'I wouldn't see the system as defensive ... it's all about work rate'
Young gun Bennett backing new-look Waterford to prosper this summer
Published 18/04/2015 | 02:30
They are a difficult audience the Waterford public, tied in their emotions to a perpetual cycle of boom or bust.
The idea of a cold, precisioned hurling team has never sat comfortably with them, especially not since the county's stockpiling of Munster titles ('02, '04 and '07) with a group that could hurl so beautifully it sometimes felt as if the sky above them might just open up and dance. To this day, it is as if the plainer triumph of 2010, so carefully tailored to tactic and structural discipline under Davy Fitz, seemed to offend a general appetite for Broadway.
Waterford almost yearn to be loved more than feared in this game. They have the disposition of a chorus line.
So Derek McGrath will be under few illusions about the likely implications of tuning his team to a frequency that won't ever make the aesthetes swoon. He rightly bristled this week at a comparison with Donegal footballers, seeing in it the essential lie that Waterford are programmed only to spoil and frustrate a la Jim McGuinness's men in the wretched All-Ireland semi-final of 2011.
One thing for an already seasoned group of inter-county footballers to position so many bodies behind the ball they all but make the playing field tilt, quite another for a young, developing group of hurlers to cover their own backs.
McGrath believes simply that Waterford must learn to defend better before they can insinuate themselves into hurling's bigger stories. By this juncture last season, they had been relegated from Division 1A with a concession of 17 goals in six games. Tomorrow, they go to Nowlan Park for an Allianz National Hurling League semi-final against Tipperary, having leaked just three in six.
That's an average concession of almost three per game pared right down to 0.5.
McGrath's first year in the chair convinced him they had to do that. Three of their ten competitive games (Clare and Kilkenny in the league; Cork in the Munster Championship replay) decanted hidings. Another two (Dublin in the relegation play-off and Wexford in an All-Ireland qualifier) were lost to the cheap concession of goals.
That last defeat sat especially badly with the Waterford public. They read their team as being neither one thing nor the other in Wexford Park that evening with a sense of McGrath juggling between new soldiers and old. Not now.
The team that hurls tomorrow is cut from a cloth of the manager's choosing and will go at Tipp without concern for stylistic grumbles.
Stephen Bennett is emblematic of the mindset. A free-scoring forward on the 2013 team that delivered Waterford's first minor All-Ireland in 65 years, he believes the seniors hurl today for a manager drawn to simple common sense. "We're reading everywhere about how defensive this thing is," the young Ballysaggart man reflected this week.
"But I wouldn't see it as a defensive plan. The whole emphasis is on work rate. If a fella's on the ball and he has two or three lads harassing him, he's not going to be able to give good ball in to his forwards."
Bennett is a child of plenty, son to former county man Pat (and brother to fellow county minors, Shane and Kieran), his formative years were shaped by those Munster final heroics of modern gods like Ken McGrath and Paul Flynn and Tony Browne and Dan Shanahan and, more recently, Michael 'Brick' Walsh.
He describes it as "crazy" now to be hurling with the latter, for it was 'Brick' and Ken McGrath he most aspired to follow as a young dreamer.
Old hierarchies have crumbled in there now. Time was, Waterford teams were dominated by the big city houses of Mount Sion and Ballygunner, but there's a far broader reach today. Some of the clubs listed in tomorrow's match programme would have triggered double-takes a decade back.
Names like Clashmore and Fourmilewater and Modeligo, not to mention Ballysaggart, reflect a new democracy in Waterford hurling.
For Bennett, though, the path to senior inter-county hasn't exactly been carpeted in petals. A chronic hip condition required surgery after that All-Ireland minor win and he has since been working on a programme of maintenance rather than outright resolution. The problem was first identified at the age of 15 when he was deemed too young for surgery.
He became part of McGrath's senior panel last year, but managed only a single full training session before being sent on for the last ten minutes of that All-Ireland qualifier against Wexford. This year, he feels more centrally involved.
"I'm still not quite there yet, but I'm a lot better than I was," he reflects. "It was torn cartilage between the ball and socket and I got that reconstructed two years ago. The knees were good for a while but, when I went back to play with Ballysaggart then (with whom he won a Munster junior title), they got very bad. I've been up in the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry rehabilitating it for nearly the last year and a half and the physios in Waterford have been brilliant.
"I can do a hard session, but then I won't be able to do the next one. It's frustrating because you feel kind of out of place, wondering what are the other players thinking.
"Last year, I didn't enjoy it. I was doing my own training in a corner of the field and I got that ten minutes against Wexford. Everyone does their best to get you to feel part of it, but it's not really working."
With men like Austin Gleeson, Tadhg de Burca, Jamie Barron, Colin Dunford, Tom Devine and his own brother, Shane, Bennett represents a new breed of Waterford hurler and, to some degree, a new philosophy now. McGrath is building his team around an attitude of willing subordination to team, something not always conspicuous in a county that has coveted its individualists.
Most of today's players have been winning from a young age, Bennett himself a member of the University of Limerick team that won this year's Fitzgibbon Cup.
They beat Waterford IT in a replayed final which, for Bennett, offered a surreal experience. "I don't know was there seven or eight starters from Waterford on the WIT team," he grins.
"That was a weird enough experience, playing against these lads in a Fitzgibbon final replay on a Wednesday night and training with them on Saturday."
He is into his second year of Business Studies at UL and thinks that he might pursue a career in primary school teaching. But, for now, his head is full of hurling.
He could be Waterford's nominated taker tomorrow in the event of being awarded a penalty and welcomes the new rule of having just a goalkeeper on the line.
"The other night in training, about ten of us took them just to see," he reflects. "People are saying the forward will be able to place the ball, but I was taking them on Ian O'Regan and 'Socky' (Stephen O'Keeffe) and it's not as easy as people think. If you change your mind any way at all, you won't score."
Beating Tipperary would be a massive fillip for McGrath's young team tomorrow, but they won't surrender faith if the challenge proves beyond them.
"It would be huge to beat them," agrees Bennett. "I mean if you're beating those big teams, the Tipps, Kilkennys and Corks, it helps you believe that you're up there with them.
"At the start of the year, if we were offered a league semi-final and promotion, we'd have taken it. There are going to be bad days and people will have to accept that, they'll have to be patient.
"But make no mistake we're looking at doing something this year."