Waterford 3-15 (24) Limerick 3-14 (23)

One of the more infuriating habits of pundits . . . actually, for ‘pundits’ read ‘anyone, commenting on big Championship matches’ is fence-sitting. The consensus before this game was that Waterford should win but Limerick were likely to give them a good rattle and hey, who knows? The ‘who knows’ is the way of the weasel, containing within it the ability to say I-told-you-so should there be an upset without doing anything as foolish as predicting an upset. So it was refreshing to see Jamesie O’Connor in the Sindo come off the fence and say it straight: that he thought Limerick were ready to take Waterford. Of course he’d still be wrong, but fair play to him for sticking his neck out, right?

Let’s just say I’ll be paying a lot more attention to Jamesie’s musings as the summer progresses.

We hadn’t ordered any tickets prior to the game reasoning that there would be no shortage on the day, but no matter how low we set that particular bar it was still a shock to see how easy it was to get to Semple Stadium. Remember all those days when you had to park out near Thurles Golf Club and walk into town? Those days are gone. We could have driven all the way to the railway station and barely touched the brake. Even more worryingly there seemed to be more Limerick fans in the vicinity of the ground than Déisigh. The cockiness I had felt in the run-up to the game was beginning to feel like so much hubris.

Still, I had faith in Waterford based on what I had been throughout the League, a faith that wasn’t perturbed by the presence of David O’Sullivan in place of Richie Foley on the Waterford team that came down the tunnel. The joy of text told me that Foley had twisted his ankle in a morning puckabout and while he was a loss he’s hardly Glenn McGrath and some people thought O’Sullivan was on the verge of being picked anyway. Three O’Sullivans and no Powers on a Waterford team. Maybe we should change our name to Kerry.

And speaking of Kerry, we quickly got a close-up from our rather good seats – even if ‘covered’ would have been a bit of a sick joke had the heavens opened – of Tony Browne who made his senior debut all those centuries ago in the year after we lost to the Kingdom. Talk about a new era in Waterford. Now there’s an era-defining individual, and he showed his usual panache with a classic sideline cut from which Limerick earned a soft free. The free found its way to Donal O’Grady (no references to his namesakeosity, I promise – except for that one) who opened Limerick’s account. Waterford had the chance to hit right back but Brian O’Sullivan’s good approach work was rewarded with a poor wide from David O’Sullivan. Think I might copy & paste that surname. The miss was met with hooting and hollering that wouldn’t have been out of place in a saloon on a Wild West movie. It would be a recurring theme throughout the day, and one which would store up a lot of bad karma for the denouement.

Waterford were not to be blank for too long, Pauric Mahony rewarding some sterling approach work from Stephen Molumphy to open Waterford’s account. Shane <ctrl-V> O’Sullivan should have put Waterford in front after Maurice Shanahan had done well to control the bar of soap but his shot drifted wide. Noel Connors showed less adeptness in the following phase, allowing the ball to squeeze past him and Kevin Downes to score what would be his only point in the game. Ahem. From the short puckout *ptooie!* Shane O’Sullivan picked out John Mullane with a cross-field ball who levelled matters with a neat point. Stephen Molumphy was flexing his muscles in winning ‘dirty ball’ and it was in one such phase that Waterford earned a penalty, his long-range point effort hitting the post and was pounced upon by Brian O’Sullivan who did the sensible thing by putting the head down and charging into the square where he was fouled. Pauric Mahony teed it up and, well, see for yourself what happened:

Moving swiftly along, Seán Tobin mucked up a great catch by hitting a bad wide then John Mullane weighed in with a snatched shot wide when there really wasn’t much of an opening, even for him – do you see a theme emerging here? – after Michael Walsh and Kevin Moran had done some fine spadework. Not to worry for Waterford though as the first goal soon came, Tony Browne drilling a free that he had earned smartly into space for Mullane to turn, stride towards goal then arrow a shot between Nicky Quaid and his near post. It was his first Championship goal in seven games dating back to the 2009 Munster final. Niall Moran responded with a solo effort to cut the gap to two but Waterford were looking composed, Shane O’Sullivan typifying that extra craft by almost burrowing out of an impossible situation under the Old Stand with pure guile – flicking balls over heads, bouncing off the ground – and we were rebuffing early attempts to pick out weaknesses in the full back line. Mahony then dusted himself off after he had been clattered after the ball had been played to take the free from a more advantageous position and restore our three point lead.

Neither side would have a great day with frees, Richie McCarthy knocking one over for Limerick after Wayne Hutchinson had been rather harshly adjudged to have overcarried but missing another one a bit further out but straight in front of the posts. Gavin O’Mahony tried to compensate for this with an effort which originated out at Two-Mile-Borris and the ball unsurprisingly went wide. Waterford made sure such profligacy was really made to hurt, Shane O’Sullivan scoring after Shanahan, Mullane and Walsh had acted like the collective jinnit in the corner, then Walsh took a more direct route to scoring by taking the dropping ball in his belly, turning neatly, then smacking it between the uprights. Another bad wide by Limerick was followed by another sashaying Waterford score as the team worked the ball from Darragh Fives up to Shanahan who gave his man the slip and put Waterford five points clear.

It was perhaps a sign of how comfortable Waterford felt that Mullane felt capable of trying to score a goal from about thirty metres out with his back to goal, an effort easily saved by Quaid, but whatever it was Waterford looked well on top. Even Pauric Mahony missing a straightforward free after he had been tripped didn’t feel like a disaster, although the jeers of the Limerick faithful did grate. Shane Walsh then picked up a yellow card as he followed by exhortation to hit his man who was out on the sideline and succeeded in piling into his midriff. Tsk, couldn’t he hear I meant his shoulder? From the free the referee choose to ignore several fouls before Waterford managed to get the ball clear to Shane Walsh who used the sodden conditions to slide in to win the ball then pick up a soft free, much to the consternation of the Limerick crowd. Now seems as good a point as any to note that I was beginning to think that Barry Kelly was being harsh on Limerick. I can’t identify a specific incident nor a pattern of behaviour but the feeling was there and a head of steam was building up behind the feeling amongst their support. Pauric Mahony knocked over the point and even assuming the ref was out to get them the six point margin didn’t particularly flatter us.

Limerick needed a hero. Someone like Michael Walsh who managed to get out of a pickle on the sideline with an outrageous combination of skill and power, only for Stephen Molumphy to blow it with a careless fumble that led to a sideline ball. James Ryan tried to play the role, putting the head down and powering through the Waterford defence but his wide probably only made people feel worse. So it was just as well for half back Wayne McNamara who decided enough was enough as he took the ball from in his own half through the midfield and half backs to get a sight of goal where his clever bouncing bomb eluded Clinton Hennessy at his left hand post. It was a great goal, and things got even better for them as Donal O’Grady smacked over a long-range effort to trim the gap to two. Brian O’Sullivan steadied the ship with a quality score from a narrow angle, then Limerick were left growling at the referee when he was given a free as he tried to break through their full back line that could just as easily being given for overcarrying. Shanahan restored the gap to four with the free, but there was still time for Limerick to threaten the Waterford goal again, Richie McCarthy getting acres of space in the corner down between the Old Stand and the Killinan End from which he cut in and produced a decent save from Hennessy. The rebound was swatted at by a Limerick player and could have gone anywhere but ended up going over the bar. Half-time came at a good time for Waterford.

Half-time produced a decent show from the Primary Game team. Attendances may be way down on the good ol’ days – the crowd was announced at a wince-inducing 15,650 – but given the choice between going back to those days when we used get a pasting at half-time and staying in the present, I’ll stick with the iPhone generation, thanks. Having a quick chat with the man beside me, we agreed that we were the better team but were not getting the ball into the full forward line fast enough where Mullane, Walsh and O’Sullivan each had the beating of their man. Such sage thoughts were soon covered in goal pie as Limerick rocketed out of the blocks in the second half. They got a point within seconds, Brian Geary pointing from a free, then O’Grady had cause to feel aggrieved as his attempt to burrow through the Waterford defence was not given as a foul by Barry Kelly. No matter though, because from the next play Geary spotted Kevin Downes in space and the full forward, possessing all of Brian Begley’s bulk but none of his sloth-like lack of maneuverability, bore down on goal and batted the ball to the net.

Waterford were rattled, to put it mildly, Mahony hitting the ball wide despite being in plenty of space created by Shanahan. Waterford then proceeded to fart around in the middle of the park and Niall Moran showed them how it was down, racing onto the ball and striking a great point on the run. Shanahan was then left completely unsupported in the corner and Limerick were able to get the ball as far as Graeme Mulcahy who put them a fat goal clear for the first time. Waterford were all over the shop, a state of affairs exemplified by Paul Browne being allowed run unmolested for two-thirds of the pitch. Eventually Waterford managed to bundle it out for a sideline and worked the ball up to Mullane. Perhaps sensing we needed a hero he went for a ludicrous over-the-shoulder effort that hiccupped its way wide when there were other players in better positions. Leave the impossible missions for later in the game, concentrate on the simple plays for now.

Which brings us to Shane Walsh. There was nothing simple about what he did next. Benefitting from an overrun by a Limerick back he gathered the ball into his hand with a delightful first touch, turned his marker one way then the other and found himself clear on goal. It was a brilliant piece of play and got its just desserts as he batted the ball past Quaid. Cue much eyebrow-raising in the stand to the tune of ‘about time they got the ball into him’. That curious swing in momentum that is such a feature of our game came to the fore as Waterford were suddenly energised. Mullane earned a free after he was grabbed around the neck – sorry Limerick fans, I’m not giving you this one, it was a free – from which Mahony restored Waterford’s lead. They probably had more cause to feel upset when another player, this time Seán Tobin, was unfairly boxed in by the Waterford backs only to be ignored by the ref. Waterford cleared and a fumble by McNamara allowed Mullane to put Waterford two points ahead. Limerick then couldn’t get out of their own half, Molumphy deftly flicking the ball away from the emerging defender, and Waterford got the ball to Brian O’Sullivan to put us our own fat goal ahead.

One should never encourage players getting relaxed and I wouldn’t suggest that the Waterford team did. But having weathered that particular storm it might have been reasonable for Waterford, given what we knew about the respective teams, to think they might not have that much puff left and we were in the home straight. Brian O’Sullivan was certainly a bit too casual when he found himself with about a quarter of the pitch to himself after Waterford had nipped a Limerick counterattack in the bud. He could have put his head down – should have, really – or steadied himself and taken an easy point. Instead he steadied himself and hit a terrible wide. Limerick came down the field and a foul on Mulcahy gave McCarthy a point from a free, then it was the turn of that man Downes again. It seemed from my vantage point that Limerick had drawn someone out of the full forward line – presumably Mulcahy, if he could pop up where he did for the free – and it gave Downes room to put that remarkable mobility for such a big man to good use. There was a lot of fortune to his second goal, Darragh Fives stumbling at the worst possible moment, but the tactical switch meant that there was no one to cover for that mistake allowing Downes to romp in on goal and put Limerick two points ahead again.

Limerick had a lot of puff left in them yet and once again they were left shrieking at the referee when Brian O’Sullivan was given a free for not-very-much, allowing Mahony to cut the gap to one. Wayne Hutchinson came off at this point, yet another victim of the curse of the Waterford full back position, although one undone not by bombs dropped into the square but by what looks like a superstar in the making. Jamie Nagle came on in his place which looked bats until you consider (not that I spotted it at the time in my addled state) that Michael Walsh went in full back. It’ll be a talking point in the next few weeks.

Back in the game, Wayne McNamara showed what a tremendous game he was having with another charge from his own half which ended in a foul and McCarthy putting Limerick two ahead again. Mahony pounced on a Limerick fumble to trim the gap to one and the players, like two exhausted prize fighters, were now eschewing flurries of blows for jabs. Niall Moran hit a wide after he had been given way too much room by the Waterford backs, then Noel Connors had to intercept another dangerous through ball that, if he had missed it, would have certainly led to another Downes goal.

At the other end Mullane tried to turn the Limerick defence in knots but only culled a wide for his efforts. Moments later he attempted to horse Damien Reale out of it and only bounced off him, lifting the spirits of the Limerick fans no end. One wag, presumably one of the people who had been effing and blinding at Davy Fitz for a full hour now with barely a pause, scornfully yelled ‘go on Mullane!’ Remember what I said earlier about karma? If you do, it’s more than I remember about the period between the 60th and 65th minute as I completely lost the plot with notetaking. I even missed a score as Waterford drew level. At some point late in that period McNamara and O’Grady – despite Downes’ efforts they were the real stars for Limerick – combined to put Tobin in space but Waterford managed to shepherd him away from the goal and Niall Moran could only shoot wide from the follow-up. Tobin was replaced and on came David Breen whose first action was to stride purposefully through the Waterford midfield and score a splendid point on the run. Then Niall Moran added one of his own to leave Limerick two points ahead and Waterford possibly chasing goals.

John Mullane seemed to think that way, trying to fashion a goal where none really existed and only sending it wide. Davy Fitz obviously felt the same way as he gave instructions for Eoin Kelly, on at this stage for Pauric Mahony, to go for goal when Waterford earned a free a good thirty metres out after Kevin Moran’s powerful run had been brought to an abrupt halt. It was a total Hail Mary moment, and with two minutes left plus injury time an unnecessary one. It was possibly influenced by the nature of our equaliser against Cork in last year’s drawn Munster final when Tony Browne pounced on the rebound and it briefly looked like that might happen again when Kelly’s effort was blocked but Limerick got it clear and now we really needed a goal. With the clock ticking into injury time – in the chaos I thought I spotted ‘2’ going up on the board; no-one around me was any the wiser – Jamie Nagle burst down the left and lofted the ball into Eoin Kelly in space. His pass across the box just eluded the despairing lunge of a Limerick back and found John Mullane. He had to go for goal now and incredibly he threaded the eye of the needle to find the top of the net and sparking the first truly joyous roar of the day from the Waterford fans. To that Limerick fans who was so scornful of him a few minutes earlier – Nelson Muntz laugh.

Limerick still had chances to equalise and even to win it as a sideline ball came through the crowd and flopped at Clinton Hennessy’s feet from where he managed to scoop the ball clear. Bodies were thrown in the way and eventually Limerick ran out of options before Barry Kelly called time to roars of ‘disgrace!’ from their irate fans. The cheer from the Waterford fans was muted, far less than that given to Mullane’s winner. The man sitting beside summed it up as he came past on the way to the exit – “we robbed them”. We had indeed. It was a win, but it felt like a loss. Before the game we had aspirations to win the All-Ireland. After the game, Limerick look a better bet. Let’s hope it transpires that they’re as good as they looked, because we need to believe that it was them being good rather than us being bad that led to such a heart-stoppingly close encounter.

Waterford: Clinton Hennessy, Darragh Fives, Wayne Hutchinson (Jamie Nagle), Noel Connors, Tony Browne, Michael Walsh, Kevin Moran, David O’Sullivan, Shane O’Sullivan (0-1), Pauric Mahony (0-7; Eoin Kelly), Stephen Molumphy, Maurice Shanahan (0-2; Seamus Prendergast), John Mullane (2-2), Shane Walsh (1-1), Brian O’Sullivan (0-2)

Limerick: Nicky Quaid, Damien Reale (David Moloney), Seamus Hickey, Tom Condon, Wayne McNamara (1-0), Brian Geary (0-1), Gavin O’Mahoney, Donal O’Grady (0-3), Paul Browne (Mark O’Riordan), James Ryan, Richie McCarthy (0-3; Pat Tobin), Niall Moran (0-4), Seán Tobin (David Breen, 0-1), Kevin Downes (2-1), Graeme Mulcahy (0-1)

HT: Waterford 1-9 (12) Limerick 1-6 (9)

Referee: Barry Kelly (Westmeath)