Hurling & Camogie

Gráinne McElwain: Munster magic gives hurling fans something to roar about

Resurgent Waterford making their presence felt in absorbing provincial tussle

Gráinne McElwain

Gráinne McElwain

Grainne is a columnist with The Irish News. She is a sports broadcaster with experience working with Sky Sports, TG4, RTÉ, BBC and Eir Sport.

Michael Kiely of Waterford gets a handpass away while under pressure from Robert Downey and Ciaran Joyce of Cork during the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Round 1 match between Waterford and Cork at Walsh Park in Waterford. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Waterford's win over Cork in the opening round of the Munster SHC has marked them a serious contenders for the provincial title and pile the pressure on the Rebels (Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE)

I remember the first time I fell in love with hurling. It was 2003 and I had left my full-time pensionable job as a teacher to move to An Rinn in Waterford to work for Nemeton TV productions as a sports researcher.

Monaghan was not a hurling stronghold and while we watched the All-Ireland final in my house every year, growing up, we never went to one. It was therefore a culture shock at the time, driving down and seeing the kids with their hurls and sliotars instead of a ball, which I was more used to.

My role as a researcher took me on my travels to work on the now renowned TG4 series Laochra Gael and it was here that I learnt about the greats of the game and hours were spent watching games and logging them.

I loved it and as luck would have it, I went out filming the various series, meeting these heroes, the likes of Tipperary’s ‘Babs’ Keating and John Leahy, Offaly’s Brian Whelahan, Wexford’s Tony Doran and Kilkenny’s Angela Downey.

It was insightful speaking to them about the games and hearing their thoughts on them all.

It also helped that Waterford were in their pomp and living in Dungarvan, you were surrounded by nothing but hurling talk. It was the era of the rivalry of Waterford and Cork and I still remember my first time going to Semple Stadium in Thurles and the roar.

I wasn’t from either county but that tribal roar from the crowd as the teams came out, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

The heroes of that time were the likes of Dan Shanahan, Paul Flynn, John Mullane, Ken McGrath, Joe Deane, Brian Corcoran, Diarmuid O’Sullivan and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín.

There was a crossover in my mind as to what I was researching and what I was witnessing. That those past heroes had once graced the fields like the current stars did and that one day, a new set of players will become the next generation’s heroes.

It’s the circle of life. If you are lucky enough to be good enough to play for your county, you wear the jersey and you leave it behind you, hopefully in a better place for the next person.

Munster hurling is special but it is no more special than what we see in the Ulster or Connacht football championships or even the Leinster hurling championship.

The reason that the Munster and Leinster football championships have been devalued for many is because teams are not of a similar standard.

There is no contest or hope that the underdog can win on a given day.

As a result, there is not the same connection when that sense of jeopardy is gone.

That lack of tribal roar had been missing for Waterford and Cork teams in recent times. Both have not been going well and I think that also comes from not knowing what they stand for.

Waterford played a very defensive system in the League while Cork grappled with inconsistency. What identifies them as a team? What is their playing style and when it comes to Cork, where is that Corkness and rebel nature? It has been missing far too often.

Fast forward 21 years and I was privileged to be standing on the sideline for GAAGO as Cork came to Waterford to the refurbished Walsh Park for round one of the Munster Hurling championship.

Aaron Gillane and Ronan Maher
Aaron Gillane of Limerick is tackled by Ronan Maher of Tipperary during Sunday's Munster SHC match at the Gaelic Grounds Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile (Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

Cork had beaten Waterford the year before by nine points and all the talk leading up to the game was the lack of interest by Waterford fans in getting tickets.

Davy Fitzgerald was under pressure, the players were under pressure to deliver a performance.

Many felt it was only going to go one way but it didn’t. Waterford gave an attacking display of the ages and beat Cork to win only their third game in 17 matches over four seasons against the Rebels. The delight and relief was palpable.

Cork were hammered for their lacklustre display and Clare came to Supervalu Páirc Uí Chaoimh for round two of the championship with points badly needed by both.

Over 37,000 people came to see these two teams in action and Cork found their Corkness and we heard the Rebel roar.

The work rate that had been missing, the panache of goals returned with Patrick Horgan rolling back the years with 2-10, 1-1 from play but defensively they struggled and the red card to Seán O’Donoghue was the turning point.

Clare won to reignite their Championship season while Cork have Limerick and Tipperary to come. They need to win both games but the Limerick game in particular is a tough task.

I travel back to Waterford this Saturday a lot more familiar with the kids and their hurls along my journey and look forward to seeing their contest with Tipperary.

The challenge for Waterford is to back up that win. Tipperary were very poor against Limerick so you would expect an improved performance from them. Can Waterford now deal with the hype?

I expect to see a lot more Waterford fans descend onto Walsh Park. Winning helps with this and, for all the talk of Cork or Tipperary being the third best team in Munster, perhaps Waterford will put a stop to that this weekend.

There may not be the same roar yet from the Waterford supporters of times past but what all fans are looking for, is something to roar about.