Friday, July 06, 2007

Déise To Handle Meaty Treaty

Ahem. Munster final tickets procured. And not take-your-chances-with-this-cataclysmic-weather terrace tickets either. The stand, no less. Ahem.

So what kind of Munster final will it be that I have robbed a ticket from a long-suffering Limerick hurling disciple for? What kind of game will the nonagenarian of failing health, whose only wish is to see Limerick win a Munster final before he passes on, be watching on the television? Will it be a classic, the final that the kid who spends every waking moment with his hurl in his hand dreaming of being like Andrew O'Shaughnessy will not get anywhere near?

Enough remorse? Good.

Limerick remain located in the happy, carefree kennels in which the underdog generally resides. They won the hearts of many with the moxie they displayed in coming back so often against Tipperary over the course of that riveting trilogy, and by the end of the third match had developed a force of will that Tipp were unable to quell. But despite growing as a team and finally putting that six-year winless run in the Munster Championship behind them, Waterford can rightfully expect to be considered a superior force.

Not that superior mind you. Rather like Liverpool in the Premiership, Waterford have inveigled their way into being included in "the top three" even though they haven't remotely looked like challenging "the top two" for the only honour that matters. In a hurling parallel to the Three Tenors - Pavorotti, Domingo and the other one - Waterford might share the stage, but there is no doubt who the heavyweights are.

Setting aside Sunday for a moment, many have invested great hope in Waterford this season, seeing them as the only realistic contenders to challenge that Kilkenny-Cork duopoly. However, having watched those latter two last weekend, neither look particular eager to allow the Déise county a slice of the action that has seen the last five All-Irelands greedily hoarded either Noreside or Leeside.

Still, a couple of provincial wins over Cork in recent seasons (including in the classic 2004 final - if Sunday's is half as good I'll care not a jot for expiring nonagenarians and teary-eyed urchins) and a general sense of being just short of at least getting to the céilí mór in September have made their cause a popular one to champion.

The view that this season is a case of "now or never" for Waterford is also a common one, however. With established stars like Paul Flynn, Ken McGrath, John Mullane, Eoin Kelly and Dan Shanahan reaching and passing various stages of maturity, it is probably fair to regard this Waterford side as being at its peak. There has been a self-possession about their two biggest performances this season - the league final win over Kilkenny and the Munster semi-final disposal of Cork - that suggest the many years of hard knocks have provided lessons well learned; a comparison with Armagh on the cusp of their All-Ireland title in 2002 is not too far off the mark.

For all Limerick's fire and brimstone (and to be fair, in the early part of the third Tipp game there was some magnificient hurling in evidence as well), their physicality and ability to prevent themselves being outhurled by making the game narrow and combative, Waterford would have regarded them as an eminently manageable obstacle had they been asked their opinion before the season's start.

Limerick have consistently enjoyed the momentum of positivity throughout the championship so far, due to their outlandish comebacks and also the fact that Tipperary's internal squabbles highlighted their opponents happy state of mind. But Waterford are in a different place than Tipp; beating Kilkenny and Cork over the space of a few months can only breed confidence. If they are men enough to handle Limerick's brawn, they should have the belief to take them through.

And hopefully the nonagenarian will pull through for another year at least.

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