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Stephen Bennett’s Return To Inter-County Hurling Has Had Its Highs And Lows

Allianz Hurling League Division 1A, Croke Park, Dublin 4/3/2017 Dublin vs Waterford Dublin's Caolan Conway and Stephen Bennett of Waterford Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

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When the Waterford side is named on Friday night, Stephen Bennett is one name most Déise followers will be looking out for.

Bennett’s return to inter-county hurling hasn’t been easy. The entire country has been informed of younger brother Shane’s ability by this stage. Stephen, however, hasn’t fully had the chance to display his talents to this point.

Stephen has long been one of the great white hopes of Waterford hurling. Those in the know will have been well aware of his talent since the age of 15.

A three-year minor, in 2011 Bennett buried a hat-trick against Limerick in the Munster Minor Championship at just 15. At this point, Déise supporters were convinced a gem had been found.

Later in the same year Bennett would land ten of BCS’ eleven points in their Munster U-16.5 schools final. The Ballysaggart man was showing no signs of slowing down.

Behind the scenes, however, things weren’t moving as smooth as they appeared. At just 16 years old Stephen was plagued with hip injuries.

He would hurl with the Waterford minors again during 2012, creating history as he and his brothers Shane and Kieran lined out for the Waterford minors. Stephen hurled well throughout the year, yet an early exit from the championship meant he was unable to make the same impact.

By the time winter of 2012 had arrived, Stephen decided to face the music and have his hips operated on. This would become just the first of the UL student’s operations. Bennett faced four months on the sidelines.

This was a small price to pay for the year Stephen would have. Netting an astonishing nine goals, Stephen was crucial in the Waterford minors’ historic All-Ireland triumph, the county’s first since 1948.

If this wasn’t enough for Stephen, county and Munster medals for his club Ballysaggart were certainly the icing on the cake.

A long year had taken its toll on the fragile body. however, and 2014 was once again a difficult year. Bennett’s hip issues began to raise their head once again, causing him to miss out on much of 2014.

A brief cameo in the Waterford under-21s’ defeat to Cork was followed by a similarly brief appearance in the Déise’s senior qualifier defeat to Wexford, a game in which Stephen made his senior county debut.

With a tough year put down, 2015 started much brighter. Capturing both a Fitzgibbon Cup with UL and a shock National League victory with Waterford, 2015 appeared to be a prosperous one for Stephen.

However, the success was papering over some cracks. Stephen featured in both victories, but was somewhat struggling for form having missed out on a winter of pre-season training due to hip issues once more in winter of 2014.

Stephen started both of Waterford’s Munster Championship games before making way for younger brother Shane for the All-Ireland series. The Déise exited the championship at the semi-final stage via defeat to Kilkenny.

Due to yet another double hip operation, 2016 began with Stephen missing the majority of pre-season training once more. He would instead have to focus on his personal rehab. The lonely winter months would prove worth it once more in 2016, however.

Making just one appearance for Derek McGrath’s side, Bennett’s accolades were saved for Sean Power’s Waterford under-21s.

Bennett’s talents really flourished once more in this championship. Man of the Match against Clare in the Déise’s championship-opener, Bennett notched a brace of goals whilst terrorising Clare’s Davy Fitzgerald and the Banner defence.

Arguably Bennett’s most renowned moment to date would arrive in the Munster under-21 final. Having bagged a first half goal, the business student’s skill was shown with the slickest of overhead assists for Peter Hogan to finish to the net. This was truly sublime.

Now Munster champions for the first time since 1994 at the grade, talks were beginning to circulate about Bennett’s talents once more. The Ballysaggart man was once again awarded Man of the Match as his side easily swatted Antrim aside.

With the Déise set to face a much tougher task in the final, a lot of talk revolved around the lethal partnership of Patrick Curran and Stephen Bennett. Waterford supporters knew that if they were to overcome Galway, Curran and Bennett would need to fire on all cylinders.

Boy, did they deliver. The duo were simply unstoppable in the final. Once more netting a brace of goals, Stephen was the provider as he set-up younger brother Shane for a sweet goal also. Bennett was an All-Ireland champion once more.

The year was capped off beautifully as Bennett was awarded under-21 Hurler of the Year for his exploits, as well as Goal of the Year for he and Curran’s combination goal.

With all this going on, it was easy to forget just how big a struggle it was for Stephen to simply return to playing at this level. Having been plagued with hip issues, we’re sure Stephen enjoyed it that bit more.

Facing into 2017 Stephen had his most beneficial pre-season to date. Fully fit to join in with the tough winter training, Bennett’s form finally transcended to senior level.

Highly impressive in the league, both Stephen and the Waterford public will be hopeful of a big championship from the 21-year-old.

Kevin Daly, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

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