Cork’s Patrick Collins and Waterford’s Billy Nolan.

Source: INPHO

IN JUNE 2014, the spotlight fell on both hurling goalkeepers in action in Thurles.

Anthony Nash had been the All-Star winner for the previous two years, an illustration of his prowess with Cork. Stephen O’Keeffe was establishing himself with Waterford, two years after making his senior championship bow. 

In injury time in the first half, Nash ventured upfield to take a penalty but found his piledriver blocked by O’Keeffe charging out to meet him halfway.

In the aftermath of a replay that Cork won comfortably, the incident was heavily scrutinised and it ultimately prompted changes to the hurling penalty rule.

Nash and O’Keeffe were central characters then, those positions remained as the Cork-Waterford hurling relationship developed.

Anthony Nash strikes a penalty for Cork in 2014.

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Last year, in the most chaotic and challenging season hurling has known, Cork and Waterford met twice. First in January, on the opening weekend of the league, and later in October, on the second weekend of the championship.

Both represented starting points in a strange campaign, Nash and O’Keeffe were in their customary spots at opposite ends of the pitch as Waterford won out on both occasions. 

The teams renew acquaintances next Sunday, again facing off as the GAA emerges from a period of enforced hibernation. But if it is a familiar pairing, there is a different twist in the goalkeeping situation that both counties now face.

On Sunday December 6 last, Nash formally drew a line under his lengthy playing relationship with Cork. After 15 seasons, the 36-year-old was bowing out of the inter-county game.

23 days later as the year edged towards a close, the news broke that O’Keeffe was opting out of the Waterford scene for 2021.

Recently-retired Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Waterford’s Stephen O’Keeffe.

With Nash’s statement on Twitter there was a sense of finality. The announcement concerning O’Keeffe from the Waterford county board placed a pause on his career without a guarantee of a return.

It removes two mainstays from the setups as Kieran Kingston and Liam Cahill plot new campaigns. Kingston is well informed of Nash’s capabilities from his two spells as Cork boss and previous stint as selector under Jimmy Barry-Murphy.

Cahill only had one season working with O’Keeffe but even if time was restricted in 2020, he still saw the 30-year-old superbly anchor a team that journeyed all the way to the All-Ireland final. Just over a fortnight after that loss to Limerick, O’Keeffe’s departure was made official.

So what now for both camps? Who steps up to fill the void?

In goalkeeping, serving apprenticeships is a largely accepted practice. Nash was parachuted in for Cork’s 2007 Munster semi-final against Waterford but then had to wait five years for his next championship outing.

It’s six years since Patrick Collins made his competitive Cork senior debut while still a teenager. He turns 25 in September and has had to be patient as understudy ever since.

The Ballinhassig’s man credentials are strong though. He was a two-year minor with Cork and four-year U21. His underage career passed without medals to show for his efforts, succumbing to a star-studded Clare team in 2014 in a Munster U21 final and to a similarly talented Limerick outift in 2017 at the same stage.

Collins has been immersed in the Cork senior setup since he came out of minor, relying on league games for appearances. There was a tough lesson to absorb in 2016 against Kilkenny when John Power pounced on his loose clearance to lash over a late winner. He started for John Meyler’s first major game in charge against Kilkenny in January 2018 and amassed three spring outings last year before the March lockdown.

Patrick Collins in action for Cork against Limerick.

Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

Billy Nolan has not had to endure as long a wait in Waterford but has also been earmarked for this goalkeeping step up. Since Ian O’Regan’s retirement in October 2018, he moved up the pecking order to the number two slot behind O’Keeffe. The 22-year-old squeezed in a championship debut in June 2019 against Cork, at the end of a sorry summer for Waterford.

He had played four times in the league that year when O’Keeffe was busy with Ballygunner’s All-Ireland club commitments and Cahill gave him gametime twice in the league in 2020.

Nolan was a precocious underage talent. At 16 he was selected for the Waterford U21 side when they defeated Cork in 2015, Collins in action at the other end. But new eligibility rules came into play the following year for GAA grades, with Nolan deemed too young to line out in a season when the Deise won the All-Ireland.

Before that the versatility of the Roanmore man was showcased in early 2017, he got runs in January fixtures against Limerick and Clare in attack, where he notched 0-6 apiece. Collins has also spent time hurling outfield, playing in the forward line for his club Ballinhassig as they had former Cork senior Martin Coleman between the posts.

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Billy Nolan in action for Waterford against Limerick in 2017.

Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

Collins and Nolan are the front-runners but there are challengers. The Cork situation is intriguing, Patrick’s younger brother Ger is another netminder involved. He has plenty underage experience, contesting All-Ireland finals in 2017 (minor), 2018 (U21) and 2019 (U20) in Cork colours, and if defeat was his lot in a luckless sequence, his goalkeeping talents were displayed.

Cork hurler Ger Collins.

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Waterford drafted Shaun O’Brien from De La Salle into their group for 2020. He was the third-choice then but featured against Limerick in the league and now jumps up the ranks.

It’s the start of new goalkeeping eras for both counties. Cork last started without Nash in goal in the championship arena, when they lost to Galway in the qualifiers in 2011. He totted up 42 championship outings since then.

O’Keeffe has played 36 times for Waterford in championship, starting out with his debut against Clare in 2012. O’Regan played twice in that time frame and Nolan got the nod for that Cork clash in 2019 but the Ballygunner man had principal ownership of the number one jersey.

Billy Nolan featured for Waterford against Cork in 2019.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Neither Nash or O’Keeffe managed to land the ultimate team honour in hurling despite persistent efforts but their consistency, reliability and excellence made them integral to their county’s prospects.

They won three All-Stars and had another three nominations between them. The main men between the posts for so long.

Back in January 2019, on the second night of a new year, Cork played Waterford in a Munster league game in Mallow. Collins and Nolan filled the goalkeeping slots for that pre-season fixture. 

Now with vacancies to be filled, they’ll hope to seize opportunites in games of greater consequence.

For Cork and Waterford, the process of moving on begins on Sunday.

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