Waterford boss Derek McGrath facing biggest test of his career so far
Published 12/07/2016 | 02:30
Derek McGrath knows where the story is headed. Stripped down to its very core in Sunday's Munster final, the Waterford game-plan is up for review, not least within the county itself.
It was always more tolerated than liked in Déise-land anyway.
Results over 18 months forced its critics to remain largely silent as they watched the transformation from a squad that were relegated from 1A in 2014 and ran a mediocre championship to an outfit that were crowned 2015 Allianz League champions.
And while they lost to Tipperary and Kilkenny in last year's championship, Waterford were seen as a solid work-in-progress, where further refinements would help continue with the upward graph. The close calls in this year's drawn and replayed league final clashes with Clare didn't alter the view that Waterford had a viable plan.
And when they beat Clare quite comfortably in the Munster semi-final, they looked well-primed for the next big step against Tipperary last Sunday.
However, by the end of a horribly deflating day for them, all their painstaking planning and development appeared to be wrecked, buried deep beneath Tipperary's mountain of scores.
Tipperary 5-19 Waterford 0-13.
It stands stark and bleak on the Waterford landscape, their biggest championship defeat since Tipperary's 7-19 to 0-19 win in the 2011 Munster final.
Prior to that, Waterford's worst day in Munster was in 1995 when Tipperary were also their tyrannical masters in a 4-23 to 1-11 quarter-final rout.
What happened last Sunday runs contrary to everything McGrath has built in Waterford since re-adjusting their approach after a 2014 season when their concession rates were unacceptably high.
'Alarming' was his post-match description on Sunday, before acknowledging that "maybe it's a case of not being system-dependent."
Yet, as he rightly pointed out, it was when Waterford aborted their usual approach and tried to chase down Tipperary in the second half that they really fell apart.
"Tipperary opened us up all over the field," he said. That's best illustrated by the impact of John McGrath's early second-half goal.
It put Tipperary six points clear, a lead that wouldn't normally panic Waterford but with little going right for them, its impact was devastating. Two more Tipperary goals followed quite quickly.
Shortly afterwards, the Ennis Road was awash with dejected blue-and-white supporters, squelching through the rain and wondering why everything had gone so horribly wrong.
It's easy to put Waterford's implosion down to a catastrophic systems malfunction, portraying it as a calamity waiting to happen once strong opposition figured it out properly and reacted with a clever counter-plan.
There was less to it than that. The biggest difference between the teams lay in such key areas as touch, timing and accuracy.
Tipperary were vastly superior on all three fronts, even if they did waste quite a few scoring chances in the final quarter. By then, the contest was over so they could afford to indulge themselves with long-range shooting that didn't always find the target.
Given the precision of so much of Tipperary's play earlier on, it's highly unlikely that Waterford would have beaten them even if they got their own game working at maximum efficiency.
However, they fell a long way short of that, leaving them as easy prey for John McGrath, Seamus Callanan and company.
Quite why Waterford's handling and striking were so poor will remain an unsolved mystery.
In any event, it's pointless seeking an answer, since there's so much work to be done before they attempt to re-float their season against Wexford on Sunday week.
Everyone in Waterford knows that the players are so much better than they looked last Sunday so the big challenge is to get them back into a groove where they had looked so comfortable since the start of 2015.
The main threat to that rests with the psychological impact of a 21-point defeat. After Waterford's loss to Tipperary in a very competitive Munster final last year, McGrath contrasted it with heavy league setbacks against Clare and Kilkenny in the spring of 2014, admitting that "the psychological impact of those undoubtedly had an effect on the lads."
"I don't think there will be those type of scars from this defeat," he said. The same applied when Waterford lost the All-Ireland semi-final to Kilkenny.
It's very different now. The scars are bigger and deeper than at any time in 2014, leaving McGrath with the biggest puzzle of his managerial career.
The good news is that the Waterford psyche responds well to cruel setbacks. In 1998, they beat Galway by 10 points in the All-Ireland quarter-final a week after losing the Munster final replay to Clare by 12 points.
They recovered quickly too from the 21-point defeat by Tipperary in 2011, again beating Galway by 10 points in the quarter-final two weeks later. McGrath will have the squad ready for Sunday week. And most likely it will be off largely the same game-plan, presumably executed better this time.