Cork hurling’s quiet neighbours to the east raising the volume
Over the past 20 years Waterford have become a significant championship force
Waterford’s Dan Shanahan is chased by Séan Óg Ó gAilpín during the National Hurling League final of 1998. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho
Reminiscing starkly about the second year, and from the safe distance of a couple of decades, Waterford player and by then selector Séamie Hannon recalled his team-mates walking through the throng towards Semple Stadium.
In those pre-team bus days players could mingle with the crowds, which was all very well but in the circumstances the challengers were shuffling targets. “Lads,” chirped up one of the red-and-white acolytes, “ye must be murder for the punishment.”
Cork and Waterford meet this weekend in Croke Park in the second All-Ireland semi-final. It’s the second match between them this championship. It has been described as the first great rivalry of the 21st century and yet up until 20 years ago it scarcely qualified as a rivalry, let alone a great one.
Statistics are a dry way to tell this story but it’s hard to think of anything more concise.
Over the years since their first championship fixture in 1888 Cork have won 46 of the matches to Waterford’s 13 with six drawn. More illuminatingly, since 1999 the relevant figures are eight-six-three; in other words half the matches that Waterford haven’t lost in a near-130-year history have taken place in the last 19 seasons.
Another relevant fact: this will be Waterford’s 12th All-Ireland semi-final since 1998, during which time Cork have reached only 11. Before that watershed year, in the history which required a county to win their province before reaching the All-Ireland stages, Waterford had five Munster titles. With four in the past 16 seasons they’ve nearly doubled that tally.
The counties come trailing the standards of a culture war: Waterford’s structured, defensive orientation – which, according to your preference either gives them much-needed structure or in its pessimism, undermines the team’s attacking potential – meets Cork’s quick, nimble, heads-up but off-the-cuff hurling.
The attitude west of the border can at times be reminiscent of tut-tutting at the neighbours’ taste in spending a lottery jackpot. You were better crack when you had nothing.
The surge in Waterford’s fortunes has been driven by an overhaul of the development systems and the success of Waterford schools, including De La Salle where the county manager Derek McGrath taught until his career break. The one unhappy but nagging reality is that the county has not as yet won a third All-Ireland title to go with those from 1948 and ’59.
Neither the cavalier pirates of the first decade, under the tutelage of Cork managers Gerald McCarthy and Justin McCarthy, nor the more severe, defensive dispensations that followed have led up the steps of the Hogan Stand in September.
Seánie McGrath, an All-Ireland medallist with Cork in 1999 and later a selector, says that by the time his inter-county hurling began 20 years ago there was no mistaking the fact that the old order in Munster was changing.
“By the time my career started Clare had arrived and Waterford were coming. I played against Waterford in the Munster minor in 1993 – Derek McGrath was playing – and we won by a few points with a late goal but it wasn’t easy.
“At senior we played them in the 1998 league final and they were a good team, coming along with Tony Browne, Ken McGrath and Paul Flynn, exceptional players, and they were huge wins for us. They were already a formidable team and we saw it as a major scalp if we beat them.
“The relationship I had with Waterford players goes back to Fitzgibbon Cup days in the mid- to late-1990s. I would have come across fellas like Dave Bennett and Derek McGrath and when you were around them they were carefree, happy-go-lucky fellas, who played with a bit of abandon and that’s the way Waterford played at that time.”
There is therefore irony that McGrath should have evolved into the roundhead coach of popular perception even though he would dispute the characterisation, pointing out that his team merely protects itself by throwing a cordon sanitaire across the centre, going with the runner and creating space up front.
For Cork the rivalry may have materialised but frontier habits have been softened by generations of non-aggression.
Former Cork manager and All-Ireland winner Denis Walsh is from Ballynoe on the border between the counties and has coached across the order, managing the Waterford footballers and more recently taking Ballygunner to county titles. He emphasises the togetherness of the area despite its frontier.
“As a player there wasn’t much of a rivalry because we didn’t overlap much during my career from 1985 to ’95. That arose in the 20 or so years that followed. From my point of view, living on the border, it’s a different type of rivalry in that where I live, Conna, Ballynoe, Tallow, Ballyduff – we’re nearly all kind of the one social parish. Divided by the county boundary but married into and with family links on either side.
“In Conna, for instance, there’s a lot of blue and white flags and red and white flags beside each other. We play a lot of challenge games against one another over the years and tournament games. To put it this way we’re more a feuding family than deadly factions!
“My own father was a great hurling man and he would have been very fond of the 1959 and ’63 Waterford teams. He always said to me that they were better than Tipp or Cork in their style of hurling. So I was born and bred with that sentiment, an appreciation that when these fellas played their natural game they could beat you any given day.
“We went to lot of games in west Waterford, down around Cappoquin, Dungarvan and Lismore more so than even east Cork.”
Walsh also draws a distinction between the Waterford of tradition and the well-drilled, tactical force that they have become.
“If you go back to the era of Tony Browne, Paul Flynn, Dan Shanahan and Fergal Hartley they were brilliant teams. In the modern day with all of the systems and defensive tactics it’s different to the traditional dash and panache that I was reared with when Waterford were capable of anything.
“There’s a contrast on Sunday. Cork are going to play it as they see it and bring the usual work rate and speed. Obviously they could get turned over if the Waterford system draws them in but I think they’ll manage that.”
He references Cork’s unhappy experiment with defensive tactics last year when they went to Thurles with a plan to restrict Séamus Callanan by double marking him. They struggled and the criticism was that it wasn’t in their DNA to do such things.
Walsh finds a less fanciful and more plausible explanation. They just weren’t used to playing that way.
“In 2016 Cork tried to complicate it by trying to go down the same route as others. I saw Pat Hartnett [Cork selector], an outstanding player himself, was emphasising the basics: tackling and the use of the ball and putting teams under pressure.”
As manager of Cork in the post-strike years of 2010-11, Denis Walsh came in to get things back on track. He had the elation of knocking out the eventual All-Ireland champions Tipperary in Munster but the disappointment of losing the provincial final after a replay against Waterford.
Was that difficult given his locality?
“For me it wouldn’t have been hard, personally. The rivalry here doesn’t turn unpleasant; it’s more neighbourly than anything.”