Waterford 3-19 Cork 1-21
The evidence of Waterford’s arrival as a potent force in senior hurling hardened in Thurles, as Derek McGrath’s team added Munster final qualification to the league title won last month and extended their unbeaten run this season to nine matches.
Once again provincial champions Cork were the opponents and if this Munster semi-final victory was by four points rather than the 10-point margin in the league final, it was in many ways an even more impressive statement by the young team, which has fast emerged from McGrath’s chrysalis in the past six months.
They had to survive a turbulent conclusion with an injury-time penalty from Patrick Horgan cutting the margin to two but as in the league final Waterford replacement Tom Devine scored a late goal to seal the victory.
No inexperienced side likes to take on a county like Cork with hurt in their hearts and vengeance on their mind but Waterford overcame a jumpy opening 25 minutes when the pressure of the situation appeared to be weighing them down to find their rhythm and get on top of the champions.
This they achieved without their top scorer Pauric Mahony, whose season-ending shin break had jolted them a week after the league victory. Cork however had their own injury troubles with Lorcán McLoughlin ruled out and Séamus Harnedy withdrawn before the throw-in.
Cork started by far the better side, though. Waterford were nervous – the scale of Mahony's loss emphasised with an early free sent wide by deputy dead-ball striker Maurice Shanahan. It wasn't just Shanahan who was afflicted by nerves.
As early as the 11th minute the team had racked up five wides whereas Cork had sniped three points, from Conor Lehane, a big score by Mark Ellis punishing a slack clearance and a free from Patrick Horgan, earned after he had hit a ball tamely at Stephen O’Keeffe in the Waterford goal but had been fouled in the follow-up.
Cork’s play was simply superior at this stage. They showed sharpness in possession, pressured their jittery opponents into errors on the ball and worked the ball out with clever, precise stick passes.
Of further encouragement was the form of Harnedy's understudy, former captain Patrick Cronin, brought in from the start and who after he had hit an early through ball wide, adjusted his sights and scored three from play in the first half – and two more in the second.
They hit their high point in the 22nd minute when Daniel Kearney, busy and constructive at centrefield pointed to stretch the lead to four, 0-6 to 0-2.
Signs of revival began to flicker for Waterford however.
Centrefielder Colin Dunford launched one of his familiar, spring-heeled breaks through the middle of Cork's chasing defence. He was taken down for a 25th-minute free which Shanahan converted.
The key score of the revival came two minutes later. Horgan had just stretched the lead back to three, 0-7 to 0-4 when Maurice Shanahan rose to take a great catch off Damien Cahalane. His careering run into the centre opened up a clear sight of goal and the shot crashed into the top right-hand corner of Nash’s net.
Within seconds of the puck-out Tadhg de Búrca had caught the ball and launched a ballistic strike back over the Cork bar to give Waterford the lead for the first time. Luke O’Farrell equalised but suddenly the momentum was with Waterford.
One of the team's two veterans Michael Walsh cut in and delivered the ball invitingly for Jake Dillon to take at speed and crack into the net: 2-5 to 0-8. That would be the last Cork saw of the match on even terms.
Shanahan’s goal had been crucial, though. He celebrated exultantly and his confidence soared to the extent that he didn’t miss another free for the remainder of the match.
Cork had been stopped in their tracks and the feeling grew now that Waterford had played through their initial problems, that the champions lacked the equipment to subdue their challengers.
Their traditional, man-on-man defence was used by Waterford to create space which was happily exploited whereas at the other end their own forwards were by contrast forced to operate in a train station at rush hour.
Tadhg De Búrca had an exceptional match, sweeping in the defence, nearly always in the right position to take a pass and clear. Noel Connors again exercised tight restraints on Horgan, restricting him to a point from play and Barry Coughlan at full back was solid in the air, making one particularly memorable catch.
It was to Cork’s credit that they persevered and never let the score drift too far away from them. They rattled off three points before half-time to reduce the deficit to one, 0-11 to 2-6, but immediately on the restart Waterford took them back with two frees from Shanahan and a point by Dunford.
There could have been more goals. Kevin Moran shot off the ground for Nash to save but Shanahan cleared up the rebound for another point.
The strength of Waterford's bench was also on show. Shane Bennett came in for the final 25 minutes and scored with his first touch. In the closing stages Cork lost O'Farrell to a straight red card and were reduced to 14 as their title status ebbed away.
WATERFORD: 1 Stephen O'Keeffe; 3 Barry Coughlan, 4 Noel Connors, 2 Shane Fives; 6 Austin Gleeson (0-1, free), 5 Tadhg de Búrca (0-1), 7 Philip Mahony; 15 Colin Dunford (0-1), 8 Jamie Barron; 14 Michael Walsh, 10 Kevin Moran (capt; 0-2), 12 Jake Dillon (1-0); 11 Stephen Bennett (0-2), 21 Maurice Shanahan (1-9, seven frees, one 65), 13 Brian O'Halloran. Subs: 22 Shane Bennett (0-2) for O'Halloran (46 mins), 9 Tom Devine (1-0) for Stephen Bennett (60 mins), 20 Eddie Barrett for Dunford (63 mins), 25 Patrick Curran (0-1) for Dillon (68).
CORK: 1 Anthony Nash (capt); 2 Shane O'Neill, 3 Stephen McDonnell, 4 Brian Murphy; 5 Damien Cahalane, 6 Mark Ellis (0-1), 7 Cormac Murphy; 8 Daniel Kearney (0-1), 12 Bill Cooper (0-1); 10 Conor Lehane (0-1), 20 Patrick Cronin (0-5), 9 Aidan Walsh (0-1); 13 Alan Cadogan (0-2), 15 Patrick Horgan (1-7, goal and six points frees), 14 Luke O'Farrell (0-1). Subs: 21 Brian Lawton for Walsh (49 mins), 23 Darren McCarthy (0-1, one 65) for Kearney (51 mins), 25 Paudie O'Sullivan for Walsh (57 mins).
Referee: Barry Kelly (Westmeath).