Waterford's dispiriting run in the championship round robin over the past two seasons intensified with the 20-point defeat by Limerick to the extent that the county's hurling status is being seen to have reached crisis point.
On RTÉ, The Sunday Game pundits Dónal Cusack and Henry Shefflin were scathing about Waterford's display with Cusack calling for a "major review" of the situation.
There was support for the thrust of this idea from one of Waterford's most experienced hurling personalities. Shane Ahearne, former county hurler, coach during Gerald McCarthy's management and under-21 manager, said that the match had been "the most disappointing" he'd ever seen in all the years watching championship and described the year as "not acceptable".
“I watched a bit of The Sunday Game and I saw where Dónal Cusack was coming from. We have to finish out this championship and take a good look at where we’re going. It didn’t work this year and everybody has to sit down, players, management and county board and develop options because what’s after happening is not acceptable – form a management point of view, a players’ point of view and from a county board point of view, this hasn’t been acceptable.”
The last two years have seen very disappointing championship outcomes but in very different contexts. Last year the team was riddled with injuries and desperately unlucky not to record at least one win – on the occasion of the notorious ghost goal, awarded to Tipperary despite clearly not crossing the line.
On Sunday in Walsh Park – after a week of low expectations, even on the dependably upbeat local radio coverage – Waterford supporters were dismayed by the performance of both the team and the players, half of whom it was pointed out have All Stars.
Under the new management of Páraic Fanning and after an encouraging spring, Waterford reached the league final and even if convincingly beaten by Limerick, the mood was positive for this year's championship.
Unlike last year the team had a home venue to look forward to with the reopening of Walsh Park but despite being able to play major championship fixtures at home for the first time in over 20 years, the results have been two defeats and no hope of progressing from the province with a forbidding trip to Munster champions Cork next weekend on the horizon.
Fanning sounded despondent after Sunday’s defeat and short of solutions. “Everybody is very disappointed and we’re trying to figure out, I suppose, based on the overall preparations through the year how we ended up where we are now. That’s the hard part for us all to figure, at the moment.
“That is the challenge. That’s the thing that’s been frustrating over the last game or two, that – as I said – we’ve prepared really well. We had a good decent league. We know ourselves the championship hasn’t gone to plan, there’s no point saying otherwise.”
Lacklustre performances from established players crystallised in the half-time replacement of former Hurler of the Year Austin Gleeson, who has struggled to make an impact commensurate with his talents throughout the championship.
In a way it is a tribute to the advances made in Waterford that two years of propping up the Munster championship should be causing such angst, given the county’s threadbare overall history.
This has been a successful era even if the All-Ireland has eluded the county. Two All-Ireland finals, four Munster titles, two NHL titles as well as success at underage level. More than that, there has been a presence at the top of the game for over 20 years.
A dozen appearances in All-Ireland semi-finals is testament to how prominent the county has been but of more significance has been the underage progress with three Croke Cups, a minor All-Ireland in 2013, emulated at under-21 three years later.
For Ahearne, the work done at underage is the main reason not to panic because of the senior team’s travails.
“Waterford were one of the first – and I’d give credit to games and coaching committees – to get development squads right and they’re still being tweaked and they’re working. This minor team has been unlucky [held to a last-minute draw on Sunday by Limerick in the Walsh Park curtain raiser] and I don’t think it’s as bad as it seems.
"Our three best players in three championship matches have been Calum Lyons, Conor Prunty and Jack Prendergast. They weren't even on the panel last year and they're only 20, 21 years of age. The most disappointing thing about yesterday wasn't even so much the team because you can have bad days but the lack of effort individually."
Ironically the Tipperary players that finished out of the reckoning in Munster last year, along with Waterford, have been looking like world beaters since a change of management brought Liam Sheedy back to the helm of virtually the exact same team.
Ahearne has heard the comparisons with Offaly, who in the year of Waterford’s revival in 1998 – when the Deise reached the league final and a first All-Ireland semi-final in 35 years – won the county’s fourth MacCarthy Cup but who are now precariously balanced over a drop down to hurling’s third tier.
“I would hope that the last two decades weren’t an exception and that we’re still going forward. One or two bad summers don’t change 20 years of work and progress. I still believe that underage hurling in Waterford is very strong and I don’t have those huge fears even though Offaly is being mentioned and we have to be careful that it doesn’t happen.”