McGrath's Deise quick to pick up where they left off
Published 16/02/2016 | 02:30
Not a bad weekend for what can loosely be described as hurling's immediate chasing pack. No explanation required for who or what they are chasing.
In Salthill, beaten All-Ireland finalists Galway brought to 3-55 the scores they have racked up against Cork in back-to-back games and in doing so extended their sequences of victories first time out in the League, their last opening day reversal coming against Dublin in 2009.
In Ennis, Clare did as expected with a straightforward win over Offaly, the only team they have enjoyed Championship success against since their 2013 All-Ireland triumph.
The evening before, Tipperary served notice that they just might be a more steely proposition in the months ahead with a 14-point win over a Dublin team that has given them plenty of trouble at this time of the year in the recent past.
But it was in Waterford where arguably the biggest statement was made as the home side brought a losing run of nine games against Kilkenny to an end, inflicting just a fifth defeat on them in 22 League and Championship meetings between the counties on Brian Cody's watch.
To put it into even greater context Kilkenny have only lost four opening-round League games in 18 seasons under Cody: against Cork in his first match in 1999 and then against Galway in 2013 and Clare the following year.
So the suggestion that it was the right time to catch them just doesn't wash. There's never a right time, not even when they should be at their most vulnerable. With 12 of their All-Ireland final starting team selected they were stronger, on paper, than the team that mined an impressive victory over Cork in Pairc Ui Rinn in the corresponding game 12 months ago.
But Waterford's keener edge on a surface that quite probably suited their style more prevailed, and already the evidence is mounting that they haven't missed a step in the off season and remain on a very straight path.
It is Derek McGrath's third season but given the overhaul of his squad in late 2014 there's a 'second season' feel to them. There's no sign, however, of the syndrome that sometimes affects teams at that stage of development.
Reducing goal opportunities was a fundamental of Waterford's rapid progress under McGrath last year.
On Sunday they produced another clean sheet, bringing to eight the number they have enjoyed now in 13 League and Championship games since the beginning of last year. Only once, against Tipperary in the League semi-final, since their transformation have they conceded two goals in a competitive game.
Consistency of selection has been the other cornerstone. In eight League matches they played the same goalkeeper and six defenders, with one exception, when Austin Gleeson was injured for the match against Antrim.
For the Championship the personnel was even tighter.
In four games there were just three changes, Brian O'Halloran making way for Eddie Barrett for the Munster final against Tipp, Barrett then stepping out for Darragh Fives, with Stephen and Shane Bennett trading places for the All-Ireland quarter-final against Dublin. For the semi-final against Kilkenny they were unchanged.
In all McGrath called on just 21 players for the four Championship games, a pool that matched champions Kilkenny for the same number of games.
That McGrath could summon 14 of their starting All-Ireland semi-final starting team back into action for their first League match underlined the importance he placed on competing with Kilkenny first and foremost but also the faith he has in the players who brought them so far in 2015. His relative conservatism continues to serve him very well.
With just Tadhg De Burca injured and Pauric Mahony still easing himself back after last year's leg break, McGrath gave a clear indication that graduation for the rest is going to be quite a rigorous process.
In contrast Clare used nine of their last Championship team of 2015, Galway deployed eight while Tipp started just seven but included two substitutes, Michael Breen and Noel McGrath, from the start this time.
Describing the cut-throat nature of Division 1A hurling as "almost to serious" McGrath was echoing the comments made by Davy Fitzgerald's almost three years earlier when he questioned the nature of a division that allows little room for experimentation.
But right now only Cody has, arguably, the same clarity over team selection.
One young man there clearly will be time for is Patrick Curran, who showed glimpses on Sunday of the player he has always threatened to be.
Curran offers the option of providing greater support up front to Maurice Shanahan but the temptation to push Gleeson, man of the match on Sunday when his touch in such difficult conditions stood apart in such exalted company, further upfield must be there too.