McGrath’s young fliers mature at breakneck speed
Rebels put to sword as Waterford's evolution gathers pace
Published 08/06/2015 | 02:30
The intellectualisation of hurling maybe blinds us to some fundamentals about a team like Waterford.
For there is an energy now blowing through everything they do that all but supercedes the debate about systems and body congestion.
Waterford are undeniably intelligent in how they arrange the furniture, but structure is hardly what defines them. Our fixation with defence just happens to sell that lie.
Cork, after all, faced few secrets here and, maybe, that was their starkest predicament.
Because the build-up had throwback settings to a time when they were routinely mocked for an effete quality under pressure and that dusty old taunt "Tipp for the men" would be lobbed in their faces after another day when regal wrists could not protect them.
Cork's adult status was, it seemed, on the line yesterday. Their own people considered them soft.
It works this way. History recycles its prejudices and it is human nature to respond in a time-worn pattern.
Few games recycle insult as a fossil fuel better than hurling, so the assumption here was that Cork might come at Waterford like a hurricane hitting a shore.
They did too. They pushed up on Waterford and threw bodies at the breakdown in a way that won't have felt natural.
They accepted the terms of engagement that meant a crowded middle third and little enough hurling we might consider pure. Cork did everything that Jimmy Barry-Murphy could demand of them and, yet, Waterford never let them slip more than four points clear.
It meant that Derek McGrath's team were less tempted to abandon their structure, less susceptible to panic.
And that was the beginning and the end of this game.
Because Waterford did not pay for a slow, "over-structured" start that McGrath reckoned might have been down an emotional video shown on the bus journey to Thurles focusing on their injured forward, Pauric Mahony.
"We just looked drained," he remarked afterwards. "It just looked like the emotional knock-on of the video and the words were having an effect for the first 15 minutes."
Their first score from play was actually delayed until the 25th minute. It came from Kevin Moran but was followed by two goals in three minutes that suddenly asked the kind of questions of Cork that the critics insist they simply lack the fortitude to answer.
Those Maurice Shanahan and Jake Dillon scores turned a three-point deficit into a three-point lead.
More than that, they reaffirmed to Cork the reality that this was a day that would be cutting them no slack.
There might even have been a third Waterford goal in that pocket of time, Moran attempting a dummy hand-pass that went to ground with an unmarked Colin Dunford inside him.
And the message here was that Waterford's system wasn't, as some have tried to aver, anti-hurling. On the contrary, it was an expression of positional freedom.
For they were the ones exploiting great prairies of space in behind Cork's full-back line while, at the Killinan End goal, everything was in penitentiary lockdown.
For McGrath, the reiteration of everything they had declared about themselves when winning the League was what the bigger victory here.
"I have to say that's the most pleasing thing," he told us.
"Even going back to my own (story) ... De La Salle College when we beat Thurles CBS in the Harty final and I knew we'd end up meeting them again in the All-Ireland Colleges final.
"I was dreading that. Not having to re-motivate the team, but just to look for a different angle, a different approach.
"Because we were warts-and-all in terms of our approach to the League. We wanted it like no other team I think, so to be able to do that and approach a Championship day, where the echoes of 'Ah, that was only the League, this is Championship, the real thing!' are on the outside of your circle, it's very satisfying to be able to turn up if you like, have the wobble and then settle ourselves and be able to go again."
Still that gilded cage of tradition imprisons an eternity of closed minds.
No matter how Cork tried yesterday, they never really looked capable of prising victory from the second-half.
So Waterford, lacking their scorer-in-chief and supposedly preoccupied with defence, accumulated 3-19 (they keep shooting the lights out despite reputedly having their heads in their boots) and leaked an extravagant 14 wides.
Yet, on the field after, McGrath's own father captured the essential traps still set by prejudice.
"Between the field and here, if I meet another Waterford person that says 'You're in the quarter-final now at least...'" he smiled.
"I think that defeatist attitude is ... I met my own father out on the field and he said to me 'You're in the quarter-final now at least!'. I think sometimes we just need to change that mentality."
That said, he understands its attractions.
"I think the underdog role probably suits us," he said.
"I'm not really sure what our motivation is, more so than just being better ourselves. I just felt we let ourselves down last year in terms of our whole approach, we let the outside bubble get to us a bit.
"We were ruled by the traditionalists' viewpoint in Waterford that we can't play in this particular way, that Waterford hurling doesn't do tactics, blah, blah, blah.
"It's not an answer to the critics in any way, it's not an answer to outside perceptions, we're just trying to work out what's best for us. And we're nearly there."
So they do what they do, endlessly challenging us to disregard them. They police the breakdown like manic border guards; they get bodies over the ball in rucks like men bent over wounded family.
They are relentless and defiant and, it seems, endlessly calm in a gale. And they have a bench that continues to supplement the starters.
And now, on July 12, they will attempt to add a Munster title to the League that nobody believed they were capable of winning. And, again, Mahony will be uppermost in their minds.
"Paudie is irreplaceable in our team," said Maurice Shanahan immediately afterwards. "That's who we did it for today. We saw something coming on that bus and it was Paudie Mahony to drive us and he drove us today. It's for him"
It isn't a fairytale. It is simply the swift evolution of a young team maturing at breakneck speed towards God alone knows what kind of future.
Yesterday, they beat a good team trying hard.
"I can't fault my players' effort," said the eternally gracious Barry-Murphy afterwards.
"We know our place in the pecking order".
The dangerous thing for hurling is that Waterford now do too.