If it wasn’t for an historic and epic U-21 Munster triumph this day last week against Tipperary in Walsh Park, the fog would be much denser around most thoughts and conversations south of the Suir on the prospect of facing Kilkenny in the All-Ireland Semi Final on Sunday in HQ.
The doom and gloom, which is still there to some extent, would have obviously have emerged from the reality check dealt by Tipperary during last month’s Munster Final. Before the game, The Deise could not be blamed for thinking that they were well prepared to make a leap one step closer to being dubbed a member of hurling’s elite.
But the notions of being elite were scrapped, as a Premier force abruptly halted the momentum and progress in Waterford. The Deise’s new journey under Derek McGrath first began to gain ‘momentum’ on a freezing Saturday in February of 2015. They showed great spirit to salvage a draw against Limerick in the League and their foundations started from there.
Fast forward a few months and Waterford were losing an All-Ireland semi-final to Kilkenny. A post mortem took place after their defeat. On reflection, losing to both Kilkenny and Tipperary on top of a league title and some impressive wins meant the Deise were lightyears ahead of what took place in the previous year.
2015 is well and truly in the past and 2016 is now in full swing. Another League Final appearance occurred in the Spring. The game could have gone either way, but it was quickly forgotten about as Waterford outclassed Clare in the Munster Championship sequel.
But then humiliation was handed to them from a county who they share a vastly undulating border with. This has now injected criticism from a ready-to-pounce media base and social media-sphere who do not like to see their sport played in a way similar to that of a half-clogged sink.
Waterford faced Wexford only 10 days ago in a match where many may have wanted to see the Deise come out with a chip on their shoulder and blow a team, who rewrote their history books against Cork in the qualifiers, out of the water.
Unfortunately for Waterford, wave after wave of pressure proved a murmuring theory correct. A theory that felt that Wexford’s win over one of the worst Cork teams in living memory was just sugarcoating over The Model’s own gaping fractures and a C-minus performance was enough for The Deise to breeze past into the semi-final.
However, wide after wide, lack of options after lack of options, the clouds were not going away despite a mostly one-sided encounter in that Quarter-Final.
But then the young heroes, who were out to embed their own story into their county’s folklore secured a first Munster Under-21 title since 1994. A young group triumphed once more after a long-awaited minor success three years previously. They were ready to sound the foghorn and remind everyone that their county will hope to be limiting the damage in progress to a standstill, and not take any steps back.
So, as the title of this article suggests, where are we with Waterford a matter of days before they aim to surpass what many would feel to be hurling’s highest benchmark?
Last year’s battle was very much unmemorable as Waterford ran out of both ideas and gas with TJ Reid continuing his goal scoring run into September on the way to picking up hurling’s greatest individual honour.
Last time around, for the first time in an age, the minority of people who believed that Waterford could trump The Cats had realistic credentials to believe. There was a genuine feeling that Waterford might actually get the job done over one of their arch rivals, who they have found so hard to beat in the past.
This time around, the feeling is very much different. Kilkenny have correctly answered the questions that they have faced with, as they do time after time again. While some Waterford fans may be quietly content with calling their county the fourth best team in the nation’s small ball game for now. Put it this way, Kilkenny will be strongly favoured and a Waterford win would be a massive shock.
McGrath and his team will understand that they have a chance. They are within one short fixture of bringing the Sunny South-East’s rays back with a rare win against Kilkenny. This would qualify them for an even rarer All-Ireland Final.
The odds are against them and form is probably against them too. When asking where the Deise stand now, they stand as the fourth best team in Ireland. It is not bad, but they will want more. They were fourth best last year and will want to see this moving forward. Will they move ahead of fourth place? We will find out the answer on Sunday.