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3 May 2007 Edition

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The Matt Treacy Column

Waterford far from spent force

I have always had a soft spot for Waterford hurling, partly based on reading and hearing about them from the 50s and 60s. According to my father and uncles, their trademark was fast ground hurling and the ability to run up large numbers of goals. Times have changed and nowadays ground hurling is little favoured by any team over the age of 10, and Waterford in recent years have sometimes rued missed goal chances in crucial games.
Waterford also have a huge well of sympathy around the country, based on their stylish play and the fact that the hurling revolution might appear to have been finally suppressed by the feudal oligarchs of Cork and Kilkenny without leaving them a coveted All Ireland. They have also been participants in probably three of the four best games of recent years, including last year’s heartbreaking semi final defeat against Cork.
Last Sunday proved that Waterford are far from being a spent force, and that the fact that some of their best players may be approaching the end of their time has acted as a spur to ensure that they give it one more right lash. They will also be mindful that, while winning their first senior national title since 1963 is a huge achievement, 1963 also saw them go down to the Cats in the All Ireland final. That would have taken the gloss off it. This year’s league will be a distant, if treasured, memory by High Summer. The McCarthy is the only prize truly worth having and it would be a fitting reward for this team.
What was notable about last Sunday was that Waterford won the type of game that they have often lost. They allowed Kilkenny to dominate the start of the second half and go three points ahead. They managed to pull that back, before seeming to develop another mental block which saw them squander chances and allow the Cats to come back and lead again.
But instead of ending up on the wrong side of another classic, Waterford dug deep and their big names, especially John Mullane who had been frustrated for most of the match, stood up. Seamus Prendergast put them ahead and, even when Henry Shefflin equalised at the death with a free, they kept their heads and two points, one from Eoin Kelly and another from Prendergast, secured the victory.
There are curmudgeons who frown on anything more than a polite smile and a cup of Bovril as the correct way in which to celebrate winning the league, but you could hardly begrudge Waterford their joyous outpouring. Not only had they won something of substance but, in doing so, they had beaten their neighbours the Cats. Who, it has to be said, as ever took their beating in good heart – as evidenced by Brian Cody’s handing over of the ball for a sideline cut as the game ebbed away, rather than throwing it impetuously away or dropping it. Jose Mourinho he is not.
Another reason I am fond of Waterford is that I used to hurl with a young fella called John Keane whose uncle of the same name had won an All Ireland with Waterford in 1948, beating Dublin as it happened. He was one of dozens of kids who were recruited to hurling by my father and Paddy Purcell, who organised anarchic matches nearly every night during the summer out in the fields in the middle of the estate.
My Da and Paddy were great believers in hurling as some sort of genetic thing and were greatly impressed by John’s antecedents and, in fairness, he went a good way to confirming their Mendelian prognosis. Why then they thought it made any kind of sense to hand sticks to a gang of Dubs was a mystery, apart from those of us who had the blood of Tipp and Kilkenny coursing through our veins! Proof that genetics is not after all an infallible science.
They were mad games in which a full suit of medieval armour would not have gone astray. We stylists – that is, those of us who had played in school or with a club and were familiar with, if not wholly competent in, some of the basic crafts of the game – protested vigorously at the unorthodox tactics of our opponents. I recall once being subject to an assault that one hopes rarely takes place outside of a central Asian prison. The Da, who only ever enforced the rule about picking the ball off the ground, was oblivious to – not to say mortified by – our whinging.
He even thought it was great craic when a chap called Pajo arrived up with what looked like the leg off an antique chest of drawers, all the hurleys having been taken or already broken across someone’s legs. The one thing about Pajo’s ‘camán’ was that it seemed impossible to break and by jaysus we did our best. As indeed he did himself. It was certainly the place to either forge one’s devotion to hurling or decide that maybe crocodile wrestling was a preferable leisure pursuit.
Some of the graduates of the Greenhills Academy of Hurling went on to greater things, including playing for Dublin. If you bear with me! A good number went on to join clubs and God help us some are still togging out, even if it is only to keep warm on the sideline. It is certainly true to say that hardly any of them would have played the game had it not been for the Da and Paddy.
Anyway, what brought it all to mind was Waterford and wondering who it was that handed John Mullane or Dan Shanahan their first stick. Whoever it was deserves a grant. Maybe the GPA will take up their case .....

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