Waterford rise to stunning challenge

 

At its most pure, this great field game makes the rest seem irrelevant. On a balmy day in March, the hurlers of Waterford came to Nowlan Park and were met by a team who ran in perfect rhythm.

For 15 beautiful minutes, Kilkenny hurled as if in a dream, all incisive ground strokes and fluid running. For that period, the match gushed like easy poetry, unblemished by a single free.

Kilkenny had chalked up 1-7 without reply after 24 minutes and the crowd, all 16,000 of them cooing like this was July, settled in for a rout. And yet at the close, it was Waterford's Tony Browne, back from exile, who jauntily floated the point that iced the victory and it was Waterford roars that reverberated through the province. Therein lie the bones of the story.

"It's as good as the best we've ever won," Waterford boss Gerald McCarthy would say later, staring down the shaft of four years growth.

As the opening sequences unfolded, all he could do was watch as his team, leaden-footed and sullen, chased wraiths. Kilkenny's Stephen Grehan, at centre forward, was on fire from the first puck-out, rifling an early point and then, two minutes later, poaching a goal after Peter Barry set him free.

From there, Kilkenny briskly set about tearing their guests asunder. Minute five and Henry Shefflin reels around Tom Feeney and fires a point. From the puck-out, Kevin Power lofts another. Charlie Carter, scampering deep and intent on mischief then steps up to nail a brace of scores before McEvoy delightfully taps another, cutting towards the sideline before letting fly.

All Waterford could do in response was float hopeful balls which Eamonn Kennedy, Sean Meally and Peter Barry ate up and returned with gusto. A goal and six points to nil and Kilkenny had hardly drawn breath.

Waterford stole back the momentum in the last eight minutes of the half.

Faced with the early fury Peter Queally had thundered about tirelessly and Brian Flannery, just returned to the team, stood apart. His block after 10 minutes on Ken O'Shea, who was lining from for a close-range strike, kept the heart ticking in Waterford and after the break, when the visitors discovered a ferocity of their own, he was the chief catlyst.

When Dan Shanahan landed a solid point the score seemed to rouse Waterford from the nightmare. Paul Flynn sniped a free after 29 minutes and then added two more. It was 1-9 to 0-4 at the break and when McCarthy checked, he found at least the traces of a pulse.

Forty minutes later, Kilkenny boss Brian Cody, sun-flushed and gracious, reckoned that those few scores had winded Kilkenny more than Waterford's torrential second-half revival. "I was quite concerned at half-time because we had them on the ropes and didn't build on it," he said. Perhaps in the quiet of that half-time interlude, the Kilkenny lads sat on the bench and reflected on the wonder of their early magic. And maybe uneasy images crept in. Carter half-fluffing a goal chance after 15 minutes. Ken O'Shea imperiously plucking a Grehan pass just minutes easier and cracking wide with the goal's mouth wide and inviting. Grehan and McEvoy torching downfield and shredding the Waterford half-back trio.

James McGarry, cool and deft and unbeaten. Eamon Kennedy, holding down centre back with brilliant fury. So many precise and thrilling touches. And yet not quite out of sight. Perhaps they felt a lashback was inevitable. Yet they could not have guessed its extent.

Flynn stirred the possibilities with a few frees and even though McEvoy crafted another acute score from play for Kilkenny, the visitors were now beginning to buzz. Flynn cracked another free and then, to a rising well of noise, Tony Browne appeared on the field. Within seconds, he had rifled his first shot and the revolt was on.

Shanahan and Ken McGrath, central in Waterford's resurgence against Wexford two weeks ago, were again the ringleaders. Bigboned and wilful, they, along with Queally and Johnny Brenner, turned the tide of possession and sparked life into the attack.

After 46 minutes, Shanahan directed a low ball for McGrath to convert, leaving matters at 111 to 0-9.

Cody sprung three quick changes and Kilkenny might still have broken free; Shefflin frilled a point then Grehan, coltish and promising, freed Carter only to see Brendan Landers parry the resultant shot.

McGrath blasted another point and then, with 10 minutes remaining, Flynn steadied himself and cracked another through the haze. A goal between them and the home faithful fell quiet. The visitors, brimming with belief, took just seconds to rectify the imbalance. Michael White whipped a pass to the free-running Browne, he shot on the spin and Shanahan sent the rebound crashing home.

By the time John Power came trundling on, Ken McGrath had fired Waterford into the lead and then Flynn stepped up to break hearts from 70 metres. With three minutes left, Kilkenny were two points adrift and lightheaded, like the rest of us, at the turn of things.

Carter bravely arced a reply but Waterford were beyond argument at this stage and Browne, with a dramatist's sense of dramatic endings, took a flick from Shanahan and brought the curtains down with a flourish.

WATERFORD: B Landers; S Cullinane, J O'Connor, T Feeney; S Frampton, F Hartley, B Flannery; P Queally, J Brenner; B Henley, K McGrath (0-3), B Walsh; D Bennett, A Kirwan, P Flynn (0-9, five frees, two 65s). Subs: D Shanahan (1-1) for B Henley (19 mins); B O'Sullivan for B Walsh (25 mins); M White for B O'Sullivan (half-time, inj); T Browne (0-2) for F Hartley (45 mins).

KILKENNY: J McGarry; J Butler, S Meally, N Hickey; R Moore, E Kennedy, P Barry; A Comerford, P Mullally; K Power (0-1), S Grehan (1-2), B McEvoy (0-3); H Shefflin (0- 4, three frees), K O'Shea, C Carter (0-3). Subs: N Maloney for K O'Shea (50 mins); M Kavanagh for R Moore (50 mins); JP Corcoran for K Power (50 mins); J Power for P Mullally (64 mins); J O'Neill for JP Corcoran (66 mins).