Attitude and energy drive Waterford from the back of the pack to All-Ireland final

Attitude and energy drive Waterford from the back of the pack to All-Ireland final

Waterford’s Dessie Hutchinson and Austin Gleeson swarm Conor Delaney of Kilkenny. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

MAYBE, just maybe, Waterford’s time has come and a famine that has lasted for 61 long and impatient years is about to end.

There’s still on Everest to climb in the All-Ireland final but, on the evidence of the season thus far and particularly against Kilkenny last Saturday night, this has to represent their best chance for many a long day to regain hurling’s most cherished prize.

To sit and watch their comeback against the game’s aristocrats was a joy to behold and surely every neutral in the country will be in their corner now on December 13.

The riposte to Kilkenny’s first-half superiority was astonishing because very few teams did to Kilkenny what Waterford did to them in Croke Park.

In the past, if a Kilkenny team led by nine points at any stage in a game they’d win by 29. Of course, the Cats led Dublin by 16 points in Leinster earlier in the campaign and surrendered it before eventually winning by the bare margin.

So there was evidence of this Kilkenny team losing a huge advantage but there was very little in the first-half at headquarters last Saturday night suggesting that Waterford were going to be able to turn the ship around.

That first-half effort had been very laboured, they shot three poor wides in the opening minutes, their touch was poor and there was a nervousness about them that suggested they were going to fall short again.

But this is a different Waterford team altogether to previous ones and there is now an inner belief that has obviously been instilled into them by team boss Liam Cahill that anything is possible no matter how things might appear to look.

Cahill seems to be a master of turning water into wine when it looks most unlikely.

Recall the Munster U21 final of a few years ago when his Tipperary team were thrashed by Cork in the Munster final but yet when the same two sides met up again in the final of the All-Ireland, it was the Premier County boys that prevailed.

That’s what good managers do, they get inside players' heads and make them believe and belief is everything in any sporting arena.

Waterford defeated the greatest hurling county of them all because they had that belief and they had the energy to stand up and fight.

Darragh Lyons of Waterford shoots to score his side's second goal at Croke Park. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Darragh Lyons of Waterford shoots to score his side's second goal at Croke Park. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Their second-half display was simply incredible, they went after Kilkenny in a manner which must have taught a lot of other counties an awful lot.

They fought for everything as if their very lives depended on it. When the time arrived to bring in players off the bench they had the right prescription.

Squad depth is everything now, more so in this very condensed season than ever before.

Winter hurling has to sap the energy levels and you must have the replacements to take up from where the players who they are replacing left off.

Three Waterford subs made a very significant contribution on the scoreboard, Darragh Lyons, Niall Montgomery and Iarlaith Daly, the latter an old CBC boy, put up 1-3 between them. When the call came they answered loud and clear.

Waterford were wonderful last Saturday night and whether or not they conquer that Everest in a fortnight's time, they have surely laid down a platform for the next couple of years.

Stephen Bennett received the Man of the Match accolade but it could quite easily have been one from four or five more contenders.

Tadhg de Burca again illustrated his vast worth to the team and showed what a huge loss he was when he was injured.

Calum Lyons is firmly in All-Star territory now as is Jamie Barron. Bennett too, of course, alongside Austin Gleeson who was simply majestic when the need was at its greatest.

Corner-back Shane McNulty scored one of the great Croke Park points that if there had been a Waterford crowd present, itt would have lifted the roof off the stands.

And maybe Waterford are better off without one of the most passionate support units in the land right now.

When Waterford get a sniff of glory, the expectation levels rise enormously and so does the accompanying hype.

This time it’s so different and the pressure of the big day is not as great.

For obvious reasons, the build-up to the final will be different now and that will bring a greater focus on the task that awaits the players.

Of course, it all began with that fully deserved win over Cork, the win that opened up the route to that date with destiny in a few short weeks.

If Cork had won that game, would they be in the final now?.

Who knows but the learning that Cork and other counties must take from this campaign is that what Waterford are showing now, a fierce hunger, an equally high intensity and a savage work-rate must be replicated going forward.

For years, Waterford had to settle for second best when Kilkenny came calling. Not anymore after last Saturday night and here’s one who fervently hopes they will lift the old trophy next month.

There are no entitlements in this game but, my god, any team that outscores Kilkenny by 2-17 to 0-12 in 35 minutes of hurling surely deserve to be rewarded.

In this strangest of years, Waterford’s story is illuminating, the county that could not buy a championship win for three years now on an equal footing with their opponents on All-Ireland final day, less than two weeks before Christmas Day.

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