OUR HERO: Waterford’s Shane Bennett is congratulated by fans in Walsh Park after Waterford defeated Galway in their final Allianz NHL group game. Photo: INPHO/Ken Sutton
NHL Division 1B: Waterford v Galway: The Big Match Review
Let’s hope the rain stays away in May. And the hail. And the sleet. And the snow.
The weather was so bad in the first half that the Waterford walking wounded took shelter up in the press box. “Ye have it handy up here!”
Some of them also joined the queue for the half time tea and sandwiches under the stand. Who would blame them on a day like this?
With Munster championship just two months away, Walsh Park was dressed to impress. The view was crystal clear from the press box, not a spec of dirt on the windows. The local and national media were also asked for suggestions on how to improve things for the summer, a small gesture but one that widely appreciated.
The pitch stood up to a rigorous examination both pre-match and during the 82 minutes of hurling. Lightening didn’t strike twice, it was perfectly playable this time. The first six rows of the stand were absolutely saturated however. It wasn’t a day for the bank either with many looking for cover beneath the TV tower.
Paraic Fanning is also prepping for championship. He has viewed 33 players in five 1B trials.
On this occasion, the Ballygunner quartet got a chance to fit into the short style that he prefers. Stephen O’Keeffe had to get his puckouts away pretty fast. Peter Hogan took Thomas Ryan’s place up top. An onerous task but he got stuck in during the second half. He hounded down Cathal Mannion in the build-up to a Shane Bennett’s point, won a free off Sean Loftus and assisted that late, late goal of course.
Taking an overview of the campaign so far, giving the Bennetts a consistent run of starts as part of a three-man full forward line has paid off handsomely. Shane is like a new signing. A change of scenery has benefited Kevin Moran while Jamie Barron continues to blossom no matter what the season. It’s coming together.
The brothers from Ballysaggart have accounted for 54 per cent of Waterford’s spring total. 6-57 out of 14-98. 3-53 for Stephen, 3-4 for Shane.
The Waterford matchwinner was taken down for five frees, four of which Stephen converted. No wonder his white shirt was plastered in mud.
Aidan Harte eventually got a yellow card seven minutes into the second half. He should have got one earlier when he pulled across Bennett as the number fifteen advanced on goal before Jack Grealish finished the job. No card or no free from David Hughes on that occasion.
On 38 minutes, he shot his first point. He also poked that sideline ball towards Jamie Barron. That clip has over a 100,000 views at this stage. He stretched every sinew to direct the sliotar into the net on 74 minutes and was limping heavily as he got back to the dressing room. He gave his all again for the jersey.
Stephen has played every minute of every game. Shane McNulty is only other player to do so. He burned Ronan Burke in the early exchanges, striking two from play. He didn’t let two missed frees affect his confidence. He got eight of them, including five in the second half. This has been his best spring since joining the senior panel.
Kevin Moran is no longer a captain but still plays like one. Like many others, 2018 was frustrating for him and he admitted as much in an interview with the Examiner before the league started. “Last year, I just found it very hard. Just wasn’t playing well, had a few bad games. Struggled for form, struggled for confidence and even after all these years you still want to be playing well.”
The 32 year old can still carry a team on his back. He nearly inspired an unlikely win in Parnell Park with two second half points and was instrumental again in Sunday’s turnaround.
He has got a new lease of life at right half back. Stephen O’Keeffe used him as a puckout target in the first half on three occasions. His strength under the high ball and smart use of possession helped the comeback effort. He was involved in both of Pauric Mahony’s points and was fouled after making another high fetch.
This is his fourteenth league campaign but he remains as valuable as ever. A Waterford warrior.
He had a strong case for hurler of the year in 2017 as did Jamie Barron. Shane Bennett’s sideline wasn’t the only piece of quick thinking. In the fifth minute, the Fourmilewater man tapped a free to Stephen Bennett who did the rest.
His ability to move from back to front, his footwork in tight situations and his scoring threat were all on show here. He also made an important block on Sean Linnane when there was only a point in it. The complete midfielder.
Fanning was at pains to point out the significance of Waterford’s first half performance. They made hay in the sunshine.
The puckout plan was clear: get it away as quick as possible. As soon as Niall Burke’s shot cleared the crossbar in the third minute, Stephen O’Keeffe had a new ball in hand and restarted the game straight away. David Hughes allowed play to continue.
Into that breeze, Waterford worked it up through the lines with short hand or stick passes before putting it into grass in front of the Bennetts and Michael Kearney. The template for the summer.
It was nine minutes before O’Keeffe had to go high and Joe Canning won a free off it. The ball was lost again from the next long puckout and Jason Flynn goaled. Waterford lost three out of four in that period. Galway squeezed up and O’Keeffe had to pause for thought. He found Moran with three of them but it wasn’t as straightforward. That contributed to Waterford’s second quarter struggle. They didn’t score from the seventeenth minute onwards. Still, seven points into that storm was five better than Galway managed.
It can’t be that bad on May 12. Surely.