Waterford crystalise youthful promise in renewed senior challenge

Ongoing development work helping to ensure a continuous presence at hurling’s top table

Derek McGrath: The current Waterford boss was a vital cog in the machine that  delivered unprecedented underage success in the past 10 years. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Derek McGrath: The current Waterford boss was a vital cog in the machine that delivered unprecedented underage success in the past 10 years. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

There are in contemporary hurling two types of league finals: ones with Kilkenny in them and ones without. The former are gloriously uncomplicated because by their thought, word and deed Kilkenny have never made any secret of their desire to play every match on its merits, which has basically meant trying to win it.

As a result the currency of the league has been rated on the gold standard of championship. Kilkenny’s eight league finals in the past 10 years have led to five doubles and two further All-Irelands having lost the league final earlier in the year.

If the two other finals, in 2008 and 2010, haven’t carried such obvious meaning neither have they been anomalous. The former year marked the arrival of Liam Sheedy’s Tipperary, who would within a couple of seasons win the All-Ireland and although the causal link isn’t as easily established, 2010 winners Galway also impacted on the championship two years later.

Sunday brings together Cork and Waterford who last met in a league final all of 17 years ago. Waterford, then as now, were just starting to emerge as a team. Built on underage successes they too were on the road to bigger things: a first Munster title in 39 years would follow in 2002 with three more in the next eight years, a national league in 2007 and a first All-Ireland final in 45 years although sadly, no All-Ireland.

They have been the story of this year’s league. Relegated last year and ranked behind both Limerick, All-Ireland semi-finalists for the past two years, and Wexford who defeated them in last year’s qualifiers, Waterford came out and emphatically won Division One B.

Upwards trajectory

Manager Derek McGrath, a vital cog in the machine that has delivered unprecedented underage success in the past 10 years, took over the seniors in 2014 and decisively – as well as controversially – rebuilt the panel by bringing in young players and devising a tactical system to shore up the defence.

A striking aspect of Waterford in the 17 years since they last faced Cork in a league final is that they have virtually never gone away. Two generations of players have come and largely gone but the county has doggedly stayed at hurling’s top table.

Their relegation from the top division of the league was forecast several times before it actually happened in 2014 and then when it did, they have bounced straight back up.

Even when the transition era had left them at their most vulnerable, they battled away to take Kilkenny to extra time in the 2013 qualifiers, a match they could have won.

Pauric Mahony, the team’s top scorer and one of the modern game’s almost infallibly robotic free-takers, spoke about the clutch moments in the young team’s development: losing a lead against Limerick in the first match of the league but resisting any urge to settle for narrow defeat and instead salvaging an invaluable draw and then, in the semi-finals, recovering from the concession of two early goals against Tipp to overhaul a seven-point deficit – something considered beyond the reach of a team that sets up with defensive caution.

Mahony is one of the players who came through the successful schools cohort in the county, winning an All-Ireland colleges in 2008 with De La Salle, mentored by current Waterford manager Derek McGrath, a teacher in the school. That was part of back-to-back titles for De La Salle.

Two years ago Dungarvan Colleges added another Croke Cup. That’s three in nine years. Only Kilkenny, through its powerhouse nursery St Kieran’s, has won more. Before 2007, the only schools success of note had been the Harty Cup (Munster championship) in 1953.

First minor

Derek McGrath was on the 1992 minors, whose win in that year’s Munster final was the first against Tipperary in 42 years. The season before last Waterford won their first minor All-Ireland since 1948.

There have also been Tony Forristal Cups (the unofficial national under-14 All-Ireland tournament) and burgeoning numbers of local hurlers on Waterford IT’s Fitzgibbon Cup teams.

The roll call of achievement here and there is significant because one of the principal reasons the county hadn’t in the past maintained a presence at the elite level of hurling was that the talent wasn’t been properly nurtured from one generation to the next. Colleges’ All-Irelands and underage success are proof that the conveyor belt continues to produce.

Pat Moore chaired the county coaching committee for 15 years and said two years ago that the priority was to keep working and not to treat underage success as a destination.

“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.”

Since then Waterford have added a Croke Cup and All-Ireland minor title. On Sunday they are back in a national final.

Still climbing. e-mail: smoran@irishtimes.com

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