Davy Fitzgerald pushed the obvious button when the subject of the hurling league and its standing in the greater scheme of things was raised in Dungarvan on Sunday.
It was put to him that this had become a competition that nobody wanted to win – an awkward proposition for someone now in charge of the holders.
“I’m looking for competitive games,” replied the Waterford manager. “I see a few pundits writing that alright and I think you could see with myself and Micheál Donoghue today – and we’ve both won All-Irelands as managers – I don’t think we were treating that lightly outside there.
“I don’t think any of the managers I saw over the weekend, be it John Kiely last night or Pat Ryan, were treating it lightly.”
There could be no arguing the quality of entertainment in either his match or the one he referred to in Cork from Saturday night – both settled in the last minute of abundant injury-time.
He was also hinting at another aspect of the matches. Both he and Donoghue, Dublin’s new manager, had won All-Irelands. In fact they were the only managers to interrupt the unprecedented domination of hurling’s big three between 1998 and 2017.
[ Nothing to separate Waterford and Dublin after rollercoaster clash ]
Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary knocked off 16 out of 18 championships in that time, punctuated by Fitzgerald’s Clare in 2013 and signed off by Donoghue’s Galway four years later just as the Limerick dynasty was stirring.
They have an eventful history as opposing managers, meeting in the four seasons from 2016 to 2019 when Fitzgerald was in charge of both Clare and latterly Wexford while his opposite number was guiding Galway.
Their respective counties each won something every year during that period from Clare’s league in 2016 to the Galway treble a year later, followed in 2018 by a Leinster title and a tight defeat in the All-Ireland final against Limerick. In 2019 we had the sunburst drama of Wexford’s first Leinster crown in 15 years.
Of the now eight league and championship meetings, Donoghue – who has also managed his home club Clarinbridge to an All-Ireland – has the upper hand, losing just two.
They do, however, both have a league title along the way, an arguably necessary step on Galway’s epic journey in 2017 but signifying not much for Clare the previous year – to the extent that Fitzgerald stepped down at the end of the season.
He retains a wary respect for his opposite number and why wouldn’t he? There was consensus beforehand that Waterford, even with a lengthy list of the indisposed, should pick up the points against a callow enough Dublin team, missing some heavy hitters from recent seasons.
Although the visitors might have felt disappointed by the draw in that they were playing 13 men by the end, the dramatic calamity of the opening 10 minutes when they fell behind by eight points meant that Donoghue was happy to survive with a point from his team’s first road trip to a heavyweight rival.
“You could see Dublin were very well drilled,” said Fitzgerald, “the way they were moving in, getting the runner off, creating space. We dealt with it ok and then there were times that we didn’t.
“There’s crossover times when we push up on puck-outs and we have to get that right. Two goals actually came from us not getting someone where we need them.
“But I will sort that over the next few weeks.”
He will also have something to say about being more careful with possession. One of the goals conceded was a careless turnover and the third came from his team losing a prolonged ruck arising from their own puck-out.
Donoghue made an interesting reference to Dublin eventually imposing their game. That definitely took a while. Their puck-outs returned just 50 per cent. Seán Brennan wasn’t afraid to go long but in the early stages Dublin were bystanders as Waterford hoovered up the breaking ball and ran rings around them.
That settled what was a very competitive second half, as evidenced by the lead-up to the third goal. Neither was it the extent of the good news in that respect.
The key play in the penalty, comfortably tucked away by Dónal Burke, was the spectacular catch by Cian Boland of Conor Donohoe’s high ball, turned into a penalty by Jack Fagan’s rugby tackle.
Boland specifically is good news for the Dublin management. He missed all of last season and his pace and intelligence were sorely missed. Before Christmas he spoke about the injury and rehabilitation.
“I ruptured the Achilles and had to get it operated on but I’m back now. . . and fully confident with the body of work that I’ve put in over the last year, that it’s right to go. At the moment it’s just about getting the miles back into the clock and getting me back to where I was pre-injury. That will take time but I’m ready for that now.”
He also paid tribute to the impact of the new manager.
[ Fitzgerald not having any talking down of the league ]
“The little things like the one-on-one coaching that I’ve seen Micheál and his team as a whole bring to the training sessions, it’s invaluable. Pulling players aside and giving them little pointers, ‘This is what you can improve on, this is what you’re doing’, that one-on-one coaching, there’s huge value in it.”
Back in the thick of it in Dungarvan, Boland had an understandably quiet first half with the team struggling for a long time but he popped up with a good point. In the second half his contribution was important.
Dublin lost three full forwards to various injuries. Double goal-scorer Cian O’Sullivan had a hamstring issue and didn’t re-appear after the break and his replacement Ronan Hayes lasted all of six minutes before succumbing to the same problem. Finally Alex Considine, whose elusive running caused difficulties for Conor Prunty, had to leave with a blood injury.
In the absence of that firepower, Boland stepped up. Aside from his vital role in the goal, he shot two more points for a total of 0-3.
It may well be that when the season is over there’ll be no one joining the dots from the first weekend of the league to the All-Ireland but for two managers and at least one player, it was a worthwhile step into the future.