McGrath and Mullane fondly recall Cork and Waterford's rivalry for the ages

McGrath and Mullane fondly recall Cork and Waterford's rivalry for the ages
Cork forward Niall McCarthy tackled by Ken McGrath of Waterford in the 2005 All-Ireland hurling quarter-final at Croke Park. Picture: INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

SPORT thrives on rivalry.

It forces players to be at their best. And meanest. It ignites the crowd. It’s the difference between games being recalled fondly or just a footnote in the record books.

That was certainly the case with Cork and Waterford in the noughties. Even allowing for nostalgia, the majority of their championship matches were belters, just a puck of a sliotar between the teams.

Ken McGrath and John Mullane were at the heart of the Déise challenge then. Hurlers you loved to hate at the time if you were in Rebel red but now grant deserved respect as modern greats.

John Mullane, Waterford, in action against Daniel Kearney and Niall McCarthy, Cork, in the 2012 All-Ireland hurling quarter-final in Thurles. Picture: Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE
John Mullane, Waterford, in action against Daniel Kearney and Niall McCarthy, Cork, in the 2012 All-Ireland hurling quarter-final in Thurles. Picture: Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE

The Waterford icons were talking about Cork last week: McGrath with Shane Stapleton for the always excellent Our Game website, Mullane on Brian Carroll’s new A Hurler’s Life podcast.

McGrath cited Brian Corcoran, along with Clare’s Seanie McMahon and Limerick’s Ciarán Carey as his toughest opponents. Though up there with the best number sixes of his generation, McGrath hurled a lot in the half-forward line.

“1998 they beat us in the league final and I marked Brian Corcoran, a brilliant, brilliant centre-back in an era of great centre-backs. Cork came again and they beat us in 2003 and the 2004 Munster final was an unbelievable game, 55,000 in Thurles, good weather, the place was heaving. 

"Ben O’Connor, Jerry O’Connor, Joe Deane, I marked Niall McCarthy a good few times, a man as tough as nails, Tom Kenny in midfield.

Niall McCarthy, Cork, gets to grips with Ken McGrath, Waterford, in the 2005 Munster hurling semi-final at Thurles. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Niall McCarthy, Cork, gets to grips with Ken McGrath, Waterford, in the 2005 Munster hurling semi-final at Thurles. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

“Gardiner, Ronan Curran, Ó hAilpín... that’s an iconic half-back line. You’re talking about some of the best players who played the game. We matched them. They beat us a lot but we beat them too.”

The ‘04 decider, available to watch on the GAA Youtube channel, concluded with a McGrath catch as Waterford prevailed despite Mullane’s dismissal.

“The Munster final ‘04 is one everyone remembers. It wasn’t the hardest catch because The Rock was probably positioned wrong. He went [to pull in the air] with one hand and he’d never go with one hand. It was a huge moment in seeing out that game but I didn’t think too much about it because you should be catching it.”

Ken McGrath in Croke Park in 2006. Picture: INPHO/Donall Farmer
Ken McGrath in Croke Park in 2006. Picture: INPHO/Donall Farmer

Mullane put Cork’s Wayne Sherlock and Brian Murphy, along with Kilkenny’s Jackie Tyrell, just behind Ollie Canning from Galway as the best he was marked by, saw red in 2004 early in the second half for striking Murphy. 

“He didn’t deserve the level I lashed out with. 

"I clearly struck him across the chin and it’s not something that’s I’m proud of. I was on top form in that summer and felt great about myself. Kilkenny weren’t at the peak of their powers and they were really there for the taking in the semi-final [which Mullane missed through suspension]. I think if we’d got to an All-Ireland final, experienced it sooner, it would have stood us in good stead.

“In ‘08 we got to the All-Ireland in the wrong year when a lot of lads were coming to the end of their days.”

John Mullane, Waterford, in action against Wayne Sherlock and Brian Murphy, Cork, in the classic 2004 Munster hurling final at Semple Stadium. Picture: Pat Murphy/SPORTSFILE
John Mullane, Waterford, in action against Wayne Sherlock and Brian Murphy, Cork, in the classic 2004 Munster hurling final at Semple Stadium. Picture: Pat Murphy/SPORTSFILE

A year before Mullane had stitched three goals past Donal Óg Cusack but infamously gave the Cork supporters a two-finger salute. 

“Back in the early noughties, I was capable of doing anything! It was very immature of me. When you are playing into any terrace you can be on the wrong end of a lot of abuse. Some of the abuse that day wasn’t pretty. The third goal went in and I said ‘there you go’.

“The Cork public have a fair idea of what I’m like now and I’d like to think they’ve forgiven me.”

They never got the Celtic Crosses they craved but their electric style of hurling will echo through the ages.

Of course, two Leesiders were integral to the Waterford hurling revival in the modern era.

Gerald McCarthy and Justin McCarthy both helped their native county to glory but ended up in front of the opposition dugout in a period when the rivalry Cork and the Déise was at its sharpest. Gerald from 1997, Justin coming in at the end of ‘01.

Waterford coach Justin McCarthy is congratulated by Cork coach Gerald McCarthy in 2007. Picture: Des Barry
Waterford coach Justin McCarthy is congratulated by Cork coach Gerald McCarthy in 2007. Picture: Des Barry

“Gerald McCarthy came in and he was brilliant,” explained McGrath to Stapleton on Our Game

“He got us to a level to compete with the top teams. I thought we left Gerald down. There were definitely games we threw away and made wrong decisions in. That’s not Gerald’s fault, that’s the players’ fault.

“Justin came in with different ideas. All hurling. He only got us ready for the summer, he didn’t care about the league. 

Cork manager John Allen and Waterford manager Justin McCarthy in 2005. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Cork manager John Allen and Waterford manager Justin McCarthy in 2005. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

"The hurling we played... he got the most out of me. It came to an end as all relationships do.”

Unfortunately for Justin, following a loss to Clare in 2008 a players vote saw him removed as bainisteoir, Davy Fitzgerald coming in mid-season.

“It was a horrible way for a manager who gave so much to finish up that way. I haven’t seen Justin since and it’s a bit sad really but as players, we don’t know how you approach it now.”

Ken McGrath, Waterford, in action against Derek Lyng and Henry Shefflin, Kilkenny. Picture: Damien Eagers/SPORTSFILE
Ken McGrath, Waterford, in action against Derek Lyng and Henry Shefflin, Kilkenny. Picture: Damien Eagers/SPORTSFILE

McGrath summed up the impact of the two McCarthys succinctly. “My father (Pat) played from ‘72 up to ‘85-‘86 and won three Munster championship matches. It shows to the level we got to.

“If someone told me that at 14 or 15 I would have taken their hand off. Obviously looking back now you’d love to have that All-Ireland medal.”

As Mullane recollected to Brian Carroll on his new A Hurler’s Life podcast: “Gerald McCarthy gave me my break, he trusted me in 2001. He gave me that opportunity and I’m forever indebted to him.

“We’d six unbelievable years with Justin, our best years, but when it came I’ve gone on the record to say I voted for change.”

In the view of the De La Salle club man, who tasted Munster club success at the expense of Sarsfields, Justin was “a proper hurling man”.

“He eats, sleeps and breathes hurling. He’d bring you down to Passage West, to the ball alley, working on your first touch. He’d get your hurleys, bring it off with him and bring it back a week later... sometimes lads would be trying to hide the hurleys from him because Justin would be saying he’d take a bit off here and a bit off there.

Justin McCarthy at the Rochestown College hurling alley. Picture: Donna McBride
Justin McCarthy at the Rochestown College hurling alley. Picture: Donna McBride

“He was the perfect fit for Waterford. We played a brand of hurling that was lovely to watch. We went out with the feeling if you score 2-20 we’ll score 3-24, a bit like Barcelona. 

"If we were a small bit more mindful at the back of not conceding as much we might have gotten over the line.”

A dejected John Mullane, Waterford, at the end of the 2012 All-Ireland hurling quarter-final loss to Cork at Semple Stadium. Picture: Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE
A dejected John Mullane, Waterford, at the end of the 2012 All-Ireland hurling quarter-final loss to Cork at Semple Stadium. Picture: Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE

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