THE THING WE know about Waterford is that if they’ve spilled their drink, they’re always eager to refill the glass.
They dropped it all over the front of their pants at the top of the auditorium in last year’s Munster final against Tipperary.
Now, they’re back up at the microphone. As they tend to do.
They got their voice back after the 2008 All-Ireland final humiliation by pushing Kilkenny close in the 2009 All-Ireland semi-final.
Tipperary burst their net seven times in last year’s Munster final to win by 21 points, shortly after they beat Galway by double figures in the back door. In a final four clash with Kilkenny a few weeks later, they made the Cats look vulnerable and panicky as the game wore on.
The point being: you know they will fight back. Just as they were beaten in their first three league games — and that included a 2-15 to 0-31 reverse to Tipp — and looked set for relegation, they bounced back. John Mullane and, to a lesser extent, Eoin Kelly returned in time to save 1A status. (How unusual that neither Eoin Kelly will start in the 2012 edition of this rivalry.) What was common about those blowouts in 2008 and 2011 was that, rather than playing their own game, the Decies worried too much about the opposition.
They wanted to rough up Kilkenny four years ago and, in hindsight, it was a laughable thing to do against such a hardy bunch of bucks. Against Tipp, Davy Fitzgerald loosened the Brick from centre-back and handed the game to the then All-Ireland champions.
It should have been up to Tipp to move Michael Walsh out of that six slot with their movement, instead the Déise did the hard part for Tipp. With titles on the line and these Money Mayweather-types in the opposing corner, Waterford have come out with their gloves hanging down by their sides. Open but still trying to move forward. Early knockouts were always on.
Because of the pain from last year’s hiding, few expect Michael Ryan’s men to give anything but a passionate performance. But once they storm passes, it’s hard to see past the better hurlers prevailing. Unless, of course, Tipperary’s troubles in the full-back line cost them goals. Because up until now, the Premier have conceded just one goal in two Munster championship games against Limerick and Cork; Limerick had their chances, so too did Cork — neither took them.
Mullane will, given the chance. As he did against the Treaty last year when defeat was impending, and as he has done in the past. That he will be in direct competition with what has been the least convincing line of Tipp’s team this year gives Waterford a real chance.
Conor O’Brien will start at number two but he, like Paul Curran and Michael Cahill (two reigning All Stars), left the house open to attack on a number of occasions in Páirc Uí Chaoimh as they did in Thurles before that. O’Brien was badly caught under a couple of high balls so, should Mullane be shadowed by the Eire Óg Annacarty man, we expect plenty of crossfield switches in their direction.
Paddy Stapleton — who has man-marked the De La Salle man regularly in recent years — is back in the Tipperary squad for their first time this year so either he or Donagh Maher may be called in should Tipp have trouble across this sector. If Mullane is not firing, it’s hard to see how his side can regain the Munster Cup.
Kevin Moran, Seamus Prendergast, Stephen Molumphy, Tony Browne and Shane Walsh all have the experience and quality to drive the county but having lost so many star names in recent seasons, ostensibly it seems the gap is growing between them and Tipp.
This is the fifth consecutive year in which Waterford have met their Munster rivals in championship action, and the gap has been widening. Davy Fitz led his side to a surprise win in the 2008 All-Ireland semi-final: 1-20 to 1-18. Since then, Tipp have won by four points (2009), seven (2010) and 21 (2011).
Noel McGrath has been devastating in recent clashes at 11 but perhaps Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher — the reigning player of the month — may present an even bigger handful. He presents a different, less subtle problem for Brick — there is no defender who enjoys relentless pace and power running at them.
Tipperary’s Conor O’Mahony clears the danger. ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan
Then, for Declan Ryan, that is the beauty of having such a diverse array of forwards. Whereas against Limerick his side were almost left behind because they picked a forward line consisting of too little pace, now the mixture of pace, ball-winners and intelligent playmakers gives the Decies myriad issues.
Earnest as the Waterford forwards will be, they will have to hurl beyond themselves to wrest this away from Tipperary. Maurice Shanahan was one of the few forwards to excel when he came on in this fixture last season, Shane Walsh carries a goal threat and Mullane is, well, Mullane.
However, if he can’t load the bullets, the game will slip away as it did last year. After last year’s Munster final, Tomás Mulcahy made a big point of saying Mullane was starved of ball in the game. In truth, Waterford as always looked for him at every opportunity. On more than 20 occasions, in fact.
He won frees in the sixth and ninth minutes that Pauric Mahony converted, was involved in a score for Browne in the 20th minute, got a point himself in the 50th minute, and also hit two bad wides. Not to mention that he kept the ball moving on a couple of times.
However on 15 occasions he was unable to use the ball under pressure from marker Stapleton, with it either taken away from him or broken away to safety. If the ball was not in Mullane’s hands, Tipp were usually able to get it back.
The feeling is that the flying forward must rip Tipperary apart to keep this game alive, at which point Waterford will have a chance. And they’ve shown great mettle in tight games. Think Limerick last year, Clare and Cork in 2010, Limerick and Waterford the year before.
Much of this article has been about how Waterford can bridge the six-point handicap available ahead of this game, but let’s look at why Tipperary should win:
Because Lar Corbett immediately looked a goal threat (albeit as a creator) against Cork on his return, Bonner will turn the Waterford defence and open gaps, Shane McGrath looks to be back on form and his partnership with Brendan Maher can be key, Conor O’Mahony is in All Star form, John O’Brien is fielding ball better than anyone in the game, and because there is so much firepower to come on against a defence that will tire under this pressure.
There was seven goals in it last year, seven points might be closer to it this year. But beware the Waterford dog that’s looking to atone.
No one expects that trend to continue in 2012 but there are significant issues for Waterford. Brick continues to be one of the their and hurling’s best centre-backs but Tipperary have recently exposed his loose marking.