Without question, since the turn of the decade, one rivalry has been the most anticipated. That is Tipperary and Kilkenny of course. However, in the early 2000’s, Cork and Waterford was undoubtedly the game not to be missed.
Time after time, classic after classic, there was little to separate these teams. Cork had Sean Og, Donal Og, the O’Connor twins and Diarmuid O’Sullivan. Waterford had Ken, Tony, Dan, Flynn and Mullane.
The narrative showed one well-drilled, structured and professional team, take on a side who hurled off-the-cuff and paid little to no attention to small things such as tactics, or defending..
Still, Waterford proved such a hinderance to the highly professional Cork outfit. In the glory age of their rivalry between 2002-2007, Cork were victorious on four occasions, while the Deise were also triumphant four times, with the sides also playing out one draw.
Here’s our ranking of the top five clashes between the sides.
5. 2003 Cork 3-16 Waterford 3-12
After a high-profile winter seeing the Cork hurlers go on strike, Donal O’Grady took over the Rebel hurlers. Pressure was at an all-time high for the Rebels to be successful. Waterford on the other hand were coming off the back of a first Munster title in 39 years in 2002.
It was the Rebels who emerged victorious from this clash with goals from Joe Deane, Alan Browne and Setanta O’Hailpin. Despite this, the true protagonist in this final was of course John Mullane. The De La Salle club man notched a hat-trick in this game, and also made a memorable two fingered salute to the Cork terrace.
This game is at times a forgotten classic.
4. 2007 Waterford 5-15 Cork 3-18
Again, controversy surrounded the Cork hurlers prior to this game. After ‘Semplegate’ saw Donal Og Cusack, Sean Og O Hailpin and Diarmuid O’Sullivan suspended, appeals lasted right until the eleventh hour. As it turned out however, these appeals were unsuccessful.
In a truly typical Waterford performance of this era, the game-plan was to outscore whatever the opposition could throw at you. In an age long before sweepers, the Deise paid little to no attention to the art of defending, they didn’t need to. Paul Flynn, John Mullane, Eoin Kelly and Dan Shanahan gave an exhibition in finishing as they landed the crucial goals here.
Despite their suspended stars, the Rebels were just inches away from securing a replay here at the death of the game.
3. 2006 Cork 1-16 Waterford 1-15
With Cork looking for a historic three in-a row, it appeared legs were beginning to tire. They had struggled past both Tipperary and Limerick in their games leading up to this. Waterford meanwhile hadn’t been hugely impressive either, but they were desperate just to reach an All-Ireland final.
What followed was a classic. In completely different circumstances to your typical Rebel/Deise clash, this game was a titanic struggle. Played on the ice-rink that was Croke Park at the time, neither side ever looked fully in control of this game. It wasn’t until a young Cathal Naughton was sprung from the bench to land 1-1, that this game was secured by Cork.
Donal Og will be fondly remembered for his denying of Ken McGrath’s long-range free to see Cork into the 2006 All-Ireland final.
2. 2007 Cork 3-16 Waterford 3-16
Some believe this was the best game of all between the two. Cork had been out of form, yet knew they always had a punchers chance in a game against the Deise. Waterford were in unbelievable form, landing League and Munster titles, they believed it was finally their year.
A classic was produced. With both sides going tit-for-tat for the majority of the game, it looked like a late flurry to see Cork into a five-point lead with just a few minutes remaining would be enough. A Stephen Molumphy goal provided a life-line, and when the Deise were awarded a controversial free by Brian Gavin, Eoin Kelly levelled the sides with a pointed free from the last puck of the game.
The Deise would go on to win the replay in a less-exciting but entertaining affair nonetheless. This game proved to be the final classic in an era of thrillers between the sides.
1. 2004 Waterford 3-16 Cork 1-21
It had to be. The greatest Munster final ever played, this game had everything. Drama, excitement, skill and so much more. Many hurling enthusiasts still sight this as the greatest game of hurling ever played.
Cork blitzed the Deise early on with an extremely soft goal, only to be reeled back in by a brace from Dan Shanahan and Eoin Kelly. Shanahan produced one of his greatest halves of hurling here. Ken McGrath also landed a monster point to inspire the Deise. Whilst Ben O’Connor was doing his best Usain Bolt impression at the other end causing enormous problems.
The second half saw no decrease in standards. John Mullane’s red-card set the tone. In typical circumstances, this aided the Deise more-so than Cork however. The skill in this half was outstanding, the O’Connor twins were producing magical points for the Rebels. This game will be remembered in two moments for the Deise however. The first being Paul Flynn’s magic trick from 30 yards, scoring the crucial goal to see the Deise retake the lead. Secondly of course is that magical catch by Ken McGrath which would see out the game.
In the end, there was no loser from this game. The Deise had emerged victorious from the greatest Munster final of all time, whilst Cork fans would be the happier come September as they took home Liam McCarthy.
We are unlikely to see a game similar to any of the above on Sunday as systems and sweepers rule the roost. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect games of this calibre to be produced ever again. One thing for sure, they were great days.
Kevin Daly, Pundit Arena