Two weeks out from the championship the team with the most persuasive form won their county’s first league in seven years at Semple Stadium, overpowering Cork whose hopes of ending a 24-year wait were resoundingly rebuffed.
f there is a growing lobby backing Waterford’s All-Ireland credentials, this will have added further weight to those beliefs. It was an empathetic and indisputable win.
The leading player was Stephen Bennett who scored 2-11 and his second goal was a phenomenal show of power and aerial strength, winning a Waterford puck-out cleanly, powering forward and firing a low shot that flashed past Patrick Collins in the 48th minute to open up an eight point lead.
In the last seconds Robbie O’Flynn struck a consolation goal for Cork which gives us some measure of Waterford’s dominance.
That they won with Austin Gleeson, the hero of last weekend’s semi-final win over Wexford, missing though suspension, makes the display all the more noteworthy.
Bennett came into the team and filled the void, the top scorer in the league giving an outstanding man of the match performance.
They could afford Dessie Hutchinson having a relatively quiet evening, yet he still dealt the mortal blow with their fourth goal, set up by Carthach Daly, who did a fine job in the middle of the field where Darragh Fitzgibbon couldn’t repeat the performance he gave a week earlier against Kilkenny.
Hutchinson’s goal came in the 64th minute when Cork had managed to stick a few scores together, three without reply, to reduce the gap to just four points.
Hutchinson’s goal ended that comeback and sent Waterford on the way to a deserved victory, their supporters in the 18,930 attendance ignoring appeals to stay off the field as captain Conor Prunty was presented with the cup.
Waterford had too much power for Cork and never let them get their running game into full flow, and were also a bigger goal threat, with their first two goals coming in the space of a minute ten minutes before half time.
The first was beautifully worked, with Jack Prendergast picking out Mikey Kiely who offloaded to the exceptional Patrick Curran and he fired past Collins.
Cork hadn’t time to process that shock when Neil Montgomery was the provider for Bennett on the overlap and he flashed the ball past Collins to open a six point lead. Cork had drawn themselves level at 0-7 a piece shortly before.
Shane Barrett had a goal attempt saved by Shaun O’Brien two minutes later, before three Cork points from Patrick Horgan (2) and Robbie O’Flynn reduced the gap to a goal.
But Waterford finished the stronger side, closing out the first half with three points from Prendergast, Montgomery and a Bennett free after Collins was forced into surrendering possession and Cork committed another foul under severe pressure.
Ominously, the Waterford interval lead, 2-10 to 0-10, was accumulated without much input from Hutchinson who didn’t register a score.
Cork used Conor Lehane as a roaming forward in the first half, leaving Horgan and Alan Connolly inside.
But Connolly had little impact with Waterford defending in numbers and physically overpowering their opponents and was taken off at half time, replaced by Kingston who did well with three points.
The Cork attack couldn’t find the openings they needed and Waterford set up a huge defensive wall.
Conor Prunty and Calum Lyons were restored to the team along with Bennett and the team looks in excellent shape, with Gleeson to return.
They will open their Munster championship campaign with a home match against Tipperary in Walsh Park in a fortnight.
Cork will have their hands full the same afternoon when receiving Limerick in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, having already defeated the All-Ireland champions in the league but a less finished article than the one they expect to be facing in two weeks.
The league has served Cork well in stabilizing the team and rebuilding confidence rocked by their hefty All-Ireland final defeat by Limerick last August. But this defeat stalled that momentum and shows they still have some way to go.
From the opening night win over Clare, marked by characteristically unbridled Cork movement and high scoring, to the semi final win over Kilkenny a week ago, when coming back from a poor start and six-point deficit, the rehabilitation has been neatly choreographed.
They made three changes from the win over Kilkenny, Sean O’Donoghue and Tim O’Mahony starting in defence, and Seamus Harnedy preferred in attack to the team manager’s son Kingston.
O’Mahony was one of their top players and Sean O’Donoghue also did a fine job on Hutchinson for the most part.
Whether or not they had met with a team playing with the kind of thunder that obliterated Wexford a week ago was another matter.
Waterford hadn’t won a league since 2015, but it’s a wait that doesn’t come near to qualifying as a famine in that county.
The most relevant yearning is traced back to 1959 and their last MacCarthy Cup win. Ballygunner’s win in the club championship, a first for the county, has unavoidably raised hopes that this carries good omens for the county this summer.
The work of the management fronted by Liam Cahill has also a sense that this is the year in which a delivery is most favorably timed.
An All-Ireland final appearance in 2020 drew attention to that promise, but Limerick pricked some of that confidence when winning well in the rematch last year.
Waterford are building a strong squad and formidable power is evident throughout the field, with Tadhg De Burca’s return from injury adding a huge presence defensively and Hutchinson offering a lethal attacking edge.
Waterford took a six-point lead to half time, 2-10 to 0-10, and while Cork had come back from that deficit against Kilkenny they couldn’t muster the same response.
Cork and Waterford will meet again in Walsh Park in the Munster round robin on May 15. By then we can only imagine how much the hurling landscape will have changed.
Scorers: Waterford – Stephen Bennett 2-11 (0-9 ass); P Curran 1-3; D Hutchinson 1-0; J Prendergast 0-3; N Montgomery, C Daly, DJ Foran 0-1 each. Cork- P Horgan 0-10 (0-8 fs, 0-1 65); R O’Flynn 1-3; S Kingston 0-3; C Lehane, S Barrett 0-2 each; D Fitzgibbon, S Harnedy, T O’Mahony 0-1 each.
Waterford: S O’Brien; S McNulty, C Prunty, C Gleeson; C Lyons, T de Burca; J Fagan; D Lyons, C Daly; N Montgomery, P Curran, J Prendergast; M Kiely, D Hutchinson, Stephen Bennett. Subs: Shane Bennett for Kiely (57); K Bennett for Montgomery (64); P Mahony for Daly (66); B Power for Curran (69); DJ Foran for Prendergast (72).
Cork: P Collins; S O’Donoghue, D Cahalane, C Joyce; T O’Mahony, M Coleman, R Downey; D Fitzgibbon, G Millerick; R O’Flynn, S Barrett, S Harnedy; C Lehane, A Connolly, P Horgan. Subs: S Kingston for Connolly (ht); C Cahaalne for Harnedy (43); J O’Connor for Lehane (48); S Quirke for Millerick (57); M Keane for Barrett (65).
Referee: L Gordon (Galway).