Waterford braced for fresh battle with old tormentors Kilkenny

Cats historically dominant but in recent years the balance has tilted the Deise’s way

On Sunday, for the first time in four years, Waterford will take on Kilkenny in the Allianz Hurling League.

The reallocation of counties into two Division One groups – plus Waterford’s 2018 relegation – has kept the counties apart but they go into this weekend with qualification for the semi-finals on the line.

Waterford are all but there unless they both lose and suffer a 53-point swing in their scoring differential with Dublin, who play Laois. Kilkenny however need a draw to keep Dublin out and could be overtaken by Mattie Kenny's team if the latter win in Portlaoise.

This season marks 25 years since Waterford returned to Division One of the hurling league, which marked the beginning of the county’s most sustained run of competitiveness at senior level.

The similar period between 1938 and '63 saw the county win five Munster titles and two All-Irelands but in two-thirds of the seasons when they didn't end up as provincial champions they failed to win a single match.

Since 1998, Waterford’s record has been one of consistent challenge even if the county hasn’t managed to add to its two All-Irelands. There have been four Munster titles and in the age of back doors and qualifiers, 14 All-Ireland semi-finals (plus a replay) – a figure surpassed during the period by only Kilkenny.

Waterford have lost their top-division status on just two occasions, 2014 and 2018. Both times they bounced straight back into Division One – and each season reached the league final a year after relegation, winning their third title in 2015

Their relationship with the neighbours has been intense in championship, as they have encountered each other disproportionately for counties from different provinces.

Over the past 25 years exactly half of their most successful seasons – when they reached an All-Ireland semi-final – have ended in defeat at the hands of Kilkenny.

In the league the rivalry has also been intense but, reflecting an era when Kilkenny had an outstanding team – 11 Liam MacCarthy Cups – the 19 meetings have divided 12-7 in the Leinster county's favour.

Recently the balance has tilted. Since Kilkenny won the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final replay in Thurles there have been two league and two championship meetings. Kilkenny's only win was in the 2018 AHL. For the first time in their history Waterford have won successive championship encounters, in 2017 and 2020.

Waterford v Kilkenny: five from 25 years

1998 All-Ireland semi-final: Kilkenny 1-11, Waterford 1-10

“We are deeply disappointed, but we have a young side and we have a lot of potential. There is a new pride in Waterford hurling and we have marvellous supporters. You haven’t heard the last of this team by any means,” – Gerald McCarthy, who managed Waterford that year to a Munster final, which was lost to Clare after a controversial replay. Having availed of the new championship system to defeat Galway, the county ended up in a semi-final against Kilkenny.

2004 All-Ireland semi-final: Kilkenny 3-12, Waterford 0-18

"I let everyone down: the team, my family, the people of Waterford. I would have loved to have played out there but I am happy I didn't go to court. If you do the crime, you serve the time and the GAC [Games Administration Committee] were right at the end of the day," – Waterford forward John Mullane, whose refusal to avail of funds to challenge in the courts his suspension for being sent off in the Munster final after lashing out under provocation was praised in the match programme by then GAA president, Seán Kelly.

2007 League final: Waterford 0-20, Kilkenny 0-18

“We’ve been down for so long, getting beaten by Kilkenny for donkeys’ years so our supporters are entitled to that. The players will enjoy it but we won’t get carried away. I’m delighted for the supporters. You are living so close to Kilkenny city the rivalry will always be intense. We have one up on them. This week anyway, but the league thing is over now,” – Waterford’s Ken McGrath greets the county’s first league title in 44 years.

2008 All-Ireland final: Kilkenny 3-30, Waterford 1-13

"I will not blame the boys one bit whatsoever. They're good lads. They've given 10 years of unreal hurling, some of them guys and there's a lot of young guys coming on. It's important that the Waterford people give them support. They've worked hard, trained hard and trust me, that arena outside there is the hardest place to be when things aren't going right for you," – David Fitzgerald got Waterford to an All-Ireland final – at last – but they had the misfortune to run into peak Kilkenny, who completed a first three-in-a-row for the county in nearly 100 years.

2017 All-Ireland qualifier round 2: Waterford 4-23, Kilkenny 2-22

“Well, yeah, the 58 years thing was spoken about. We referenced it last Monday, when the draw was made. Then we just turned all the focus to the play. We felt that might have burdened some teams over the years, concentrating on the whole 58 years thing but this group have come on in terms of their whole approach, I don’t think they’re fuelled by that any more,” – Derek McGrath had taken Waterford to two All-Ireland semi-finals that ended in defeat by Kilkenny, one after a replay. Finally, they defeated their neighbours in championship for the first time in 58 years.

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times