Derek McGrath confident Waterford are on the right track

Deise manager believes the building blocks at schools and colleges level are in place to ensure a bright future at senior level for the county

Derek McGrath, left,  and selector Dan Shanahan keeping a close eye on the action during the drawn clash with Cork at Semple Stadium, Thurles. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Derek McGrath, left, and selector Dan Shanahan keeping a close eye on the action during the drawn clash with Cork at Semple Stadium, Thurles. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 01:00

Waterford manager Derek McGrath chooses his words carefully. Did he feel vindicated by the performance that nearly beat Cork and forced the GAA Munster hurling quarter-final to a replay tomorrow? After all Waterford were missing half their team and had to mobilise the youth of the county.

Taking Waterford on into the next generation of hurling is a project for which McGrath is fired with enthusiasm, not a nervy attempt to justify himself.

“I’m not sure about the word ‘vindication’ but we were looking for a performance and ultimately we got it. We’re looking for a similar performance the next day. The balance you’re trying to achieve I suppose is that when we met a team during the league that we felt might get a run on us we were fairly negative and got a lot of criticism for that.

“I was at the under-21 game against Clare last year. Waterford played with a seven-man defence and nearly won the match despite having a man sent off. Waterford people came out of the match saying, ‘negative tactics’ or whatever.

“The Sunday after, Clare seniors played similar tactics against Galway and Davy [Fitzgerald, Clare manager] was hailed as a genius.

“It’s just how fickle it can be, balancing what the public want in terms of open and free-flowing hurling . . . ”

By the end of the hurling league Waterford had lost their seat in Division One A after a couple of years during which it had become decidedly marginal but demotion didn’t happen without a battle. In a tight, five-match campaign, during which home advantage was rarely breached, they had the misfortune to have a two-and-three fixture split.

It’s not the end of the world. Last year both provincial champions spent spring in the lower division and McGrath isn’t overly distressed by the outcome, seeing it as an adjustment of expectations after last year’s minor All-Ireland and the epic extra-time defeat by Kilkenny that ended Waterford’s season.

“The knock-on effect of that was a more pressurised environment in Division One A and people maybe needed – I won’t say a reality check – but there was a natural process and a perception developed that the younger fellas were too young and the older fellas might have getting too old.

“The combination of that in year one creates a challenge in that you’re trying to put together those experienced guys and give the younger fellas their head. That’s not looking for sympathy from supporters in the first year of management, just the general evolution of the team.”

Iconic hurlers

As genuinely iconic hurlers have in recent years called it a day in the county – Paul Flynn, Ken McGrath, John Mullane and only recently, Tony Browne – an outsider could be forgiven for thinking that a golden generation in Waterford had come to nothing in terms of All-Irelands and the county would slip away, as was the historical norm.

That overlooks a couple of salient details. Firstly the presence of Waterford as a competitive force at the top of the game has lasted far longer than normal. Heralded winning an All-Ireland under-21 title and reaching the minor final in 1992– the county’s emergence led to Munster finals and titles, a national league win, All-Ireland semi-finals and ultimately a final, albeit too late in the day.

Secondly, the knock-on effect from senior – “we’re seeing more big games now than we ever saw, when I grew up in the 1970s,” as Joey Carton, from Waterford and the Munster Council’s Coaching and Games Manager for hurling, previously put it – has helped to create interest amongst youngsters.

The most striking impact has been at schools level with Waterford winning three of the last eight Croke Cups (All-Ireland colleges), twice De La Salle College in 2007 and ‘08 and the amalgamated Dungarvan Colleges (formerly Waterford Colleges) in 2013.

Last year the county won its first minor All-Ireland in 65 years and the county has in recent years assembled the material for a process of change rather than just retrenchment.

“With that development system at primary school and secondary school levels,” says McGrath, who teaches and coaches in De La Salle, “the strength in the west of the county has come on in terms of Blackwater (the Lismore school that won this year’s county schools senior title) and the Waterford Colleges, creating a mentality that’s used to winning or . . . used to being ultra-competitive and that passed on to the minors and even the Tony Forrestal and Arrabawn tournaments (national U-14 and U-16).

“I was only talking to Ger Cunningham [the former Cork selector and Hurler of the Year], who’s been involved with UCC Freshers the last number of years and he said that many of the outstanding players to have come through from Darragh Fives three or four years ago to Philip Mahony to Brian O’Sullivan and Tadhg Burke this year have been Waterford -based.”

That next step to third-level education and its prestigious and influential championships has been equally impressive.

Exceptional players

Waterford IT has over the past 25 years become one of the outstanding Fitzgibbon Cup colleges. Bordered by Tipperary, Kilkenny and Cork, WIT has been turning out exceptional players; in the three years 2001-03, its students won successive Hurler of the Year awards (Tommy Dunne, Henry Shefflin and JJ Delaney).

For a long time it was one of the college’s disappointments that the local catchment was so poorly represented. The 2000 Fitzgibbon success featured no-one from Waterford.

That has changed radically. This year’s Fitzgibbon-winning WIT team featured six Waterford players, including three who start tomorrow – Stephen O’Keeffe, Pauric Mahony and Jake Dillon – plus Gavin O’Brien on the bench.

McGrath was on the Waterford minor team that reached the 1992 All-Ireland and went on in 1997 to win a Fitzgibbon medal with the exceptional UCC team of the late 1990s.

“There’s an awareness there in second level and it’s promoted in all of the Waterford schools that the path to becoming a senior inter-county hurler involves an educational process too,” he says, “so there’s an ambition to go to college to get on a Fitzgibbon team. That’s probably encouraged at an earlier age now, at 12 and 13.

“There’s a link now, for instance, between De La Salle and WIT and an encouragement to go the educational route . . . from the ‘07 Harty team, we’ll say Philip Mahony, Stephen Daniels, Noel Connors – they’ve all gone down that road. Three or four of them are teachers; Shane O’Sullivan’s a primary school teacher.

“I’m not saying that college is the answer to everything but it can be an important option.”

As for tomorrow, McGrath is cautious but hopeful.

“We feel we got a good performance from the young lads but are aware that the second day can be totally different.

“We’re just hoping they can deal with that because if we can come again with another performance on Sunday we’re going to be a serious force going forward.”

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