Hurling and camogie

Born-again Waterford pose a threat but Limerick have the game to win All-Ireland Hurling final

Austin Gleeson produced his best hurling this season in the All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny. Pic Philip Walsh.

All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship final: Waterford v Limerick (tomorrow, 3.30pm, live on RTE2 and Sky Sports)

THE BRAND new Hogan Stand opened for the first time when Waterford met Kilkenny in the 1959 All-Ireland final. After a replay, Decies skipper Frank Walsh climbed the pristine steps to accept the Liam MacCarthy Cup on behalf of his county.

Kenneth Wolstenholme, of World Cup 1966 “they think it’s all over… it is now” fame, commentated on the game for the BBC.

Sadly, Covid-19 regulations mean there’s no chance of “some people on the pitch” tomorrow even if born-again Waterford end their long wait for a third Liam MacCarthy 61 years on from their last success.

The finals of 1963, 2008 and 2017 have come and gone since 1959 but hope springs eternal in a county that went through 2018 and ’19 without winning a single Championship game and, after their thrilling win over former masters Kilkenny in the semi-finals, Liam Cahill’s resurgent side will sprint onto the hallowed turf tomorrow with form and confidence behind them.

To equal the feat of the men of ’59, Tipperary native Cahill’s exuberant young outfit must take down a Limerick side determined to regain the title they lost last year after victory in 2018 and the idea that Waterford would get to this stage to challenge them would have been laughed at 12 months ago.

The Decies were at arguably an all-time low when Cahill – fresh from guiding his native Tipperary to a second All-Ireland U20 title - was tempted to take over from Paraic Fanning. That title was Cahill’s third national championship success at underage level after he’d taken Tipp to the All-Ireland minor crown in 2016 (Limerick were the beaten opponents in that final).

After being appointed Cahill cleared out some high-profile names and has since been able to rid Waterford of the inferiority complex that dragged them down. He has also enticed a new level of commitment out of an obviously talented, but under-performing, group.

A little luck with injuries has helped too. Waterford have been able to field a settled team all season and have improved game-on-game. In Munster, Cahill’s men beat Cork to set up a final clash with a Limerick side that had scored heavily in wins against Clare (0-36) and Tipperary (3-23).

Limerick had dominated their recent Championship meetings. In 2018, their Munster clash was over at half-time and last year the Treatymen again wiped the floor with Waterford in a men-against-boys non-event that stretched the Decies’ wait for a Championship win to eight games. It finished 2-24 to 10 points.

The League meeting this year was much tighter and Waterford were expected to close the gap further in the Munster final but they did much more and pushed Limerick all the way in a titanic struggle. Perhaps complacency was an issue in the Treaty ranks? If it was, it will have been banished from the players’ heads that day because it took brave blocks from Kyle Hayes and Sean Finn to keep Waterford at bay before Limerick emerged with a 0-25 to 0-21 win.

Battle raged on the middle third in Semple Stadium that day. It was an intense war zone in which the Decies took on Limerick in furious skirmishes for puck-outs and breaking ball and the men in blue and white did not flinch. Limerick didn’t either of course and their bench strength and physical strength made the difference on the day.

“I just thought we got muscled out of a lot of the ruck ball and we just didn’t attack the breaking ball the way I think we’re capable of,” said Cahill after the four-point loss and you can bet he’ll have worked on that aspect since.

His side bounced back impressively in the Qualifier against Clare. With Stephen Bennett his inspirational self, it was two early goals from Dessie Hutchinson that laid the platform for a comfortable win but the Decies seemed to lose poise and confidence when they met old rivals Kilkenny at the semi-final stage.

The Cats led by seven at the break but some direct, heavy metal hurling from Waterford transformed the game in the second half. Stephen Bennett, again outstanding, found the Kilkenny net, Waterford ruled the midfield, Austin Gleeson produced his best hurling of the year just when his county needed it and the Decies won by four points to set up tomorrow’s mouth-watering decider.

Waterford’s resurgence is the story of the Championship but Limerick’s form and style has made them a treat to watch this year.

After taking out big-hitters in Clare and Tipp in Munster they were tested in the final, but John Kiely’s men stood up to that Waterford examination and came through it. Then, with back-to-back Munster titles in the bag for the first time in almost 40 years, Kiely redrew the battle lines, this time for an All-Ireland semi-final challenge from Galway and his team were severely tested once again.

With Joe Canning giving an exhibition of ball-striking from the sideline, the Tribesmen matched their near-neighbours from north of the Shannon for three-quarters of the game. Canning’s loss to injury was a blow to Galway but Limerick could, and should, have won more convincingly.

Tom Morrissey (0-6) stood tall and Limerick scored 20 points from play but 16 chances went a begging and Galway goalkeeper Eanna Murphy made some terrific saves. Getting over the line is all that matters in a semi-final but Limerick will know they need to be more ruthless tomorrow.

The Treatymen’s gameplan is well known by now. They play a short, passing game through the lines and, after running them so close in the Munster final, Waterford will feel that they can get in their faces and disrupt their rhythm by winning individual battles.

The underdogs will have learned a lot from the previous meeting, but so too will Limerick and it is worth noting that the Decies only scored 12 points from play in that provincial decider.

If Waterford bring the same intensity they will make this a terrific contest but the experienced Treatymen – so well-drilled and comfortable in their method – will be hard to shift and they give the impression that they will be able to find a way around whatever system is put in front of them this evening.

Limerick get the nod to win and bring the curtain down on an unforgettable season.

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