Harty Cup: Derek McGrath’s modus operandi forged in De La Salle College

‘You know they’ll go to war for you . . . they are loyal and you are loyal to them’

De La Salle College - All Ireland and Dr harty Cup champions in 2008.

De La Salle College - All Ireland and Dr harty Cup champions in 2008.


In the heat of battle Derek McGrath often reminds his Waterford players of their exploits back in the Dr Harty and Dr Croke Cup almost a decade ago - it may have been schools hurling yet five of his defence in last summer’s championship graduated from the classes of 2007 and 2008.

Eight years ago McGrath’s De La Salle team secured back-to-back All-Ireland triumphs, little over 12 months after winning the school’s first ever senior provincial title. His 15 years in the school has unearthed much of the current Waterford senior squad, given them the confidence that comes with success - but more so created an atmosphere of trust, and hard work.

“I would, I’d often refer to the school days, even in terms of the Waterford set up now. I’d point towards everyone’s school background actually - from Tadhg de Burca with St Augustine’s to Colin Dunford with Dungarvan CBS to the lads that we were obviously involved with in De La Salle, and that’s right up to Austin Gleeson who came in after all of that success. He was too young but he played in a few Dean Ryan finals (Munster schools junior championship).

“You’d often say to them, ‘listen we’ve been down this route before’ - but the danger is that things change and you can’t really, that emotional bond, things change and sometimes you have to look beyond that as the same things don’t always work. The lads being aware of that is probably even more important than re-hashing the past. But from early on, if you base your modus operandi on loyalty and these things, then you have a chance. We trained hard while they were in the college and I think that stood them well.”

It was quite the journey for De La Salle to claim their first Dr Harty Cup in 2007, not only had they never before won the title but neither had any team from Waterford in over 50 years.

“Dermot Dooley, he’s still over the Harty Cup team this year, we were co-managers and we took them all the way through. Actually, two years in advance of the Harty we wrote on the wall up in the handball alley - ‘Harty ‘07 believe’ - so they had a few years notice of what we were intending to do. It was kind of a gimmicky thing but it worked for us.

“We just brought it to another level. I think a schools team is actually the easiest to train because you have them on site five days a week, and I think they quickly realised what we felt about the Harty and they kind of bought into the importance of it then too. Without insulating ourselves, we tried to create an environment whereby they trained together and then they studied together and then everything was kind of laid on for them.

“We were in Antrim twice, we were in Newcastle, we kind of created a club-like atmosphere in the school around the hurling team, they were very tight. The brothers too have a huge influence on the whole workings of the college, and for them - like when I first started working in the school the brothers would often talk about the importance of the Harty Cup and that we had never won it.

“We had contested finals in ‘65 and ‘76 and it became a holy grail in Waterford - Mount Sion had won it in the 1950s but no Waterford team had won it then until us in 2007. So for the brothers in the college, who are still living in the college, especially, for them it was a special moment.”

While De La Salle’s success turned out to be a huge platform for a number of the current Waterford team, so it was for McGrath. After retiring from the game he would quickly take up the reins at his local club, also De La Salle, and in 2012 guide them to a senior championship. Little over a year later he was appointed Waterford senior manager, winning the Division One league and reaching the Munster final last year.

“It definitely helps (knowing the players for so long), you know they’ll go to war for you, and I mean that in an outlandish way. They are loyal and you are loyal to them. They are great lads and they are solid lads and I think they’ll always look back at their time in De La Salle with fond memories of the whole stint because we had good fun too, we had good craic. We struck the balance, you know school is supposed to be fun too.

“But schools hurling is hugely important, as it exposes them to top level competition. I remember in 2007 John Conlon was playing from Clare, Colin Ryan was playing out of St Flannan’s, Tipperary’s James Barry was playing for Thurles in ‘08, Liam Rushe was playing for Dublin colleges. So you kind of get a feel for the scene from a young age, and you can stage their development very easily as a manager.”

A major aspect of Waterford’s success in 2015 was the clarity of their defensive systems, with the introduction of a ‘sweeper’ generating plenty of attention throughout the summer. The communication and understanding necessary to make that so successful can be easily explained: “Things I would look at, say the ‘08 team, four of the six backs who played with Waterford last year played in that final. Barry Coughlan was full back, Noel Connors was corner back and Stephen Daniels and Philip Mahony were two of the half backs, and Stephen O’Keefe was in goal too, which is a remarkable stat! Obviously Jake Dillon and Pauric Mahony were in the forwards, but in terms of the backs, them lads have worked together since they were probably 12 or 13 years of age so they work together very well at this stage.

“I think what the Harty did was boost fellas confidence more than anything in terms of an understanding of what’s involved. You are trying to create an environment where they understand that there will be roadblocks and obstacles along the way - and that’s hard for a young lad at 16 to 18 years of age, it’s hard for us not to mind a young lad. So particularly in 2008, that was hard, you were favourites all the way, and what made that even harder was that we beat Thurles in the Harty Cup final and we had to meet them again in the All-Ireland final.

“So for the team to be able to deal with those sort of scenarios, I remember actually going for a meal with Thurles after the Harty final and leaving the cup on the bus, no extravagant celebrations in case you were going to give another team an advantage. So they were being so mature as a team already. They were built up along the way as being favourites and to me that was the greatest achievement of them all.”

For McGrath, an English teacher who at this stage is joined by a number of his former, and current players in the staffroom - such as Waterford captain Kevin Moran - college’s hurling has helped mould not only top players, but successful professionals.

“It’s hugely important, because it exposes them to top level hurling - although people would argue it’s a different type of hurling in the winter, but it also exposes them to top level development. It acts as a catalyst for their own ambition in terms of college. The Harty for me is like a precursor for the Fitzgibbon Cup and educationally, this may seem contradictory but it seems the more hurling they play, the more they gravitate towards college.

“So the dual focus of school work and work on the field was maintained in our particular group and that kind of shows in how well they’ve done academically. That group in ‘08, I think 12 of the 15 that started all went on to third level education and have done very well subsequently in terms of their careers. So I think it can be done.

“There’s always that worry between balancing the academic side and the sporting side but we would find that when they are focused on the field they are focused in class as well!”

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