Amongst the subplots in the Kilkenny-Waterford match, one of the more absorbing was the duel between 2015 hurler of the year Richie Hogan and Waterford's Noel Connors. It went largely the latter's way although at times Hogan drifted out from the corner to the half-forwards.
It was the latest reminder of the Passage corner back's credentials as one of the best man-markers in the game, which have gained him two All Star awards along the way. The first arrived in 2010, just a year after his championship debut at the age of 19, and as the first wave of Waterford's emerging talent over the past 10 years – he won two All-Ireland colleges' medals with De La Salle – he became by the age of 24 in his own words "a senior figure in the team".
Sunday’s win in Nowlan Park was the latest statement by Derek McGrath’s evolving team, which now includes the generation after Connors’s All-Ireland winners at minor and under-21 level.
"To come away with a win was great but the performance was more important than the result," he said, "particularly blooding new fellas and the likes of Stephen Daniels coming into the team. That's what it's all about if you want to be successful like Kilkenny. You have to build a team around the 26 or 27 players and to have people coming into the team who are actually able to play in championship, and that's what Derek is trying to build this year."
Good news story
Mention of Stephen Daniels brings up one of the more obvious good news stories of the weekend. Daniels hasn’t played a full championship match for five years as a result of shattering his kneecap in April 2013 during a challenge match against Offaly, and his only summer action was 40 minutes against Dublin in 2015, coincidentally as a replacement for Connors.
His league involvement had also been virtually zero and his return to fitness and form is a boost for the county going into a year that is likely to prove crucial for a county getting closer and closer to a serious championship breakthrough after the agonising lessons of last year’s replayed All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Kilkenny.
Hanging on against the same opponents last weekend was evidence that those lessons had been processed.
“This is probably a new mentality that we are trying to bring forward,” according to Connors. “If that was a couple of years ago it would have probably been the opposite and they would have stuck on another point or two. But I suppose there’s an incredible amount of steel in this team and you can see with the college lads that a lot of them are at that level, so it’s important that we go out and dig it in when we need to, and that’s what it’s all about, particularly at this time of year when the ball is not flying. We wanted it to fly, but I suppose it’s important to dig it out.”
Having been in the last two league finals, winning in 2015, Waterford aren’t likely to be prioritising the competition this season, but form isn’t a tap to be turned on and off, either.
"I think it's more about performance than results to be perfectly honest," he said. "I don't think that you can say that you are after being successful if you win a few matches and you beat the likes of Kilkenny and so on. I think it's more so about getting young lads in, the likes of Conor Gleeson getting more game time and the likes of Shane Bennett improving on their performances in the last number of years.
"The likes of Paddy Curran and Tom Devine are really kind of showing what they are about and putting their shoulder to the wheel, because they are the young lads for the future, and I think that's something we can't disregard and put on the back burner for a few years to come."