Seán Moran: Galway and Waterford have overthrown the establishment

The big three have won 17 of the last 18 All-Ireland titles. Time for something new

The undertow from the football waves crashing down from the weekend tends to wash away some of the attention the hurling final would have got in the pre-qualifier era, but Sunday's unique All-Ireland pairing stands as its own monument.

For a start there's the sheer exclusivity of the Liam MacCarthy Cup's destinations. Seventeen of the past 18 All-Irelands have been won by Kilkenny, Tipperary or Cork – an unprecedented run of success even by the standards of a very elite establishment.

So for two counties to arrive after a combined 87 famine years is bound to cause anticipation – although when you view groundbreaking achievements close up they tend to appear linear, almost inevitable or the irresistible consequence of things a county has been doing right for a while.

That will certainly be the case, barring a draw, by the close of play this weekend.

Galway are a more remarkable case than Waterford, in that they have been knocking around at the top level more or less since their re-emergence as an elite hurling county just over 40 years ago.

So to have spent nearly three of those four decades drawing blanks at the highest level of the game when all of their other vital signs – minor, under-21 and club – have been so healthy is a mystery to everyone following the game.

Although it doesn’t attract the same concerned glances as the Mayo footballers’ record of All-Ireland defeats since they last won, Galway are up there, having lost six times in finals, compared with the neighbours’ eight.

Although many believe that this year Galway have been different, more single-minded and less jumpy – even if a jitteriness was evident at times against Tipperary in the semi-final – the truth is we won't know for certain until and unless David Burke lifts the MacCarthy Cup.

Hungry mouths

Waterford would be the only story in town were they facing Kilkenny or Tipperary in the final but the presence of another hungry mouth makes the narrative less obvious.

It is an extraordinarily positive final for hurling, because it demonstrates the extent to which counties are masters of their own destiny. Both have done immense work at under-age level to underpin their senior status. Galway’s re-emergence in the 1970s was the product of the Coiste Iomána scheme a decade earlier.

Waterford haven't known an era as consistently rewarding since the quarter century from 1938-63 when five Munster titles were won, both All-Irelands to date and the first National League. In the past 25 years they have picked up four provincial and two league titles, reached a couple of senior All-Irelands but also won two under-21s and a minor. The current team is built on a couple of those under-age achievements.

All of it is rooted in development work that has also delivered three Croke Cups in the past 11 years, a haul bettered only by Kilkenny and that county’s assembly line, St Kieran’s.

Waterford’s way

Take a snapshot of the county at this point in the decades since the 1930s, which yielded Waterford’s first All-Ireland appearance, a defeat by Dublin in 1938. Ten years later a first MacCarthy Cup, followed 11 years after that by a second. Even in 1967 the county was able to land a knock-out blow on then All-Ireland champions Cork, but the 1970s and 1980s were featureless – at best.

In the mid-1980s the county even slid to Division Three of the league, and the tables in February 1986 record them as second, behind Mayo. They were promoted at the end of the season, and a year later progressed to the semi-finals, where a 5-16 to 1-12 beating awaited – at the hands of Galway.

There were sundry other indignities: the maulings by Cork in the Munster finals of 1982 and 1983, and 10 years later accommodating Kerry’s first championship win since the 1920s.

But by the early 1990s there were also green shoots at developmental level, and they were much needed. When the Waterford minors reached the All-Ireland final in 1992, the achievement encompassed the county's first win over anybody except Kerry since 1976 (and even those five victories included two walkovers).

Green shoots

Although there was nothing outstanding about 1997 on the field, it marked the arrival of Gerald McCarthy as manager, one of two appointments – together with his Cork namesake, Justin – credited with sowing the seeds of revival at inter-county.

The materials available were, however, the product of assiduous ground work by people such as Peter Power, Joey Carton and Pat Moore, who chaired the coaching committee, and initiatives such as Hurling on the Green, which patiently tended to building estates in the sizeable urban area of the county.

Success at schools and under-age has produced a crop of players who have made Waterford one of the best-represented counties in the Fitzgibbon Cup from a starting point where, despite the establishment of one of the game's powerhouse third-level institutions, Waterford IT, there had been few local hurlers involved.

Good development systems produce coaches as well as players.

Manager Derek McGrath is almost emblematic of the progress. A member of the 1992 minor team, he has played a vital role in the system that delivered unprecedented under-age success in recent years. Over the past four seasons and under the pressure of controversial beginnings, he has rebuilt the senior team into contenders at the highest level.

When his school, De La Salle, won the county’s first All-Ireland in 2007, defeating Kilkenny CBS in the final, McGrath reimagined the future.

“I’m sure it will have a knock-on effect. The buzz that’s been created and the psychological effect of winning in Croke Park after coming from behind puts more distance between us and the inferiority complex that used exist in the county.”

One way or another, that future has arrived.