Sinead Kissane: For all of Waterford's potential McGrath wants their future to be now
By lunchtime on Monday Waterford manager Derek McGrath had yet to fulfil a promise he'd made to himself. In the lead-up to last Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final McGrath did his routine visit before a Waterford game - he went to the Cathedral and offered up a two-way proposal.
"I never ask God to win, just to be the best we can be on any given day. I promised Him that I would be back today but I've yet to be back so the hypocrisy continues," McGrath said, smiling at his recent admission that he's a hypocritical Catholic. And, yes, McGrath was able to smile.
The day after Waterford sent the hurling championship into a spin it would have been forgivable if McGrath cloaked himself with regret. He said he couldn't stop thinking about the drawn game with Kilkenny all night when he got home from Croke Park.
But by mid-morning on Monday he had already met with the players for their recovery session in Clonea Strand and masked any remnants of regret with reason and belief. "I don't think you could be negative enough to say that we blew it because that is giving yourself no chance the next day and it's probably saying that you've no belief in what we're trying to do overall," McGrath reasoned. "My over-riding emotion is one of pride."
Being connected to what they were "trying to do overall" helped make Waterford magnificent for 62 minutes last Sunday. We longed for a game which would have us on the edge of our seats but they went one better and had fans off their seats. When Brian Cody spits into his hand and rubs his hands together it can be interpreted as a sign that he knows he's in one hell of a battle. The first time the TV camera showed him do this last Sunday was after four minutes.
Waterford clocked up the kind of points which might have had others sink into self-appreciation but the Waterford players seemed tied to a bigger picture; Austin Gleeson and Pauric Mahony were running back into position after shooting sensational points rather than lapping up the applause of their supporters. Just because McGrath gave the players a licence to play a more conventional style it didn't mean they lost the run of themselves as they showed us the kind of synapses of skill which induce shock and awe from all of us watching.
Obviously, it was no surprise to McGrath. They have 12 players who are part of the U-21 squad which won the recent Munster U-21 final in a way which asked questions over why the seniors couldn't play in that same gung-ho style. McGrath said players in the senior squad had one training session with the U-21s before that final so he knew their capabilities for any game-plan he decided to implement for Kilkenny.
The shackles may have been off in the drawn game but their approach was governed by a strict tunnel vision. When Kevin Moran out-leapt Cillian Buckley to catch a ball in the 29th minute which earned him a free, Moran didn't waste time or energy with a holler to the heavens. He simply nodded at a few of his team-mates and got on with it. Battle, war etc.
While Gleeson raised his arm after scoring another jaw-dropper in the 55th minute, it was the show of emotion seven minutes later which seemed to cause the mask of ruthlessness to slip.
John Power first fumbled the ball and was then dispossessed which won Waterford a sideline cut. Understandably, it sparked the first major burst of emotion from McGrath and Gleeson near the sideline. "If Waterford get out the gap, then that's going to be one of the turning points of the game," RTE co-commentator Brendan Cummins pointed out at the time.
Cummins was right. But it wasn't the kind of turning point Waterford would have liked. Five wides followed for Waterford and they scored only one more point in the game (from a free). McGrath conceded the following day that a bit of fatigue had started to set in after 63 minutes "when it looked like we had retreated almost into our supposed system". Ultimately, Waterford didn't run through the tape and no team punishes an act of mercy more than Kilkenny.
McGrath's attributes as a manager will have hit peak time this past week. He's leading a squad which has the experience of Moran and Michael Walsh but also younger players who, as Jason Ryan said, are "like sponges" in terms of what they are learning from their experiences.
Former Wexford and Kildare football manager Ryan has known McGrath since they were in the same class together in secondary school in De La Salle College (where McGrath now teaches). He played a lot of hurling, some Gaelic football and soccer with McGrath growing up. "Derek is one of the most competitive people I've ever met. Huge will to win from the first moment I met him," Ryan said. "Everything he did, he did to the best of his ability and his work ethic was always brilliant."
Ryan believes the time for Waterford is now: "You may think that you're going to have so many more opportunities but you may not. You don't know what's going to happen next year. You've got to make the most out of the year now. And that's probably an element of the challenge for the younger players, and realising that the here and now is the key."
This was something McGrath spoke about on Monday. "People can talk about potential and they can talk that Waterford can definitely do something over the next few years but it doesn't work like that in life. It maybe our time and we have to take the time while it's there." There's always a rider. "But standing in our way is an absolute juggernaut of hurt and a machine that's been built on years of absolute humility and skill level," McGrath added.
The GAA championship has been doing its bit for the year of the underdog with various versions of it. But this Waterford team doesn't need to play on that. If the team can forget the past and the kind of history Kilkenny have with replays and their reputation. If they can also forget the future. If Waterford run all the way through the tape and keep their ruthless face their future will come in the present.
And there's no better time than today to fulfil their promise.