LIMERICK hurling has been in some dark places in recent seasons, but as dawn broke over the Shannon this morning the county was bathed in the brightest, warmest glow it has experienced for eleven years.
Limerick have taken a remarkable season of growth and expansion all the way to the Guinness All-Ireland hurling final, a task they will undertake with relish when they take on Kilkenny on September 2. It will be their first appearance in the final since 1996 and was earned by virtue of goal-fuelled odyssey which flattened Waterford in Croke Park yesterday.
It left the hot favourites dazed and distracted, and as Justin McCarthy and his strategists begin to sift through the debris of a fifth All-Ireland semi-final defeat in 10 seasons, they will be looking for clues in the hectic schedule which took them to Croke Park on three successive Sundays.
The sharpness that underpinned Waterford’s defiant stand against Cork over the two previous weekends was nowhere to be seen, leaving them trading mostly on instinct and determination.
They were well endowed on both front,s but it wasn’t enough to subdue Limerick – who had planned their ambush extremely well.
It threatened to completely sink Waterford in the first 21 minutes when the green agenda was very much to fore as Limerick raced into a 2-7 to 0-3 lead.
The Waterford defence were left gasping for air as Andrew O’Shaughnessy and Donie Ryan whizzed through and around their security cordon with remarkable ease.
Ryan powered in Limerick’s first goal in the sixth minute and O’Shaughnessy scored their second in the 15th after an incident that gave an interesting insight into the difference between the sides.
Tony Browne, normally so confident with his clearances, had his delivery blocked by the busy Mike O’Brien who whipped the ball into Limerick’s right hand corner.
O’Shaughnessy read it perfectly, made the catch and sped past Aidan Kearney before firing a thundering shot past Clinton Hennessy.
It was a brilliant score, the sort that Limerick supporters have been expecting from O’Shaughnessy for a few seasons and which he finally delivered on the biggest stage he has climbed so far.
That goal had a wonderfully uplifting impact on Limerick and as Waterford stared at a ten point deficit after 23 minutes, they must have been wondering how an opposition whom they had beaten by nine points in the Munster final just five weeks previously had become such a powerful force of hurling nature.
The answer is three-fold. The nine point margin wasn’t a fair reflection of the overall trend of the Munster final; Limerick are a much improved outfit and Waterford may have been suffering from the after-effects of the gruelling clashes with Cork.
With problems lapping all around Waterford’s ankles, it called for a special strand of resolve to dig them out of the deepest hole and, to their credit, they found it. On days when every flick, break and bounce goes against you, honest endeavour is the only possible route back to salvation.
It was a challenge which Waterford warmly embraced, beginning the fightback with a 26th minute goal from Stephen Molumphy after Dan Shanahan had crossed the ball from the left wing.
By half-time, resurgent Waterford had cut the deficit to four points (2-9 to 1-8) which must have left them confident that the worst storms had past.
They had proven against Cork that they are a powerful second-half force, but then so are Limerick – who made a decisive break 90 seconds into the second-half when Ryan scooted through for his second goal. It was Limerick’s last score
The resultant penalty offered O’Shaughnessy the chance to nudge Limerick within inches of clinching a place in the final and his nerve held as he spun the ball to the Waterford net.
Eoin Kelly pointed twice to pare the margin back to two points but as the game ticked into stoppage time, Begley scored Limerick’s fifth goal to set up a first All-Ireland final clash with Kilkenny since 1974.
It has been a remarkable transformation for a Limerick for 18 minutes, but Waterford managed just two points in the same period.
The error count was high, with Waterford the more culpable, firing eight wides in the third quarter and eventually finishing on an embarrassing seventeen.
Still, they made another dramatic bid to save the day when Eoin McGrath clipped in their second goal in the 56th minute in what was one of several important contributions from Waterford’s specialist supersub.
He had been dispatched into battle in the 25th minute as McCarthy was forced to begin repair work much earlier than expected.
McGrath’s goal gave Waterford a reachable lifeline and when they pared the gap to a point in the 64th minute, it looked as if they had timed their run to perfection. Once again though, Limerick got a burst of energy.
Brian Begley made a wonderful catch in the 65th minute nd was fouled as he wound himself up for a strike on goal.
The squad that was walloped by 17 points by Clare in an All-Ireland qualifier a little more than 13 months ago. Richie Bennis and Gary Kirby, who took over after that disaster, deserve credit for the manner in which they got the side hurling to their strengths which involves a huge capacity for hard work.
Nobody typified that more than corner-back, Seamus Hickey who hurled ball after ball out of the danger area while also getting in crucial flicks and blocks.
Brian Murray, Damien Reale, Stephen Lucey, Brian Geary, Ollie Moran, Donie Ryan, manof the-match Andrew O’Shaughnessy and Brian Begley late on all played significant parts too as Limerick moved to within one step of a prize that few thought remotely possible a few months ago.
Meanwhile, Waterford were left with the same sickening feeling that they also experienced in 1998-2002-2004-2006 when they lost All-Ireland semifinals. It has taken the gloss off their National League and Munster championship successes but they could have no complaints after conceding five goals.
Dan Shanahan, who had scored a total of 8-8 in his previous four games, didn’t add to his goal tally yesterday, finding very little space any time he ventured in around the square. Still, he scored four points and together with sub Eoin McGrath and Eoin Kelly in the second half was the best of a forward line where neither John Mullane nor Paul Flynn made any impact.
Ultimately though, it was the failure to secure the defence that undermined Waterford and offered Limerick the goal openings which they gleefully accepted.
SCORERS–LIMERICK:AO’Shaughnessy2-7(0-6 f, 1-0 pen), D Ryan 2-0, B Begley 1-0, O Moran 0-2,MO’Brien,JO’Brien0-1each.Waterford:D Shanahan, P Flynn (4f) 0-4 each, S Molumphy, E McGrath1-0each,EKelly0-3(1f),SPrendergast, J Kennedy, K McGrath (f), T Browne 0-1 each.
TEAM AND PLAYER RATINGS
LIMERICK – B Murray 7; D Reale 7, S Lucey 7, S Hickey 9; P Lawlor 7, B Geary 7, M Foley 7; S O’- Grady 7,MO’Brien 7; M Fitzgerald 5,OMoran 7, S O’Connor 6; A O’Shaughnessy 9, B Begley 7, D Ryan 8. Subs: N Moran 6 for Fitzgerald (40), M O’Riordan 6 for Foley (55), J O’Brien 6 for O’Connor (59), K Tobin for Ryan (67), P Tobin for M O’Brien (68).
WATERFORD – C Hennessy 6; E Murphy 6, D Prendergast 5, A Kearney 5; T Browne 5, K Mc Grath 7, B Phelan 6; M Walsh 6, J Kennedy 5; D Shanahan 7, E Kelly 7, S Molumphy 6; J Mullane 5, S Prendergast 6, P Flynn 5. Subs: E McGrath 8 for Kennedy (25), S O’Sullivan 6 for Mullane (46), S Walsh 5 for Flynn (51).
Referee – S Roche (Tipperary)