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'We did as much hurling as Cork but they had the All-Irelands to show for it'

Ken McGrath discusses Waterford’s intense rivalry with Cork and ponders what lies ahead for both counties.

Ken McGrath  27/6/2004 Ken McGrath celebrates after captaining Waterford to victory against Cork in the 2004 Munster final. Source: INPHO

AT THE HEIGHT of their championship rivalry during the first decade of the millennium, no two counties delivered entertainment as consistently as the hurlers of Waterford and Cork.

Whether they crossed paths in Munster in May or in an All-Ireland semi-final in August, the southern neighbours seldom failed to serve up a memorable contest over the course of their nine championship meetings between 2002 and ’07.

Having been a key player for Waterford throughout that period, the Deise’s thrilling tussles with the Rebels feature prominently in the autobiography of Ken McGrath — ‘Hand on Heart’ — which was published this year.

“It was kind of a cocktail of stuff,” McGrath told The42 when reflecting on the Cork rivalry. “You can’t really put your finger on it. Even in the first-round games you’d have 50,000 people there. You couldn’t get a ticket for a first-round game. You’d be looking forward to those games for months.

“Back then there was a lot of individual battles. I’d be picking up Niall McCarthy and I’d know that he’s not going to stop running, so I’d have to stop him. Tony [Browne] would be picking up Timmy McCarthy, Ben O’Connor… that’s the way it was. Everyone had their own individual battles and those battles grew and grew as the rivalry got bigger and better.”

Widely regarded as the greatest episode in the Waterford-Cork series, the 2004 Munster senior hurling final ended with McGrath ascending the steps of the New Stand at Semple Stadium to lift the cup. With a point to spare, Waterford avenged their loss to Cork in the previous year’s decider and regained the provincial title in spite of the 38th-minute sending-off of John Mullane.

McGrath: “It was an unbelievable game. Thurles packed, the ball zipping up and down the pitch from the minute it was thrown in. It seemed to just get faster and faster. You’d actually be thinking during the game, ‘This is unbelievable’.

Ken McGrath gets past Niall McCarthy McGrath gets away from Cork's Niall McCarthy during the 2007 All-Ireland quarter-final replay. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“During that game I remember Jerry O’Connor got an unbelievable score down the wing in the second half. I was coming back out to centre-back saying to myself, ‘That was some score’. It was constant hurling that day, no let-up. But pure hurling too. Bar the Mullane incident, there wasn’t a dirty stroke in the game.

“Cork were always the benchmark for Munster hurling and the benchmark for us to try and get up to. To beat them up in Thurles was special. I was the captain that afternoon as well. It was a special day.”

That six-season spell of memorable meetings between Waterford and Cork yielded one draw and four victories each. However, the sides were ultimately separated by September silverware. While Cork were crowned All-Ireland champions in 2004 and ’05, Waterford failed to end their bid for a first title since 1959.

“We both brought the best out of one another,” McGrath said. “Unfortunately for us, we did as much hurling as Cork but they had the All-Irelands to show for it. We didn’t, which was a bit of a sickener.”

There’s been no shortage of classic contests in hurling in the All-Ireland series in recent years. However, McGrath believes it’s difficult to imagine a similar rivalry developing at provincial level nowadays.

“It’s hard,” he said. “I keep on hearing that hurling has evolved. It has to evolve, of course, but it has to evolve for the good. Some of the games in the last few years have been poor — nearly boring. I’m allowed to say it, that’s my opinion on it.

Diarmuid O'Sullivan and Ken McGrath Embracing Cork full-back Diarmuid O'Sullivan. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“At times you’re nearly crucified for saying it but there are times when you’d turn games off, which was never the case. Before you’d watch a soccer game or a rugby game and the difference in a hurling game was up another level. In the last couple of years it hasn’t always been like that.

“I think the All-Ireland series was very, very good this year. Tipperary are having a go at teams and trying to out-score them. They’re trusting their players and trusting their ability. I think that’s the way forward. I think it’s certainly the way forward for Waterford anyway. It suits us and it’s the way we should definitely go about it in the next couple of years.”

As for the current health of hurling in both counties, Waterford and Cork are now in very different places. The Deise were All-Ireland senior semi-finalists this year before going on to win their second ever U21 title. Cork’s struggles continued at underage level, while the seniors were eliminated by Wexford in the qualifiers.

“I’d always have a grá for Cork,” McGrath said. “They always try to play hurling and the crowd when we were playing were brilliant. They bring a great kind of razzmatazz to the whole thing.

“It’s hard to see Cork where they are now. But to be honest, we can only worry about Waterford and that’s the way we should be. We’re still trying for that All-Ireland. Cork have their problems but Cork will be back. They’re good enough, they’re big enough, the structures are in place for them to come back and they will.”

McGrath added: “If the Waterford lads keep their feet on the ground and really get their heads around what they have to do next year, there’s no reason why this team can’t push on with a few extra young lads pushing through.

“You have the nucleus of a top-class team already there. They were in two All-Ireland semi-finals in a row and they pushed Kilkenny to the pin of their collar twice in two brilliant games. I think that shows the way we have to push forward and really go at teams.”

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Paul Dollery

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