WITH the Munster SHC reverting to a knockout basis out of necessity this year, Saturday’s meeting of Cork and Waterford will call to mind the glory days of what was for a time the most absorbing rivalry hurling.
Nine times they played each other in the championship, from the start of the 2002 campaign until the culmination of the 2007 season.
Four of those games were won by Cork, four by Waterford and one was drawn. The biggest margin of victory across any of those games was five points.
In total, Waterford scored 21-135, a total of 198 and an average of 22 points per game. Impressive, but it was still slightly less than Cork’s 15-157, which amounted to 202 and an average of 22.44.
It was almost neck-and-neck, near-impossible to state definitively before a game between the two who would prevail. While Cork would win the All-Irelands of 2004 and 2005 and Waterford never managed to claim Liam MacCarthy, the Munster championship was evenly divided between them, three each from 2002-07 inclusive.
It’s interesting to note that Waterford didn’t reach an All-Ireland final until 2008, and perhaps it’s not a coincidence that it was the first time in six years when they didn’t have to play Cork.
Games with the Rebels seemed to take it out of the Déise, stymieing their chances of further progress. Their contributions to the red, white and blue epics couldn’t be questioned, however.
Take Paul Flynn’s famous goal in the game regarded as the pièce de résistance, the 2004 Munster final. Despite being reduced to 14 men after the sending-off of John Mullane, Waterford came roaring back to win by 3-16 to 1-21 and Flynn’s goal was arguably the catalyst.
Lining up a 20m free slightly to the right of the Cork goal as he looked at it, few present in Semple Stadium would have expected a shot at goal, even allowing for Flynn’s proficiency from the dead ball.
He had little to aim for bar a slight gap inside the angle of post and crossbar, but even so, it needed a perfectly judged and then perfectly struck shot. Flynn did both.
Little over a year later, Brian Corcoran displayed split-second decision-making on a par with that in the All-Ireland quarter-final in Croke Park. The game had been on a knife-edge all through when Corcoran got a sniff of goal with about 10 minutes left.
Calculating that a conventional shot was likely to be blocked, he allowed the sliothar to hit the turf and then produced a perfect half-volley. It swung the game irrevocably in Cork’s favour, with that game providing the five-point win which dwarfed all other winning margins in the 2002-07 period.
Cathal Naughton’s explosion onto the intercounty hurling scene, scoring 1-1 with almost his first two touches of the ball after being sprung from the bench in the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final, showed that careers could be made in this fixture, but they could just as easily be ended.
That’s something that Stephen Brenner knows all too well, never being fully trusted by Justin McCarthy after leaving in a soft goal from Garvan McCarthy in the aforementioned 2004 decider.
In 2007, the last year of the rivalry, the counties met three times, with Cork not winning any but coming close in all three encounters.
For the Munster SHC semi-final, Cork were without Dónal Óg Cusack, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and Diarmuid O’Sullivan after ‘Semple-gate’ – Anthony Nash made his debut as Cusack’s replacement – but the Déise were still only run to three points and it would have been a draw if Cian O’Connor’s last-minute shot had gone just under the crossbar rather than hitting it.
The next meeting was in the All-Ireland quarter-final in Croke Park. Kieran ‘Fraggie’ Murphy’s early goal looked to have put Cork in control early but Waterford, as Munster champions, were never going to let their opponents slip away.
Even so, Cork held on to a narrow lead as the game moved into injury time but Cusack was adjudged to be stopping the ball from being played and Eoin Kelly tapped over the equaliser.
A week later, Dan Shanahan would add to the reputation he had built up that summer as his two goals were the difference in a 2-17 to 0-20 win.
Despite the morale boost such a win would give, Waterford then lost to Limerick in the All-Ireland semi-final.
It’s a quirk that, as even as the two sides were from 2002-07, the only draw came in the eighth match of that period. By contrast, their next two championship ties, the 2010 Munster final and 2014 first round, produced draws.
Whatever else happens on Saturday, we will at least be guaranteed a winner.