Waterford suck Limerick in and then pull away to reach final

The defending league champions were ruthless and efficient in Thurles

Waterford 3-23 Limerick 1-18

Im the 56th minute, Barry Nash struck a beautiful point on the turn to leave Limerick trailing by just three points and feeling relatively optimistic about life. In the remainder of normal time, they were outscored by 1-6 to 0-1. Both counties produced injury time goals but it was the swiftness and decisiveness with which the reigning league champions pulled out of sight which left its mark on this curtain-raiser. This is Waterford 2016. They suck teams into unfamiliar places and then they go to work.

For a young team on the rise, Waterford have become exceptionally good at ignoring the distractions and to trust in what they are about. This return to the league final was shaped by the huge influence of senior players Michael Walsh and Kevin Moran and by the flawless positional play of Darragh Fives. But young Shane Bennett, after an arid first half, went to town when given a deeper, freer role, Brian O'Halloran really hurt the Treaty county with his strong, direct running through the heart of the field and Austin Gleeson, once again captivated the crowd. Patrick Curran finished with 1-10: the lone point from play was a sublime strike over his shoulder from close to the sideline near the Ryan stand. His day ended slightly early when he picked up a second yellow in injury time but by then the contest was well finished.

Limerick had come here intent on matching their opponent's defensive diligence and for the first half, they went toe-to-toe and led 0-12 to 0-11. Still, there was a vague sense that Waterford were probing and testing for breaks in the Limerick defence. The first warning bell sounded in the 37th minute when Gleeson broke through the cover to force a brilliant save from Nickie Quaid. Curran levelled the match from the 65 and then Waterford rattled three well-worked points from varied sources - Moran, Fives and Curran again. Now, Waterford had pushed three men up front and changed the terms of engagement and in the 42nd minute Bennett came charging through on goal, forcing a trip on Richie McCarthy. He converted his penalty and suddenly the league champions were in command.


The first half was claustrophobia in the sunshine during which the sides were level nine times. Curran landed five frees: Limerick's sharp-shooter Ronan Lynch was on his tail with four. Waterford had Darragh Fives, in as a late replacement for Shane McNulty sweeping in front of Limerick's two-man full-forward line. Stephen O'Keeffe did not have a save to make. At the other end, the chief reason behind Waterford's goal drought became apparent. They weren't getting the ball into their forward line at all and so Bennett had a lonely half hour playing deep, shadowed by Richie McCarthy. Colin Dunford advertised his lethal speed with two crisp early points but spent much of the half down mine as well, dropping back to tackle and forage for ball. In the 26th minute, Fives saw Dunford making himself available as he looked to clear from deep: the long cross field ball was slightly overcooked and Limerick's corner back Seanie O'Brien came at speed to make the interception. His shot was wide but the moment illuminated the dangers of Waterford's backs- and-forwards game. When it breaks down, they become vulnerable.

That said, they seldom looked less than assured. The blocking from both teams was first rate all through but the tackling and intensity less so. The half was lit by powerful runs from the respective centre-backs, with Austin Gleeson drawing a general gasps of wonder from the crowd with a shimmy at full speed- only to drive his shot wide under little pressure. Limerick forward Tom Morrissey found enough breathing space in the crowded middle third to work three tidy points as the half settled into a catch-and-shoot exchange. Neither county had either gained or lost anything at the break.

So it must have been demoralising for Limerick to experience just how decisively and smoothly Waterford moved into a different realm. The scoring burst of 1-5 after half time was a mortal blow but they responded bravely, keeping in touch with frees from Ronan Lynch and a fine strike through a crowded midfield from Ton Condon. Then came Nash's gorgeous contribution but before Limerick could contemplate making a strong push in the final quarter, Waterford had them reeling again. The sharp pressure on Limerick's puck-out and short-ball clearances; the movement up front; the relentless work: it all takes its toll on opposition teams. The second goal was surgical in quality: a clever ball threaded through to Walsh who supplied a killer pass for Curran to fire home from close range. Gone, in a puff of smoke. The champions return to defend their title with a sense of self-assurance and know-how that bodes well for their summer. Derek McGrath is adamant that his side are a work in progress but they know their mind and their game plan and look a good bet to enjoy a long and interesting summer season. They have the stuff of history about them.

Waterford: 1 S O'Keeffe; 2 S Fives, 3 B Coughlan, 4 N Connors; 18 D Fives (0-1); 5 T de Burca (0-1), 6 A Gleeson (0-3), 7 P Mahony; 8 J Barron; 14 J Dillon; 10 K Moran (0-1), 12 M Walsh (0-1), 15 C Dunford (0-2), 13 P Curran (1-10, 7 frees, 2 65s), 11 S Bennett (1-03). Substitutes: 22 B O'Halloran (0-1) for C Dunford ( 48 mins), 9 S McNulty for 2 S Fives (55 mins), 24 T Devine (1-1) for J Dillon (59 mins), 23 P Mahony for M walsh (65 mins), 19 S O'Sullivan for K Moran (67 mins).

Limerick: 1 N Quaid; 2 S O'Brien, 3 R McCarthy, 4 R English; 5 P O'Brien, 6 D Byrnes (0-2), 7 R Lynch (0-7 frees); 8 G O'Mahony, 9 P Browne (0-1); 11 J Ryan (0-1); 10 G Hegarty, 15 T Morrissey (0-3), 12 C Lynch; 13 B Bash (0-2), 14 K Downes. Substitutes: 21 J Fitzgibbon for G Hegarty (48 mins), T Condon (0-1) for S O'Brien (50 mins), D Hannon for K Downes ((59 min), 25 S Dowling (1-1, 2 frees) for P O'Brien (61 mins), 23 G Mulcahy for C Lynch (65 mins),

Referee: B Kelly (Westmeath).

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times