Adopted Rebel Howlett firmly
behind Cork
crusade

HALF a world away from New Zealand, he still can’t cheer for a team in green and gold. All Black legend Doug Howlett had many a Bledisloe Cup clash with the Wallabies: he knows a rivalry when he sees one.

Hence the New Zealander’s enjoyment of Cork’s Munster semi-final win over Kerry. Based in Cork while he plays for Munster, Howlett quickly appreciated the hold GAA exerted in his new home.

“The first thing that struck me when I came out of Cork Airport when I arrived was the big statue of Christy Ring — that emphasised for me just how big the GAA sports are here.

“Cork being my local town while I’m with Munster, I decided to follow the local teams in hurling and football. And with the Munster squad everybody’s got their own team, so it’s obviously more fun when you’ve got your own team and your own opinions. And I’m aligned with Cork.”

His commitment means just one thing for his teammates: ammunition.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of banter about everyone’s GAA team. Denis Leamy is a big Tipperary fan while you’ve got plenty of guys from Limerick cheering on their sides.

“As a sportsman you appreciate what these guys bring to their sports — the footballers’ kicking skills and fitness levels, obviously. I just enjoy being part of the crowd.”

Given the number of high-pressure games Howlett has played over the years at all levels, being just another spectator must be a welcome change.

“Exactly. That’s what I really enjoy — somebody else is putting on the show, not Munster, and it’s the other side of sport. I can sit back and enjoy the occasion and relax with a cup of tea — and have an opinion on the game.

“I got to the Kerry game down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh — I’d heard of the history between the teams, and the lads with Munster said it was definitely a game worth going to, and I really enjoyed it. I met a few of the Kerry lads as well, and they’re a good bunch. But I can’t support two teams.

“I’d seen the drawn game, and that really added to it, that there was so much at stake. The replay was a great game, as they all are at this stage coming into the semi-finals.”

As has been pointed out many times in the past by others, Howlett was struck by how suitable many GAA players would be for rugby.

“Of course — coming from a country which has rugby as its major sport, and where athletes are pushed into rugby, I can see that here it’s much more diverse, and you have three or four different sports athletes can choose from.

“Looking at GAA athletes, they’re well suited to rugby, it’d be interesting to see them with a rugby ball and how they’d do.”

The star winger has his favourites on the Cork side, but rules out taking up hurling any time soon.

“I like Graham Canty a lot, he’s a real workhorse that leads from the front and doesn’t slow down for the entire game, he’s one player I enjoy watching.

“If I were playing Gaelic football myself … I don’t know, I think I’d be able to get on the ball, but then it’d be a question of what to do with it after that! I’d see myself up front, or maybe midfield — though I mightn’t have the height for midfield.

“Hurling? I don’t think so — hurleys are often brought out at Munster training and I’m well put in my place by the likes of Denis (Leamy) and Tomás O’Leary.”

Howlett hasn’t lost focus when it comes to the day job, given it’s getting to a stage in the year when thoughts are turning to rugby — at all levels.

“We’re back with Munster and ready to go, a lot of the pre-season work is done, and we’ll be ready for the new season.

“There’s a pretty good start to the season today actually in Highfield, with the Meteor Munster Sevens tournament. That’ll be a good day out for rugby fans.”

And tomorrow? Is the Kiwi Cork fan going Upper Hogan or Lower Cusack?

“I don’t have a ticket for tomorrow actually,” he says. “I’m a bit cheeky, I’m hoping to wait for the final.”

Waiting for the final? Sure you’re not a Kerry supporter?

Spicy starter before Cats’ main course

LAST Wednesday, I rang a pal who’s seen more than his fair share of inter-county training sessions with a proposition.

“I’m thinking of heading to Nowlan Park,” I said. “I wanted to see Kilkenny training, would you be interested in coming along?”

The answer was instantaneous: “When can you pick me up?”

Kilkenny training sessions have gathered a certain mythology in recent years, with whispers about practice games that don’t resemble hurling so much as the TV show Deadliest
Warrior, in which Viking berserkers take on Samurai warriors and so forth.

When we landed into Nowlan Park, however, there was no raw meat strewn on the pitch; enemy heads weren’t stuck on pikes at the gateposts either.

The players were stretching and warming up, and then broke into a running drill; manager Brian Cody then spoke to the players in midfield before they divided into two full teams in green and blue jerseys.

My travelling companion was
impressed: “The warm-up isn’t that structured, but that’s not surprising — these lads are on the go so long that management obviously trust them to do the right thing.

“For the game they have 15-a-side and two players who can come in as subs, not to mention those three — Power, Larkin and Tyrrell — doing rehab. That’s good because it’s a full game and space will be tight enough.

“If the players approach it in the right way, then they don’t have a chance to develop bad habits, which they would if it was only 11 or 12-a-side.”

We can tell you: the perception that Kilkenny play training games with sabres and nunchucks rather than
hurleys is wrong. They don’t.

But it’s still spicy. TJ Reid arrived into Tommy Walsh’s orbit with a hefty shoulder before the ball was even thrown in, which leads one to ponder: if Tommy gets the láimh láidir in training games, why bother replicating the same in a championship match?

Later on, ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick was left stretched on the ground after one collision and JJ Delaney clearly didn’t
appreciate a hurley being flicked across his facemask as he came up the sideline. TJ Reid was mauled from pillar to post as he tried to escape two markers but the only call was “steps”. From a defender.

The appeal fell on deaf ears. When we say Brian Cody refereed the game, we mean he blew the whistle to start each half, though for appearances sake he also gave a free for overcarrying.

The large crowd’s view of proceedings was also interesting: Noel Hickey got a rousing cheer when he cleared the first ball, but spectators didn’t seem too happy when the ball was handpassed around the middle or short puck-outs taken; they warmed to the longer, crisper deliveries.

My pal pointed to a couple of small things.

“When a player breaks a hurley he goes and gets a replacement himself. Now in a match, Kilkenny would have someone running the line with players’ spare hurleys, so in that sense this isn’t quite like a competitive game.

“But on the other hand, it just shows that the players take responsibility for what they’re doing themselves — it’s ‘get on with it’ rather than holding anybody’s hands.

“And you can see that attitude if someone gets a belt or a shoulder — nobody comes over to them. Unless they’re actually down injured, they’re expected to get on with it.”

After about 22 minutes of the game, Cody whistled for half-time.

The players assembled around him in the centre of the field, listening
to instructions.

The intensity went up a notch when the game resumed, with a few flicks that weren’t scrupulously well-aimed, to put it mildly; tactically it was noticeable that players often
eschewed a clear shooting opportunity from distance to find a better-placed colleague.

The second half lasted about as long as the first, and the players took on fluids for a few minutes before trooping to a far corner of the field for more running.

Many of the several hundred observers in the stands had left by then, having clearly come to see the game, so they missed the last drill. The backroom staff marked out a circuit of two-thirds of the playing area and the panellists ran around it — sprinting 30 metres, then jogging 15 before running another 30 metres and so on.

When each player — goalkeepers included — had done 20 30-metre runs, the session finished with a warm-down lap.

All in all, the session took about an hour and 20 minutes.

“That was a good session,” said my co-pilot.

“What impressed me was the players’ attitude — they’re there for work and there’s no messing.

“But a few small things also helped it run smoothly, things that maybe people wouldn’t pick up. The young fella behind each goal hitting back the sliotars — that speeds things up. Using jerseys for the mixed match saves time as well, there’s no big delay handing out bibs.

“There weren’t huge bags full of sliotars used, either — I’d say there wasn’t a dozen sliotars used in the whole session. And when it’s over, it’s over — there’s no staying out for frees or shooting practice. Obviously that work can be done on your own time.”

One session isn’t a representative sample, of course. There may be evenings when the fare is so torrid that farmyard animals are sacrificed on the 65-metre line, and there may be evenings that become watered-down, pallid non-events.

However, we’d be fairly sure that the sight of Brian Cody and his
selectors carrying off the equipment themselves at the end of a training
session is a common sight.

The same goes for the spontaneous invasion of the Nowlan Park pitch at the close of training.

Dozens of kids poured onto the turf to emulate their heroes and reenacting what they’d just seen; the future of Kilkenny hurling, plain for all to see.

Contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie; Twitter: MikeMoynihanEx

Nightmare leads to dream final

IT’S ON. Tipperary and Kilkenny will meet in the All-Ireland final, and for all sorts of reasons hard-wired into the DNA of both counties, both counties will be glad.

The Cats would rather beat Tipp than any other county to win four-in-a-row. And Tipperary, more than anybody else, would want to be the county to put a stop to their smoothly-purring gallop, if we can cross species for metaphorical purposes.

Cut us some slack. After yesterday’s mismatch we’re looking for consolation anywhere we can get it. Tipperary beat Limerick back to the Stone Age yesterday in a game that didn’t make it to the 20th minute as a contest.

The final score was 6-19 to 2-7, or at least we think it was. The scoreboard operator ran out of light bulbs with 10 minutes to go as we entered a realm of fantastical numbers familiar only to Stephen Hawking. Or maybe Liam Carroll.

It’s our own fault. For the last couple of weeks we were talking Limerick up like Canadian investors looking over an Allied Irish Bank prospectus, and we’re not the first to discover that the value of investments can fall as well as rise.

There had been a lot of confident asserting that, based on their history, Limerick heads wouldn’t drop if Tipperary jumped out an early lead, but yesterday’s collapse was on a par with Dublin a couple of weeks ago, another side to find themselves smothered as they defended Hill 16.

Clearly somebody tore up a fairy fort at the Railway End when the pitch was relaid after the U2 concert, and that somebody needs to put it back.

Limerick paid tribute to Waterford’s largely successful template against Kilkenny early on yesterday, pulling players back the field, with David Breen out in the middle, Seamus Hickey picking up Seamus Callanan, and Brian Geary loose between the two defensive lines.

However, they took their homage a step too far when Stephen Lucey replicated Aidan Kearney’s first-half error last week. Lucey misjudged a routine delivery right down the middle and the ball ran through to Eoin Kelly behind him. Alone. Twenty metres from goal.

What do you mean what happened next?

On fourteen minutes Lar Corbett left green jerseys twisting in his vapour trail and placed Noel McGrath for a forehand smash to the net; two minutes later Mark Foley dallied for a heartbeat too long on the 21-metre line and had his pocket picked in front of goal by Pat Kerwick, who finished with extreme prejudice.

At the end of the first quarter, then, Limerick were three goals behind and the game was dead as Dillinger.

The score was 3-8 to 0-4 at half-time and Tipp added a further 3-11 to their total after the break.

“We missed a few chances and we were on the back foot after 20 minutes,” said Limerick boss Justin McCarthy afterwards. “By half-time, realistically, as a contest the game was over. At half-time we thought we could come back as good as we could, but it was a big hill to climb at that stage.”

Tipperary manager Liam Sheedy was delighted with the win, but he wasn’t gloating in the immediate aftermath.

“Anyone watching sport would know that that wasn’t Limerick today. I feel for Justin and the lads. It’s happened to me as a manager a few times — nothing happens for you and it doesn’t work out, and Limerick had one of those days.

“There’s big guys in that dressing-room, there’s character in that dressing-room and have no doubt they’ll be back. That just wasn’t their form.”

True enough. But to throw some business jargon into the mix, for Tipperary going forward, the poverty of Limerick’s challenge yesterday means that questions remain for Sheedy and his management team.

For instance, we all expected Tipperary to fade a little in the second half, as they’ve done in previous games this year, and when Limerick burgled a couple of goals the Premier’s mini-hiatus seemed to have arrived right on cue.

At least it did until Lar Corbett buried another two goals within seven minutes. Does that mean the second-half slacking-off problem is solved?

Tipperary’s half-forward line has been criticised for disappearing in recent games, with Seamus Callanan in particular being fingered for vanishing into a phone booth and re-emerging in his civvies rather than a cape and tights. Yet he was also available for the Corbett pass Noel McGrath finished to the net in the first half, and he slipped into splendid isolation on a couple of other occasions as well, scoring fine points in the second half.

At the other end of the field Sheedy’s deployment of Padraic Maher on the edge of the square worked well, but when your team wins a game by 25 points, how much pressure has your full-back been under?

Expect something different on September 6th when Kilkenny take the field.

“They are the team,” said Sheedy. “And rightfully so. They’ve earned that over the last four years. It’s no fluke they’re going for four-in-a-row.”

And it’s no fluke that Kilkenny’s appetite for work has burnt itself across the retinas of the pretenders. Lar Corbett testified to that after the game.

“I don’t think that work-rate would win an All-Ireland on September 6th,” said Corbett, whose personal contribution was a spectacularly lazy 3-1 from play. “We know what Kilkenny are doing to teams year in, year out. We’re under no illusions.

“We see Kilkenny do it year in, year out – the man in the best position gets the ball. That’s it. Today the man in the best position got the ball and if you start from that you’ve a chance of winning any game.”

Eudie Coughlan had a succinct comparison of the up-and-coming Kilkenny side he and his Cork team-mates beat in 1931. They were coming in, he said, and we were going out.

Kilkenny were not the blood and iron regiment of 2008 against Waterford in this year’s semi-final, and as the year goes on the men in blue and gold look more and more like an irresistible tide. But are Tipp really coming in this year? Are Kilkenny really going out? Questions to savour.

Anything to put yesterday out of the mind: those familiar with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane will remember the scene in which Kane’s girlfriend makes her opera-singing debut; the camera tracks upwards from the stage to a pair of stagehands far above, listening to her murder the aria from Salaambo. One stagehand simply looks at his comrade and then holds his nose.

There was a lot of that going around yesterday.

Myths
dispelled but legend only grows

WHERE did your
preconceptions about Waterford-
Kilkenny start and end last weekend?

A few myths went by the wayside on Sunday in Croke Park. We decided we’d have a look at them.

Hurling is gone all tactical now, it’ll never be as good again: anyone who thinks that tactics never played a part in hurling should check the
oxygen content on their planet’s
atmosphere. Puck-out plans, creating space and playing the percentages
under the dropping ball have always been part of hurling.

What’s noticeable now is that teams are playing to patterns, with space
being closed down deliberately in
defences.

If you don’t like them apples, wait around — you’ll see a coach come up with a way to overcome those
patterns. That’s sport.

You can only beat Kilkenny by playing an extra defender: The
dividend in playing an extra player at the back against the Cats is in keeping the scoreline down, not in winning the game.

Credit is due to Waterford boss Davy Fitzgerald for not playing that particular game last weekend, as it would surely have resulted in an extra marker for John Mullane, for instance, and choked the Déise attack.

Davy’s team set up in a withdrawn formation instead, with the players up front retreating 20 metres backwards for Kilkenny puck-outs and forcing PJ Ryan into a couple of short puck-outs, just as the Cats did to Cork in the 2006 final.

That made sure Waterford had
bodies in the forward line when they broke upfield and had passing options which helped them to score.

Third myth: Tommy Walsh is one dirty player:

Walsh picked up a first-minute yellow card last Sunday, as did his marker, Eoin McGrath.

The sanction is always a heavier burden for a defender, however, as it means one mistimed tackle or loose challenge can be catastrophic.

Walsh, who has come under
scrutiny this season, contributed
handsomely to Kilkenny’s win,
including the killer ball for Henry Shefflin’s goal.

Given the plethora of cameras and commentary surrounding inter-county games these days, it’s hard to see how any ‘dirty’ player would survive the keen eye of the media in the first place, but that’s something for another day.

Waterford are an aging team and getting older: one of last weekend’s teams had two starters from the 1999 season, but it wasn’t Waterford.

Henry Shefflin and Michael
Kavanagh of Kilkenny have had a decade at inter-county level, while Tony Browne was the only starter for
Waterford who played that year.

Granted, Browne’s career goes five years further back than that, and if Ken McGrath hadn’t been injured, may have started instead, but surely that hangs up the whole last-year-for-the-Déise talk, a riff that’s been played for much of the last decade.

The four in a row is a formality for Kilkenny now: Not so fast. Kilkenny’s graph hasn’t been as smooth as it was last year, when their form rose inexorably through the
semi-final against Cork to a crescendo against Waterford in the final.

They have suffered from the loss of Noel Hickey in particular at the back, and if it wasn’t for a certain H.
Shefflin up front they might have even lost last Sunday.

None of which, of course, is proof against the chances of an irresistible performance in the All-Ireland final. It’s just that those chances look
slightly more remote than they did this day last week.

Henry Shefflin is untouchable: on the quarter-hour last Sunday, the Kilkenny talisman went for goal from a 21-metre free when his side were two points up. It was saved.

The disastrous implications of the missed free were dissipated somewhat when Shefflin pointed a free two
minutes later.

We’re exaggerating slightly there, of course.

What we can’t exaggerate is the aura that now surrounds the big Ballyhale man; the surprise in the fact that his choice of target didn’t work out last Sunday is proof of that.

Some myths eventually become fact.

Contact:
michael.moynihan@examiner.ie
twitter: MikeMoynihanEx

Cats pass gut-check, Mayo don’t

WRIST ACTION: Waterford’s Shane Walsh gets to grips with Kilkenny’s JJ Delaney in the All-Ireland SHC semi-final at Croke Park. Picture: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE THUMBS UP: Kilkenny manager Brian Cody on a job well done. Picture: David Maher/SPORTSFILE NET RESULT: Meath’s Cian Ward celebrates scoring a penalty against Mayo. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

MORTAL after all? Waterford put last year’s All-Ireland final behind them yesterday and put it up to Kilkenny in the All-Ireland hurling semi-final, and though the Cats had five to spare at the finish, the game was alive to the very end, contrary to general expectations.

All of Noreside must be waking up this morning swaddled in relief that Henry Shefflin, though born in Waterford, is a Ballyhale man to the core. Doubts about Shefflin’s place in the pantheon dissipated years ago, like the smoke at a pontiff’s election, but rarely was he needed as badly as he was in Croke Park yesterday. And rarely has a player delivered as he did.

Shefflin ended the day with 1-14, and led his team-mates through one of their toughest challenges in recent years. He converted frees, he won possession, and he scored a vital first-half goal. His manager, Brian Cody, agreed that he’d made a huge contribution.

“Not for the first time, obviously. He’s been outstanding for us on a couple of occasions when he didn’t score from play but he got a few scores.

“His workrate… everything about Henry is top class. He brings everything to the game, everything to training, everything to his life. He’s just an outstanding fella and an outstanding player. He was excellent today.”

That excellence was sorely needed. As expected, one of the sides went for the jugular early yesterday and scored a goal on four minutes to settle themselves. We just weren’t expecting it to be Waterford, when Shane Walsh produced another fine ground stroke following Kevin Moran’s mazy run.

Waterford were much better than they were last September, withdrawing downfield and inviting Kilkenny into a crowded killing zone in front of their goal. At one point Cats keeper PJ Ryan was reduced to short puck-outs to his full-back line, a development so unusual that a couple of his targets forgot to gather the ball.

Add in the fact that Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh hoovered up any ball that came into the Waterford half and carried it back upfield with that inimitable loping stride, and Waterford were doing a good deal better than okay.

Until a long ball dropped into Henry Shefflin, that is.

The man in the green helmet found another green helmet, Eddie Brennan, and Kilkenny had a goal. When the Waterford defence suffered a systems failure dealing with a long Tommy Walsh delivery ten minutes later, Shefflin found himself one-on-one with Clinton Hennessy. Goal number two.

Kilkenny were six up at the break, but there was no disintegration from Waterford. Two minutes into the second half Shane Walsh booted a goal and Eoin Kelly added a point. They had momentum, as manager Davy Fitzgerald said afterwards, but they couldn’t kick on.

“When we got them back to two points . . . the one thing we were trying to do was avoid leaving gaps at the back. We were trying to keep it as tight as we could and pull everything back the field.

“They only managed to open us up with 15 or 20 minutes to go – they managed to pull us out and brought on a few fresh bodies who got on the ball and did some damage. And you can see it happening from the sideline and you’re wondering how are you going to get the message out to them to get back into formation?”

The danger of leaving gaps at the back was illustrated by Shefflin’s seven-point haul from the 20 minutes after Waterford’s second goal, but even then the Déise refused to wilt.

A Kelly 65 dropped to the net between too many cooks on the Kilkenny line, and they still needed PJ Ryan to redeem himself late on with a reflex save from an Eoin Kelly snap shot. Breathless. Relentless. But still, when the smoke cleared, a Kilkenny win.

Davy Fitzgerald pointed out that teams are getting closer to Kilkenny on the scoreboard, and he may have offered the winners of the Limerick/ Tipperary semi-final a template to take into the All-Ireland final: to do what Kilkenny have been doing themselves for a few years, as the Clare man put it after the game.

However, the winners of Tipp-Limerick will have to reckon with Kilkenny’s appetite. Brian Cody wasn’t accommodating any suggestions yesterday that his side’s taste for glory had dulled.

“I make no bones about hunger – I never suggest that hunger will be up for grabs. It won’t be up for grabs. That’s intact. That’s there. The players who go out on the pitch and the players they represent on the sideline – there’s too much involved in that to ever give anything less than your best.”

They will also have to deal with Henry Shefflin. The big man has been King Henry in Kilkenny for some time, but on yesterday’s evidence he may need to be elevated to another stratum of royalty altogether.

FOR THE winners of Tipp-Limerick, read Meath in football. They put Mayo out of the championship in yesterday’s All-Ireland SFC quarter-final at headquarters, and now face the football equivalent of Kilkenny in a couple of weeks’ time.

They should savour this victory first, though. Compared to the free-scoring tournament-game scorelines of the previous weekend, this All-Ireland SFC quarter-final was more what you expect of a championship game, with players’ resolve being tested in a game of incremental gains.

Mayo looked to have a foot in the semi-final when Aidan O’Shea touched home a Trevor Mortimer cross to put Mayo four up with twenty minutes left, but then the game really swung.

Cian Ward goaled from a penalty to cut it to one and Meath levelled it through David Bray, but there was plenty of discussion in the stands of the sideline ball which led to the penalty. The linesman appeared to have his flag up for a throw-in when Joe Sheridan made an executive decision and booted the ball into the Mayo red zone.

Meath’s competitive fire seared Mayo from there to the end. With a minute of regulation time left, substitute Jamie Queeney drove past a static Mayo defender committing an Under 12 mistake, waiting for a pass to arrive, and the Meathman won a ball he had no right to claim. When he curled over the point there were five between them.

It’s always tempting to over-analyse the little incidents and overdo conclusions about the overall game, but that was one instance that didn’t lie.

In the hurling game yesterday there was also plenty of evidence in the thousand miniature battles around the field – namely the fact that the Kilkenny number ten won most of them.

Will Waterford marksman Eoin Kelly be pleased if they dethrone Kilkenny tomorrow — not if it doesn’t lead to an All-Ireland title, he tells Michael Moynihan

‘There’s no good in being remembered
for good matches’

FOR Waterford, the present bumped into the future in the Semple Stadium tunnel before this year’s Munster hurling final. Eoin Kelly and his Déise colleagues had watched some of the minor decider but had to go in and tog out for the Tipperary game before it finished, and they didn’t know who’d won.

“When we were coming out, we saw the minors lining the tunnel with the cup,” says Kelly.

“That was a great boost – pity we didn’t do the same ourselves – but it was great for them, and great for hurling in the county. They were written off before that game, much like we’ve been written off for tomorrow, but they went out and played their own game, and they got the win.”

Waterford may have been disappointed with their Munster final defeat at the hands of Tipperary, but the quarter-final win over Galway was a comeback for the ages. Six points down with time running out, they beat the westerners to the tape with John Mullane’s late, late point.

“Obviously it was a great win to get, and one we needed badly, but at the same time, that’s in the past as well, just like the All-Ireland final last year. If the bad games stay in the past, then so do the good ones.

“If you look back at last year Cork did the same – they got a win over Galway against all the odds, but then they were beaten by Kilkenny by eight points. So unless you keep winning it doesn’t matter.

“You don’t get anything for beating Galway – or even for beating Kilkenny. We’re not even in an All-Ireland final, that’s the way we’re looking at this. There’s no good in being remembered for playing in good matches – you play in order to win medals. You can’t say it’s a good year otherwise, and that’s the way we’re looking at the Galway game, it was a stepping stone for us, and now it’s forgotten about.”

What hasn’t been forgotten by supporters is the annihilation in last year’s All-Ireland final by tomorrow’s opponents. Kelly says he and his team-mates are looking forward: “That’s gone – Kilkenny are saying it’s gone, anyway. It’s last year now, so we can’t do anything about it. We can only look to the future and hopefully do better than we did last year in the All-Ireland final.”

He’s keen to stress the positives.

“We’ve a good panel, that’s the main thing. What we have on the bench is nearly as good as what’s on the field, which is a great boost for us. Then you have the minor team winning the Munster championship this year and the U21s being very unlucky not to win the Munster final in Dungarvan.

“People are always saying that hurling in Waterford is dead again when this team is gone, but there are some good young players there, and that drives on the older lads, the fellas who are there a good few years.

“The likes of Tony (Browne), Dan (Shanahan), John (Mullane) and myself have to work harder, and that has to be good for the team.”

AFTER the annihilation in last year’s All-Ireland final there was plenty of blame being assigned, but Kelly stands by his manager and the team’s preparations.

“Expectations are lower this time round but this is our seventh All-Ireland semi-final, and that’s not something a lot of Waterford teams could have said over the years.

“Last year we were probably nervous without even knowing it, if you like. It’s a lot more low-key this time round. The build-up last year was perfect, for the All-Ireland final, but there were one or two differences. For instance, when we ran out it was the first time that Croke Park was actually full for a game we played. That caught us. Up to that I’d have changed nothing. The preparation was perfect.

“Did we freeze or did we meet a wave no-one could stop? It could have been a bit of both, maybe. I didn’t feel nervous that day, we just met a team that nobody could have stopped on the day.”

Manager Davy Fitzgerald came in for plenty of criticism but Kelly defends the former Clare ‘keeper.

“Nobody’s perfect, but in fairness to Davy, he’ll come out and say so when he makes a mistake, and he’ll act on that. We’ve improved with every game this year and that’s down to him, he’s open to suggestions as to how we can improve. It’s good that he’s open-minded and can take on advice – and give it out. He’s improved every player on the team.”

Kelly knows there’s no great secret to what Kilkenny will plan to do to Waterford tomorrow.

“In 2004 they got three goals within about ten minutes in the semi-final against us and though we came back well they still beat us. They did the same last year in the final, those early goals killed us.

“They go for goals, and fair play to them, that’s what good teams do. We gave away soft goals in the Munster final as well but we also missed good chances for goals as well that day. You give teams three or four goals and you won’t catch them, it doesn’t matter how good you are.”

MANY people are forgetting, of course, that the All-Ireland final wasn’t the last meeting of the two teams. Waterford edged out the Cats in a tight league game earlier this season in Walsh Park, but Kelly isn’t drawing too many conclusions from that match.

“We won that day but they went on from that game and won the league. They can raise it a couple of gears, which is what sets them apart, while we hit a slump after that. We lost to Limerick, Dublin and Galway, and two of those games were at home.

“We should have kicked on from that but we didn’t. You have to keep improving, that’s the big thing for a team, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do.”

They’re underdogs tomorrow, of course. Kelly accepts that. He cites Waterford’s team spirit as a cause for optimism, however.

“The last game the odds were 3/1 against us and we overturned them, but you don’t see too many bookies going around on bicycles. They don’t get it wrong too often, we’d like to make tomorrow one of those days.

“Training has been good all year, and very good going into the Galway game. We wanted the chance to show we weren’t as bad as it looked last year in the final, and that’s driven training all season.

“We’ve been together for the last eight or nine years and we’re the best of mates with each other. We want to do well together and hopefully tomorrow will be our day in the sun.”

Dunmanway savour their day in the limelight

OUR first sighting of a Liverpool jersey yesterday on the road to Dunmanway was somewhere
between Ballineen and Enniskeane, a few miles from our destination.

It was a brand-new number with TORRES writ large across the shoulders – an important point, because later on we saw an array of jerseys that covered every era in the long history of the Merseyside club. If you could have stood someone in a representative jersey from each year – never mind decade – shoulder to shoulder it would have been a stunning panoply of the changing fashions in modern sport.

Or an illustration of the ascent of man, a Manchester United fan might
argue.

(Apologies for the lack of precision with the location of the sighting itself, Ballineen and Enniskeane are conflated in this writer’s mind like Buda and Pest: where does one end and the other start?)

All of this by way of an introduction to the slightly surreal game in Dunmanway yesterday between the local soccer team and Liverpool.

What was the most unusual aspect of the day – the neat-as-a-pin little stadium constructed for the day in the grounds of Maria Immaculata Community College on the outskirts of the west Cork town, or the thousands of supporters trooping along happily to the said stadium, most of them in red?

Or was it simply the fact that Liverpool FC were in town to begin with?

Our only real quibble with yesterday’s game was that the famous red jerseys weren’t worn by the visiting side, but round about the 2 o’clock mark it happened nonetheless: a side representing one of the great names in world soccer – hell, world sport – took to the field to play Dunmanway Town FC.

It wasn’t the Liverpool first team, or maybe even the second team; Kriztian Nemeth was the biggest name on show, and Mr Nemeth would hardly consider himself a household name even in his own household.

Still, it was Liverpool. The game itself yielded only one goal, a superb free-kick tucked away by Daniel Pacheco of Liverpool, but Dunmanway didn’t cower before the liver bird. Michael Mulconroy bustled in midfield but it was bustle with an elegant edge, and twice in the first half Dunmanway put free headers wide.

Liverpool’s fitness, as befits a professional outfit, told towards the end, and Nemeth’s feline movement and purpose caused alarm at times, but they never
really overran Dunmanway.

Towards the very end, in fact, the home side threw everything into one last attack, and a late, late attack almost threw up the most dramatic corner in west Cork since Béal na Bláth back in 1922, but Liverpool held out.

AN OBVIOUS comparison was brought to mind by yesterday’s game, however, and that was with Cork City’s desperate struggle for life over the last couple of weeks. There was a scriptwriter’s neatness to the fact that the League of Ireland side secured their future almost 24 hours to the minute before Dunmanway’s hour-and-a-half of glory, but surely the following thought must have occurred in a few spectators’ minds.

If you can get 7,000 people to a midweek challenge in the heart of west Cork, why can’t a Premier League outfit sustain itself in the country’s second-largest city, an hour back the road?

In some ways the struggle of professional domestic soccer was illustrated neatly by the game in Dunmanway. The hordes of Liverpool fans, clad in a spectacular array of red and white tops were there to see their favourite club, and the personnel didn’t mean as much the jersey.

The fact that professional soccer is on offer within an hour’s drive of most of those present doesn’t seem to impinge on those seeking the autographs of Nicolaj Kohlhert or Alex Kacaniklic (the latter’s name provided the hardest tackle of the day, incidentally, when the PA announcer made a determined swipe at announcing his introduction as a substitute).

The proximity of the Premier League is a boon to travel agents in Ireland, no doubt, but as a point of comparison with the soccer on offer around the country it’s hardly a help.

Whether that can change or not is a matter for another day – and it isn’t a concern of Dunmanway Town in any case.

They had their own day in the sun yesterday, and if those thousands heading back out of the town were throwing a thought towards the future of professional soccer in Ireland, they were probably also struck by something else: how smoothly the day went overall, and in particular how easily traffic flowed out of the little market town as people made their way home.

Given their genius for imagination and organisation, in fact, it’s worth wondering why Dunmanway Town FC isn’t given charge of NAMA, and the HSE, and just about everything else in this country. Because if anyone could find a way to do things properly, they could.

Hurling’s veterans growing old gracefully

TONY BROWNE plays for Waterford against Kilkenny this Sunday in the All-Ireland SHC semi-final. He’s 36.

Mark Foley plays for Limerick against Tipperary in the other semi-final on Sunday week. He’s 34.

In itself that’s not unusual. Many players last well into their 30s, but they tend to be goalkeepers, who don’t have the same running to do as outfield players.

But Browne and Foley aren’t just outfield players. They’re wing-backs, wearing jerseys that are synonymous with dashing players tearing up and down the wing. Aren’t the aerobic demands bigger, the further out the field you go? Shouldn’t they be sheltering in the corner-back slot?

Not quite. There’s a school of thought that holds you should go out the field rather than backward, as Irish Examiner columnist Donal O’Grady explains.

“Look at someone like Páidí Ó Sé in football,” he says. “He played midfield for Kerry, then wing-back, but as his career went on and on he ended up at corner-back coming towards the end.

“But that was over 20 years ago. Now the corner-back must be much faster, in football or hurling, because the speedy player is put in corner-forward. You can’t shove a guy back there and hope he’ll do okay if he doesn’t have pace; if you have a player like that you need to put him somewhere he won’t need huge speed off the mark, and certainly the half-back line is somewhere a player with good skills and reading can survive.”

Liam Dunne, who played centre- and wing-back himself with Wexford until he was 35, agrees wholeheartedly with that proposition.

“Definitely — you’ll survive in the half-back line longer. From my point of view, I remember when I was finishing up lads were saying to me ‘you’ll come back into the full-back line now’, and I was saying ‘when I’m gone out of this line I’m gone’.

“I knew if I went back to the full-back line I’d be taken to the cleaners altogether.”

Dunne goes one step further, suggesting that a more central role would be that much safer for a player who’s getting on in years than a station out on the wing. He sees Foley and Browne as prime candidates for the number six jersey.

“As you get older, even centre-back would suit you a bit more than wing-back. If you’re able to read the game — and the likes of Mark (Foley) and Tony (Browne) would be well able to do that — then you could drop them in there and they’d be able to do a job.

“But the difference is that Limerick have Brian Geary there, so they don’t have a problem filling the centre-back slot. However, Waterford are playing Michael Brick Walsh there, who’s a terrific hurler, but they’re missing him from the middle of the field. Tony Browne could drop in there and do the job for them.”

The fact that Browne and Foley aren’t the prototype big, brawny centre-backs doesn’t matter, argues Dunne, though he sees protecting the centre-back against a speedy opponent as vital if a smaller player is to thrive there.

“Well, when it comes to size, I’m five foot seven and a half, I’d give Tony five foot nine or so and maybe Mark is around the five ten mark!

“But the game is changing the whole time, and the challenges are different for every game. I remember ringing Liam Griffin before we played Cork in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final, for instance, and asking him what he thought I should do with a bullet like Ben O’Connor. He told me to watch the videos and prepare for him.

“I did that, but there’s no doubt that if a guy like that gets his chance and gets past you, he’s gone. That’s the bottom line — you’re not going to catch him if he gets past you, because his pace is so good.”

Even though Davy Fitzgerald is hardly likely to move Browne to centre-back now, Dunne points out that the ageless wonder did well there in Waterford’s darkest hour last year.

“I’d be worrying about the likes of those players as the year goes on, getting to Croke Park and facing the likes of Kilkenny.

“In last year’s All-Ireland final, Tony and the other Waterford defenders were under severe pressure, particularly in the first half, but he hit a lot of ball when he went into centre-back in the second half.”

Irrespective of where they line out, their old adversary is quick to pay tribute to their longevity.

“In fairness to them both, it takes huge commitment off the field to continue so long,” says Dunne, “There’s great credit due to them for having such long careers.”