded a draw.
In truth, Limerick were unfortunate not to earn a second chance after turning in a level of performance which was well above what might be expected of a squad having its first outing of the season against Division 1 opposition. Teams coming out of Division 2 are always at a disadvantage early in the championship, but Limerick disguised it well.
Indeed, with a little more care and attention, they might well have dethroned the reigning Munster champions, who ran into far more storms that they would have expected.
Leading 1-7 to 0-4 after 32 minutes -- despite having a Pauric Mahony penalty saved in the ninth minute -- Waterford had settled into a comfortable rhythm which left Limerick struggling.
It was the first big test of Limerick's resolve and their response was emphatic. They outscored Waterford by 2-5 to 0-2 in the closing minutes of the first half and the opening five minutes of the second half to lead by three points, the goals coming from wing-back Wayne McNamara from a forward surge in the 34th minute and from teenage full-forward Kevin Downes in the 38th minute.
Downes added a second goal in the 50th minute, by which stage it was clear that he had the capacity to destroy Waterford unless corrective action was undertaken. Davy Fitzgerald's response was to drop 'Brick' Walsh back to full-back, a move which led to an immediate improvement in security.
Downes' second goal put Limerick two points clear (3-11 to 2-12) but Waterford rallied to draw level on the hour mark. Limerick missed a few good chances over the next five minutes but finally made what looked to be the decisive break when sub David Breen and Niall Moran pointed, only for Mullane to earn Waterford a late reprieve.
Mullane had also scored Waterford's first goal in the 13th minute, with Shane Walsh bagging their second in the 43rd minute, a crucial score at a time when Limerick were three points ahead.
Mullane was Waterford's top scorer on 2-2 but it should have been considerably higher as he shot four wides. Still, he was very much the right man in the right place when the late opportunity presented itself.
If Downes made a brilliant start to his senior championship career with Limerick, 19-year-old Waterford wing-forward Mahony was equally impressive.
Handed the free-taking duties due to the pre-match withdrawal of Richie Foley with an ankle injury, he pointed four dead-ball strikes while adding three more scores from open play before being replaced by Kelly in the 67th minute.
Shane Walsh and Brian O'Sullivan had some good moments in the Waterford attack too, resulting in the Limerick defence coming under extreme pressure. The half-line stood up reasonably well but the inside trio came close to breaking point on several occasions.
Waterford had problems in the full-back line too, principally at No 3 where Hutchinson found Downes a constant torment. Davy Fitzgerald mused afterwards that perhaps he should have switched 'Brick' Walsh to full-back earlier, but he was obviously reluctant to disrupt his half-back line.
However, with Downes -- who was operating largely on his own in the inside line in the second half as Limerick flooded the outside channels -- threatening to destroy Waterford, Fitzgerald was left with no option but to redeploy Walsh, a move that had a significant bearing on the outcome.
Limerick midfielder Donal O'Grady provided much of the ammunition for Downes while also picking off three points in what was an excellent performance all through.
Defeat leaves Limerick headed for the treacherous qualifier waters but they will do so with a fair degree of confidence after playing so well for long periods. They were let down by their shooting in both halves and while they hit just one more wide than Waterford (11-10), they missed the easier chances.
Nonetheless, they amassed 3-14, a return which wins more games than it loses, so they have a solid base to work off. One suspects that reorganising the defensive alignment will be very much to the forefront of manager Donal O'Grady's priority list over the coming weeks.
Davy Fitzgerald will be similarly occupied after Waterford conceded three goals while also having some narrow escapes with a few other attempts.
Limerick will be disappointed to have lost in such dramatic circumstances but will be pleased with several aspects of their game, not least the manner in which they battled back after falling six points down in the first half and again after going three behind after 47 minutes.
After trailing by 1-9 to 1-6 at the break, their best spell came in the first five minutes of the second half when they scored 1-3 without reply to really put it up to Waterford.
It set the scene for a pulsating second half where the balance of power alternated on several occasions, finally settling with Waterford, thanks to Mullane's brilliant positioning and cool finishing under the most intense pressure.
Scorers -- Waterford: J Mullane 2-2, P Mahony 0-7 (4f), S Walsh 1-1, M Shanahan, B O'Sullivan 0-2 each, S O'Sullivan 0-1. Limerick: K Downes 2-1, N Moran 0-4, D O'Grady, R McCarthy (3f) 0-3 each, W McNamara 1-0, B Geary (f), G Mulcahy, D Breen 0-1 each.
Waterford -- C Hennessy 6; D Fives 6, W Hutchinson 5, N Connors 7; T Browne 7, M Walsh 8, K Moran 7; S Molumphy 6, D O'Sullivan 6; M Shanahan 5, S O'Sullivan 6, P Mahony 8; J Mullane 8, S Walsh 7, B O'Sullivan 7. Subs: J Nagle 7 for Hutchinson (54), S Prendergast 5 Shanahan (58), E Kelly for Mahony (67).
Limerick -- N Quaid 6; D Reale 5, S Hickey 6, T Condon 6; W McNamara 7, B Geary 7, G O'Mahony 6; D O'Grady 8, P Browne 7; J Ryan 6, N Moran 7, G Mulcahy 6; R McCarthy 6, K Downes 8, S Tobin 6. Subs: D Moloney 6 for Reale (58), P Tobin for McCarthy (64), D Breen for S Tobin (66), M O'Riordan for Browne (70).
Ref -- B Kelly (Westmeath)