Waterford hurlers ready to seize the day
By John Harrington
For the second weekend in a row, the Waterford hurlers have an opportunity to lay down a significant marker.
Were they to follow up last Sunday’s Allianz League win over Kilkenny with another over All-Ireland champions Tipperary this Sunday, it would prove beyond doubt their graph is still on an upward curve.
After all, Kilkenny and Tipperary are the only teams to have beaten them in Championship hurling for the past two years.
It might be still early in the season, but matches like these matter for a young team like this Waterford one that’s still evolving.
Both the manner and merit of their win against the Cats last weekend will have strengthened them as a collective.
Coming out of Nowlan Park with any sort of victory is a cause for celebration, but the gutsy manner in which they did it added to the sense of achievement.
At times they physically bullied Kilkenny which is something we’re not used to seeing, and the fact that they were able to hold off the home team’s late charge will have buttressed their winning mentality.
That’s important, because as impressive as Waterford’s improvement has been in recent years, they’ve still fallen short of winning Championship silverware which is the litmus test of any serious side.
Players like Philip Mahony are well aware of this.
He doesn’t really care about the respect they earned for the manner of their performances last year in the drawn and replayed All-Irelands against Kilkenny, what resonated with him was the pain of the defeat and the harsh truth they had come up short yet again in a big match.
“Yeah, it was tough,” says Mahony. “If you look at the big games last year, the two League Final games even when we were in winning positions but didn't manage to get over the line.
“Then obviously the semi-final was a huge disappointment considering that we were in a decent enough position even up to the 68th minute or whatever it was when Kilkenny got the goal.
“Obviously we didn't manage to close it out. People were saying that last year was a success but we ended it with no silverware and we were beaten very convincingly in the Munster Final which was a tough one to take.
“We haven't beaten Tipperary in the Championship or Kilkenny, and they've obviously been the bench-mark."
For Waterford to reach that bench-mark and surpass it, it was vital that Derek McGrath agreed to stay on as team-manager for 2017.
It wasn’t always a given that he would. The De La Salle secondary school teacher pours his heart and soul in to the job, and after last year’s All-Ireland replay defeat to Kilkenny he was mentally drained.
The rumour that he might step away from the role gained some currency in Waterford for a while, so the players were a relieved bunch when he finally recommitted.
“It was very important,” says Mahony. “He's put in Trojan work for the past few years and changed a lot of stuff in terms of how we train.
“The professionalism he brings to the set-up is second to none. The most important part of what we have is probably Derek himself.
“One thing with Derek is that he's constantly trying to find ways for us to improve. He's never really looking back, he's always looking forward.
“So it was great to hear that he was going to commit for the year.”
The bond between McGrath and the Waterford hurlers goes beyond most manager-player relationships you’ll see.
He’s known a good chunk of the panel since they were boys having taught and trained them in De La Salle school, and he’s no less close to those he’s only worked with since becoming Waterford manager.
McGrath’s approach is to get to know the person behind the player and build a bond with them on a human level. The family atmosphere that has created within the panel is one of this Waterford team’s greatest strengths.
“Yeah, I think one of the best things we've had in the last few years is that our panel is very close,” says Mahony. “We have very good team spirit which can't be underestimated either.
“Even off the field there are some very good friendships there. Again, Derek is probably the fella who has brought that whole thing together.
“But even with things like the Fitzgibbon Cup and all the lads we have in College, it's important to have someone like Derek who understands the craic with college work or with travelling to training.
“He's always conscious he's not pulling us down from Dublin for the sake of it. And the same with the lads from Cork and Limerick or wherever they're based. It definitely does help.”
Beating Tipperary on Sunday would mean a lot to McGrath and his players because it would draw a line under their disastrous implosion against the Premier County in last year’s Munster Final.
And if after two League games they’ve already scalped the so-called ‘Big Two’, well then that surely suggests Waterford are ready to graduate from being a team with potential to big-time winners in 2017.
Philip Mahony turned 26 recently and he’s keenly aware that if they don’t make that final step this year there’s no guarantee it will ever happen.
“You've only a short time-span at it and you have to make the most of it because it won't be too long before you're potentially looking back,” says Mahony.
“And if you don't give it everything while you're here, you could definitely have regrets.
“At least if you give it everything you can, then you can look back with some satisfaction.
“Every team is conscious that you literally don't know when the whole thing is going to be over. It could be very soon.
You could get injured, lads could leave the panel to go travelling or whatever.
“At the start of every year everyone just has to shoulder their lot and give it 100 per cent and try to give more than you gave last year.
“I know from a Waterford point of view what we've been doing for the last few years hasn’t got us what we want.
“We obviously won the League but we haven't had a whole lot of success in terms of the Munster Championship and haven't even gotten into an All-Ireland Final.
“Just like the semi-finals last year, we could go there again this year, give it everything, and come up short. We mightn't even be in a semi-final.
“It’s easy enough to fall straight back to the bottom of the pile. You don't have to look too far back to when we were relegated out of Division 1A in 2014. You could potentially give it everything and fall up short.
“If we could get silverware this year obviously it would be brilliant.
“We're just going to have to try keep working hard and keep trying to progress and get better.”