The impressive rise of Waterford hurling over the last few years reached another major milestone this weekend.
The Déise secured their first U-21 All-Ireland Hurling Championship title in 24 years, producing an emphatic display to comfortably see off the challenge of Galway on a 5-15 to 0-14 scoreline in Thurles on Saturday. The victory caps another impressive year for the county and strongly suggests that the upward trajectory of Waterford hurling in recent years can continue.
There are a few main factors that have contributed to Waterford’s rapid rise from also-rans to serious All-Ireland contenders over the last few years.
Firstly, they have developed a pool of talent as good as the county has ever produced. In 2013, Waterford won their first All-Ireland minor title in 65 years. Three years later, they have now added the U-21 title. Many of these players, such as Austin Gleeson and the Bennett brothers have already established themselves on the senior team. These young players can provide the platform Waterford need to stay at hurling’s top table for the next decade.
Of course, a team of talented hurlers does not guarantee success by any means. The Waterford teams of the 2000s, which included the likes of John Mullane, Ken McGrath, Tony Browne and Dan Shanahan, were one of the most exciting and enjoyable sides hurling has ever seen. But there always seemed to be something lacking. They often played as a team of individuals instead of a collective unit and cleverer, more well-organised counties always seemed to get the better of them on the biggest occasions.
This is where the current crop of young hurlers have an advantage over teams gone by – and it comes in the shape of Derek McGrath.
McGrath has been at the centre of everything good in Waterford hurling over the last number of years. As a teacher in De La Salle secondary school in Waterford City, he has overseen the development of many members of the successful minor and U-21 teams. Since he took the reins of the senior team in 2014, Waterford’s championship performances have improved each year. They came agonisingly close to reaching the All-Ireland final this year, falling just short in a semi-final replay against Kilkenny.
He has nurtured and developed the natural talent of the young Waterford hurlers. He knows each player’s strengths and weaknesses and he devises a strategy that can get the absolute maximum out of his squad. His somewhat defensive approach has brought criticism from hurling purists in the past. But as witnessed in both games against Kilkenny this year, his game plan is evolving. He is not afraid to go toe-to-toe with the big guns anymore.
The future is undoubtedly bright for Waterford. The foundations have been laid by their underage success, and with McGrath at the helm the structures are now in place to take it to the next level.
However, it is now more crucial than ever that they do not rest on their laurels. They must take the momentum gained from their U-21 victory and bring that to the senior set-up. With Cork, Galway, Limerick and Clare seemingly stuck in transition periods, Kilkenny (whisper it!) supposedly in decline, and Tipperary potentially suffering from an All-Ireland hangover in 2017, like they did in 2011, the time is now for Waterford hurling.
Ger Power, Pundit Arena