Mullane's eye for goal rescues Waterford


Waterford 3-15 Limerick 3-14:THE CIRCUMSTANCES weren’t exactly promising for this Munster hurling semi-final between champions Waterford and Limerick.

The counties’ most recent meeting two years ago hadn’t – to put it conservatively – ignited the summer, and yesterday’s weather made it a difficult day for hurling, earlier rain leaving a treacherous surface that played a role in a few scores.

There wasn’t huge expectation among neutrals given that Limerick had spent the spring in Division Two and the power of Tipperary didn’t suggest that reaching the Munster hurling final would necessarily leave yesterday’s winners on the verge of silverware.

For half an hour such pessimism appeared entirely justified. Then yesterday’s provincial semi-final erupted and produced out of nowhere a cracking contest, swinging one way and then the other before, with the match in injury-time and the outsiders leading by two, John Mullane turned a late, desperate siege of the Limerick goal into the precious goal necessary for the narrowest of wins.

It was hard luck on the losers, who had picked up their game so radically after half-time and twice took what looked to be potentially decisive leads. In the end, they were undone by a combination of inexperience and carelessness, not taking their chances and at the other end coughing up some easy scores.

Before the match, Waterford had to switch David O’Sullivan on from the start, as Richie Foley failed a fitness test. Limerick goalkeeper Nicky Quaid lined out with number 16 on his back, as his standard white jersey clashed with the opposition.

For 10 minutes the match ebbed and flowed competitively.

A ninth-minute penalty award for Waterford was taken by Paudie Mahony, but saved by wing back Gavin O’Mahoney, who deflected the ball for Séamus Hickey to sweep around and clear.

The reprieve didn’t last long. Four minutes later Tony Browne hit a free down to Mullane whose marker, Tom Condon, slipped and the former cut in from the right corner – where he was switching in rotation with full forward Shane Walsh – and finished to the net.

Waterford were just that crucial bit cleverer than Limerick. They adapted better, alternating between a two-man full forward line and a conventional deployment and leaving Michael Walsh playing orthodox centre back until, ironically, he had to drive a fire brigade to the edge of the square, whereupon Browne adopted the deep-lying role that Walsh had played last season.

By then, though, the threat from rookie Limerick full forward Kevin Downes, giving fellow debutant Wayne Hutchinson a jittery time, was so real an enhanced defensive alignment seemed justified.

For nearly the whole first half Waterford’s half-backs, Browne, Walsh and Kevin Moran, were well on top and nothing of value was getting through to Downes, Seán Tobin and Graeme Mulcahy.

What opportunities arose were often snatched at and the wides accumulated dispiritingly for the challengers. Waterford pushed on and the scores mounted.

Another debutant, Paudie Mahony, who ended his day with seven points, including three from play and a Man of the Match award from RTÉ, hit a 32nd-minute free to put the champions six ahead, 1-7 to 0-4.

And when James Ryan wriggled through at the far end only to strike haplessly wide, Limerick’s prospects – along with the contest – looked to be dying.

The dying minutes of the half, however, restored some excitement. Brian Geary and the indefatigable Donal O’Grady combined to send wing back Wayne McNamara steaming through on a run from deep. He checked, cut inside and drove the ball into the net. O’Grady added a point and suddenly the pace of the match accelerated.

Waterford could have had two goals in injury time: Brian O’Sullivan, another useful newcomer who bagged a couple of points, got in on goal but was hustled off by Condon, and Mullane shot rather optimistically and the ball was saved.

The three-point interval lead, 1-9 to 1-6, didn’t last long on the restart. Geary, who had struggled with the surface in the first half before finding his feet, nailed a long-range free within two minutes, then Paul Browne landed a long ball in for Downes who turned Hutchinson and fired to the net.

O’Grady and Graeme Mulcahy added points and six minutes into the half Limerick had turned the tables to lead by three.

Back came Waterford. Shane Walsh, who worked hard up front all afternoon, was able to exploit defensive uncertainty in the 43rd minute, scoot in, taking the ball up to under Quaid’s nose, and slide in the equalising goal.

The match became an old-style, end-to-end contest and, ironically, two of the counties with the most carefully devised systems were uploaded into a far more random programme. Limerick’s centrefield of O’Grady and Browne imposed themselves and the half backs tore into the breaking ball, McNamara especially forceful.

The match was tilting back towards Waterford when Downes struck again in the 51st minute. Darragh Fives slipped, Downes powered in and, with Noel Connors closing in him, the Limerick forward belted in his second goal to make it 3-11 to 2-12.

Immediately Michael Walsh moved into full back and stemmed the flow, emerging with the ball from the first two tussles with Downes. Waterford recovered once more and the match was level on the hour.

Surely Limerick had made the decisive break when replacement David Breen drove up the field from wing back and hit the lead point in the 67th minute and Niall Moran (who ended with four points but an equal number of wides) doubled the lead.

Eoin Kelly came on for an eventful few minutes at the end, strangely opting to go for goal from a free engineered by himself and Kevin Moran. It was, however, Limerick’s failure to clear the ball after it had been blocked that provided both Kelly and Waterford with the chance of redemption.

He got possession in the left corner and rifled the ball cross-field to Mullane, who somehow retained the pass and blasted the shot into the net off Condon.

Injury time had just seconds left and yet Limerick might have had a free in the frantic closing minutes.

Instead, referee Barry Kelly blew his whistle, a long exhalation matched, you’d imagine, by all Waterford supporters.

WATERFORD: 1 C Hennessy; 2 D Fives, 3 W Hutchinson, 4 N Connors; 5 T Browne, 6 M Walsh, 7 K Moran; 11 S Molumphy, 19 D O’Sullivan; 12 M Shanahan (0-2), 9 S O’Sullivan (0-1), 10 P Mahony (0-7, four frees); 14 S Walsh (1-1), 13 J Mullane (2-2), 15 B O’Sullivan (0-2). Subs: 18 J Nagle for Hutchinson (55 mins), 21 S Prendergast for Shanahan (59 mins), 25 E Kelly for Mahony (67 mins). Yellow cards: S Walsh (29 mins), Hutchinson (53 mins), O’Sullivan (55 mins).

LIMERICK: 16 N Quaid; 2 D Reale, 3 S Hickey, 4 T Condon; 5 W McNamara (1-0), 6 B Geary (0-1, free), 7 G O’Mahoney; 9 P Browne, 8 D O’Grady (0-3); 10 J Ryan, 11 R McCarthy (0-3, all frees), 12 N Moran (0-4); 13 S Tobin, 14 K Downes (2-1), 15 G Mulcahy (0-1). Subs: 18 D Moloney for Reale (58 mins), 24 P Tobin for McCarthy (64 mins), 23 D Breen (0-1) for S Tobin (66 mins), 20 M O’Riordan for Browne (71 mins). Yellow cards: Reale (8 mins), McNamara (18 mins), O’Mahoney (27 mins).

Attendance: 15,650.

Referee: B Kelly (Westmeath).