Cyril Farrell: Confident Waterford can cope with new pressures
If Waterford's hurlers proved anything this year, it's that they are fast learners. They needed to be as the new-look squad had to adapt quickly to a re-shaped system.
And while it had Derek McGrath's stamp all over it, he too was learning as he went along. It was a fine balancing act between experiment and execution, since every system depends on wins to make it viable.
No one can ever be quite sure how a squad will take to fresh ideas, although in McGrath's case he was dealing with a lot of young lads he knew well.
Still, he had some older players too, men like 'Brick' Walsh and Kevin Moran, who had to buy into his ideas and philosophies. So while all the jigsaw pieces were slotting together, it was crucial - both for squad and public confidence - that good results followed.
They did. In fact, Waterford surpassed all expectations so spectacularly that they find themselves in an All-Ireland quarter-final after losing only one of 10 games this year.
The Allianz League title has been secured and while Waterford lost to Tipperary in the Munster final, they were sufficiently competitive to make sure that no significant withdrawals were made from their confidence reserves.
Against that encouraging background, it might appear as if they are very much in bonus territory. In a sense they are, but I would still suggest that tomorrow's clash with Dublin is their most pressurised so far.
How they handle that could well decide whether the season ends here or they start planning for an All-Ireland semi-final.
Ever since they topped 1B and launched the next stage of the big adventure, Waterford started each game as outsiders. That's five successive outings where the majority of hurling people thought they would lose.
Now, they are favourites to beat Dublin, which brings a different type of pressure.
Waterford's response to the outsiders' tag was as defiant as it was effective all the way to the Munster final against Tipperary, where they were out-gunned by a superior force.
The good thing for Waterford that day was that their system generally held solid. However, they were up against a more experienced side too, which made a difference.
One thing that surprised me was that they didn't tweak the system a little in the closing 10 minutes when it became clear they needed a goal to get themselves back in the game.
There's no safety net tomorrow so they will need a Plan B if the flow goes against them. It not, their season could be over.
I'm writing this before the team is announced but if I were in Derek McGrath's shoes, I'd bring Darragh Fives into the half-back line and move Austin Gleeson out towards midfield to inject more variety into the area.
Ger Cunningham's post- Leinster championship realignment of Dublin worked well and they are now right back in contention.
The way they chiselled out the win over Limerick was most impressive and served as a reminder of how efficient they can be when they get their game working.
The defence looked much better with Liam Rushe back as a main anchor, while Conal Keaney is better suited to attack. As for Paul Ryan, he had an inspired day. And then there's Mark Schutte and Ryan O'Dwyer, while Cian Boland is improving.
Danny Sutcliffe hasn't been at his best so far, but he's an excellent player so it is only a matter of time before he comes good again. If it's tomorrow, he will pose a real threat to Waterford.
It's all nicely set up for Dublin in the sense that their rating took a severe hit after Galway hammered them in the Leinster quarter-final replay. And yet, they might so very easily have beaten Galway in the drawn game, so it would be wrong to underestimate them.
Still, I'm backing Waterford for a win. One defeat won't have dented their confidence so if they handle the pressure issue, they can prolong the season.