11 not out
How have Waterford transformed from being relegated to 1B two years ago to winning 10 and drawing one of their last 11 League games, leaving them top of the 1A table? Martin Breheny tracks their rise under Derek McGrath, who has changed the way they play while still looking for an extra dimension which will provide the catalyst to end a 57-year wait for an All-Ireland title
Published 12/03/2016 | 02:30
It was 20 minutes after the final whistle by the time Derek McGrath finally made it down the tunnel in Semple Stadium following Waterford's win over Tipperary last Sunday.
Some of his players had only just beaten him to it, having lingered on the pitch perimeter to share the happy moment with friends and family.
At face value, it might have looked no more than a routine League win on a cold, dark March afternoon but the real context was bigger than that.
Not only had Waterford won their 10th successive League game and extended their unbeaten run to 11 games, they had effectively clinched a quarter-final place after taking all six points from their first three outings this year.
That two of the wins were away from Walsh Park, in Páirc Uí Rinn and Semple Stadium, added to the satisfaction.
The 'home' win, achieved with dogged persistence against Kilkenny, was pretty pleasing too.
Four points were enough to earn a quarter-final spot last year and, judging by results so far, could well be again this season.
It leaves Waterford with possibly two free shots in their last two games against Dublin (tomorrow) and Galway (tomorrow week) but, despite being in that comfort zone, they certainly won't be easing off.
They are relishing that winning feeling and with their final two games at home, the next target is to arrive in the quarter-finals as 1A winners, having completed a 13-game unbeaten League run.
Last Sunday's win was extra special, as it completed a treble over hurling's 'Big 3', Tipperary, Cork and Kilkenny in the space of three weeks.
In addition, Waterford finished last year's League by beating Galway, Tipperary and Cork in that order, so nobody can claim that there's anything remotely lucky about their progress.
In between the two League campaigns, they defeated Cork and Dublin in the Championship but lost to Tipperary and Kilkenny in the Munster final and All-Ireland semi-final respectively.
Both defeats bore the hallmarks of a squad making impressive progress but still lacking the necessary cuteness to cope with such seasoned rivals on the biggest Championship days. That will come with further experience and then it will be simply a question of whether Waterford are good enough to win the All-Ireland title. Right now, there's no reason to believe that it can't be achieved inside the next few years.
Granted, it will be difficult to nudge out from under history's heavy thumb but there's a means and a method about Waterford these days that suggest they are well-equipped for the challenge.
McGrath's delight at the final whistle last Sunday was palpable as he leapt into the air to celebrate the moment, having just seen Austin Gleeson fire over the winning point from a long-distance free.
McGrath later referenced the past, present and future in his post-match press conference.
The past concerned some bad experiences for Waterford in Thurles.
"Any kind of inner doubt that you have coming to a place associated with drubbings (for Waterford) over the years ... it's hard to shake," he said.
Waterford shook it hard this time, working their way efficiently through various problems.
In particular, the younger wing stood up strong and commanding, just as they have been doing so admirably over the past 13 months.
Four of Waterford's starting forwards from last Sunday - Shane Bennett, Patrick Curran, Austin Gleeson and Mikey Kearney - are still U-21 as is Tom Devine, who came on as a sub and scored a crucial goal.
Jamie Barron (22), Colin Dunford (21) also did well while Tadhg De Burca (21) and Stephen Bennett (21) weren't aboard last Sunday due to injury.
McGrath mentioned how satisfying it was to see Curran, who celebrated his 20th birthday three days earlier, striking frees with huge confidence (he pointed seven) from various distance and angles.
The fact that Waterford have so much young talent points towards a very bright future but that doesn't mean that they won't make big things happen now too.
"Their time is now. People might say they'll have it when they're 25 or 26 but their time is now. Look at how they stood up today," said McGrath.
Waterford did something unusual last weekend - they started with a near conventional line-by-line formation. It still featured an experimental element, with Gleeson lining up at full-forward, from where he popped a point in the first minute.
Not much came his way after that and he moved outfield in the second quarter. It's unlikely that he will be back on full-forward duty. He is much better coming onto the ball, rather than trying to win it with his back to goal.
Still, it was worth a shot as McGrath continues to tweak. He knows that some adjustments are necessary if that vital extra ingredient, required to drive Waterford to the All-Ireland podium, is to be added to them mix.
That includes increasing the goal rate. Devine's 59th-minute goal was Waterford's first in 4 hours 29 minutes of competitive action, having failed to land one in the opening two League games or against Kilkenny in last year's All-Ireland semi-final.
Their capacity to amass large point totals compensates to a large degree but raising the goal rate would be a massive boost. Despite leading the 1A table, Waterford have the lowest goal rate in the group.
That doesn't matter once they score enough points but it's an aspect of their game they still need to improve on in order to lighten the load.
McGrath is aware of that and will, no doubt, work on refining his attacking alignments in order to apply more pressure on opposition goalkeepers as the season progresses.
Everything about Waterford's advance over the past 13 months has been built on layered structure.
Not all of their supporters were enamoured when McGrath adjusted the side's approach early in last year's League but, as the wins racked up, they bought into it.
Most important of all, the players adapted. Indeed, that has been one of the most impressive features of Waterford's progress as it's evident that the squad have an implicit trust in the system and its creator.
McGrath tried something different at the start last Sunday, opting for a more traditional formation, before returning to what has become the Waterford norm later on.
The change was carried out quite easily and once McGrath got the opportunity to reboot the system at half-time, the pattern of the game altered in Waterford's direction.
Not immediately, mind you, as Tipperary did well for the opening 10 minutes of the second-half, but once Waterford powered up on momentum they were the better team, out-scoring their rivals by 1-9 to 1-3 in the final 25 minutes.
While Waterford have probably made it to the quarter-finals already, it's unlikely that McGrath will over -experiment against Dublin and Galway.
He will see it as important to finish first or second in 1A, thus avoiding Clare or Limerick in the quarter-finals, since it seems certain the Munster pair will be the top two in 1B. A first or second place finish in the top tier would most likely leave Waterford facing Offaly or Wexford.
It's not that Waterford fear anybody but why make life harder than it has to be - hence the advantage of avoiding Clare and Limerick.
Besides, there's a lengthening unbeaten run to be considered. Currently standing at 11, it could have some way to go yet.
McGrath's Maestro's: Waterford's unbeaten run in the league
Tipperary 1-17, Thurles (Round 3, Mar 6)
Tipperary led by five points after 43 minutes but Waterford out-scored them by 1-9 to 1-3 from there on, the winning point coming from a long range free in stoppage time by Austin Gleeson.
Waterford 0-20 Cork 1-14, Pairc Ui Rinn (Round 2, Feb 20)
It was 0-11 to 0-7 in Waterford’s favour at the interval and they extended their lead to eight points in the second-half before Cork pared it back to three near the end.
Waterford 1-24 Cork 0-17 (NHL final, Thurles, May 3)
Waterford led by four points at half-time and won the second-half by 1-13 to 0-10.
Waterford 0-20 Galway 0-12, Walsh Park (Quarter-final, Mar 29)
Waterford won it with the wind in the first-half. Leading by 0-14 to 0-5 at half-time, they worked their way comfortably through the second-half.
Waterford 4-30 Antrim 0-10, Walsh Park (Round 4, Mar 15)
It was even enough in the first quarter before Waterford overwhelmed the fading visitors from there on.
Waterford 3-21 Laois 0-12, Dungarvan (Round 2, Feb 21)
Laois were only three points down at half-time but lost the second-half by 3-10 to 0-4.
Waterford 0-14 Kilkenny 0-10, Walsh Park (Round 1, Feb 14)
Waterford led by two points at half-time and doubled the margin in the second half.
Waterford 1-19 Tipperary 2-15, Nowlan Park (Semi-final, Apr 19)
Tipp led by seven points after 16 minutes but Waterford out-scored them by 1-16 to 0-11 from there on.
Waterford 0-22 Wexford 0-16, Innovate Wexford Park (Round 5, Mar 22)
Waterford led by six points at half-time, a margin they protected all the way to the finish.
Waterford 2-18 Offaly 1-14, Tullamore (Round 3, Mar 9)
Offaly led by 0-7 to 0-0 after 15 minutes but were overpowered from there on, losing the remaining 55 minutes by 2-18 to 1-7.
Waterford 0-22 Limerick 2-16, Gaelic Grounds (Round 1, Feb 14)
Waterford led by four points at half-time but Limerick improved in the second-half and were a point ahead in stoppage time before Paudie Prendergast shot the equaliser/