Reports of Waterford’s hurling demise are shown to be greatly exaggerated
Top of the league and doing well at underage level, there seems to be life after Mullane and co after all
It was clear from the first round of Allianz Hurling League fixtures that Waterford weren’t inclined to fall in with the general view that this season would be their last in the top division for a while.
The reasoning wasn’t flawed. The county was losing the players who had made the previous decade one of the most successful in Waterford’s history. Even the game collective who tussled with Cork for an All-Ireland semi-final place last July had shed five players.
John Mullane, the perennial All Star of recent years, had decided to retire as had Eoin McGrath; the centrefield of Stephen Molumphy and Philip Mahony were taking time out, the former posted overseas by the Army. And if Tony Browne was going to hurl for Waterford again, it wasn’t going to be in the league.
The opening fixture last month against a coming Clare team was an away match in Ennis against a team hopping fit for the time of year.
At the back, ran the argument, Waterford had some good young players stepping up to the mark but the forwards were inexperienced and untested in Mullane’s absence.
Slagged the media
Manager Michael Ryan gently – but firmly – slagged the media afterwards, asking who had correctly previewed the match and laughing off the slight awkwardness when silence descended.
Tomorrow in Walsh Park, little more than a month on, Waterford sit on top of a compressed table, a point ahead of four teams and two in front of this weekend’s opponents, Galway. They are in pole position to reach the play-offs but relegation is still a possibility if they lose and one of the other fixtures ends in a draw.
The revelation has been the inexperienced forwards, coping without Mullane. The veteran Séamus Prendergast is one survivor of the great days but all around him are younger players. The scoring spread has been good, with an average of five attackers a match getting on the scoreboard.
Once again it would appear they’re in no hurry to leave the main stage.
Beyond the fortunes of the emerging seniors is an even more encouraging picture. Only this week, Dungarvan Colleges blitzed the leading hurling school, St Kieran’s of Kilkenny, by 10 points in the All-Ireland semi-final, three goals coming from 15-year-old Darragh Lyons.
One of the constituent colleges, Dungarvan CBS, has also qualified for the All-Ireland B final and the other, St Augustines’, is in the B football final.
It’s been a golden age for the county’s schools and Dungarvan Colleges are looking for Waterford’s third Croke Cup in seven years, De La Salle having won back-to-back All-Irelands in 2007 and ’08.
From the side that retained the title five years ago, six have already graduated to the county seniors: Stephen O’Keeffe, Noel Connors – already an All Star – Stephen Daniels, Philip Mahony, Pauric Mahony and Jake Dillon. Previously the most recent success had been a Harty Cup in 1953.
Step up to third level and the story is equally encouraging. Twenty five years ago Colm Bonnar started a long acquaintance with Waterford while still a player on his way to two All-Irelands with Tipperary. Under a pilot scheme, he became the first GAA development officer, originally dividing his time between Waterford IT (or WRTC as it was then) and coaching work in the clubs.
Bonnar, now on the faculty in the Student Life and Learning department, went on to be a key influence in WIT’s rise to Fitzgibbon Cup prominence – they have claimed eight titles since 1992 – and was back in charge of this year’s team after a break.
“When I went back I couldn’t believe the number of local players,” he says. “Usually it was five or six from Kilkenny, a few from other counties like Tipperary and Wexford but only maybe one or two from Waterford.”
In 2003, WIT lifted the Fitzgibbon and there was no one from the county on the team that beat Cork IT. This year, there were nine starting and 10 on the panel.
Ironically, WIT lost in the semi-final to Mary I college in Limerick, for whom Waterford’s Brian O’Halloran was a vital performer.
“It’s important because it brings on players,” says Bonnar. “They come in to the college and see other players and think, ‘I’m as good as they are’. One thing they’ve really learned is work-rate. You can see high-profile players coming in, like Eoin Murphy (who has recently played in goal for Kilkenny), and see how hard he works at his game and it sets an example.
“Waterford hurling is in a great place. Coaching has been at the forefront. The county’s won a couple of Tony Forristals (the unofficial under-14 All-Ireland championship, named after a Mount Sion man) in recent years (2007 and ’10) and been competitive every year. When I first started Waterford were in the ‘B’ tournament.”
The third-level involvement has dovetailed perfectly with all of the other development stages, even if it’s not within the county administration, according to Pat Moore, who chaired the county coaching committee for 15 years and now is its coach education adviser.
Work in schools
“It’s giving lads an outlet. Fitzgibbon is a serious level of hurling. We can’t create that because it depends on where they go to college but it’s happened and it’s a follow-on to all of the work being done in the schools and the clubs.”
Moore, whose enthusiasm for coaching burns as brightly as ever, says the price of this steady development is vigilance, not falling into an easy contentment with the improvements made.
“That is a concern. You strive for success and then everyone relaxes. Success for us is having teams that can compete and we’re achieving that but we can’t let the effort weaken.
“If you have the people we have in the development squads you continue to nurture the talent. We have to. At this level there are always mountains to climb.”