Sport Hurling

Saturday 27 May 2017

Colm keys: Davy lines up Deise's next generation

Diggers operate on the pitch
in Croke Park yesterday.
PAT MURPHY/ SPORTSFILE
Diggers operate on the pitch in Croke Park yesterday. PAT MURPHY/ SPORTSFILE

Ken McGrath and Dan Shanahan have slipped away into the sunset, Tony Browne moves ever closer to joining them and Eoin Kelly's best days look increasingly numbered with every passing season.

This stellar quartet of entertainers may not have an All-Ireland medal between them when the accounts of their careers as inter-county hurlers are finally signed off.

But their legacy is surely reflected in the flourish of youth that has swept through the Waterford squad over the last few years.

Tomorrow evening, Davy Fitzgerald will announce a team for the first game of their defence of the Munster championship against Limerick with up to five U-21s possibly involved. That number could just as easily be eight.

All-Ireland success may have eluded them through the 2000s, but as McGrath and Shanahan enjoy their respective retirements and Browne and Kelly consider their own over the next few months, they can be satisfied that the game in Waterford has probably never been as healthy.

In the city and in the west of the county, where pockets of football have been traditionally stronger, hurling has boomed.

Much of that is down to them, down to the cavalier nature that they brought to games on sun-kissed afternoons in Thurles, Pairc Ui Chaoimh and Croke Park. Even when they lost.

They raised the profile and hurling is thriving because of those journeys. The kids who watched the breakthrough in 2002 and that epic Munster final two years later are now flooding the squad and providing options like never before.

emerging

Waterford, you could argue, have never had it so good.

The recent successes of De La Salle College and Blackwater Community School in All-Ireland colleges competition represents just the tip of the iceberg for what could be emerging from Waterford on the back of the last decade.

The much-coveted Tony Forristal U-14 hurling tournament hosted by Waterford each year provides a useful yardstick for hurling's future and in that sense a very bright prognosis exists for the Deise.

There was a time when they were whipping boys confined to the second tier, but last September Waterford claimed their second ever Division 1 title having contested six of the last seven finals.

Last September, they beat Limerick, Cork and Wexford to qualify for a decider in which they saw off Kilkenny. The academies are working overtime.

This is the legacy of the last decade, the legacy of Shanahan, Kelly, Browne and McGrath that provides the basis for a very sound future.

But what about the present?

On Sunday, Waterford face a county that has never been fearful in their company.

Just two years ago, a Limerick team, in some degree of turmoil as tensions grew with then-manager Justin McCarthy, held them to a draw in one of the least inspiring games of hurling in recent memory, before Waterford won the replay.

In 2007, they turned the Deise over in an All-Ireland semi-final after losing the Munster decider weeks earlier and in 2003 Waterford also needed a replay to advance to a Munster final.

This has never been a fixture that sits easily with the Deise despite the edge in class they have.

Fitzgerald has his detractors in Waterford who still feel unease at the defensive shackles being placed upon them. They'd rather see John Mullane rack up six points than make six tackles.

Slowly but surely, however, Fitzgerald has been able to place his own stamp on the team he inherited in controversial circumstances in 2008.

And he remains firm in his belief that Waterford must become a more difficult team to beat before they can make a bigger step forward.

The choices in personnel he has have arguably never been greater despite the loss of some hardened veterans through retirement and, in Eoin Murphy's case, through serious injury.

Some 31 players were used in a league campaign that yielded four wins and a draw in a veil of respectability.

The greatest conundrum in second-guessing what team will be finalised tomorrow night surrounds Kelly.

Where will he play, or, more pertinently, will he play at all?

Kelly's build-up has been fractured somewhat and he came close at one stage to leaving the squad before Fitzgerald managed to coax him to stay.

But at best he looks like an experienced panel member with little prospect of making the starting 15 right now.

Kelly's probable omission perhaps best underlines the pace of change that Waterford has experienced, particularly over the last 10 months since their All-Ireland semi-final exit to Tipperary.

Darragh Fives, Pauric Mahony and Brian O'Sullivan, from last year's minor team, and Maurice Shanahan and Noel Connors are the U-21s most likely to start. Philip Mahony, Tomas Ryan, David O'Sullivan and Eamonn Murphy can't have been too far away in deliberations.

Brian O'Halloran, who had that baptism of fire against Tipperary last year, has succumbed to a long-standing hamstring injury.

Yet for all the added choices around, the suspicion remains that the onus will still fall on the same shoulders this season, Michael 'Brick' Walsh at centre-back, Stephen Molumphy around the middle and Mullane up front.

Shane Walsh is surely a certain starter at full-forward but appears only suited to an orthodox three-man line.

He whipped in 3-14 from play during the league to underline a very rich vein of form and in the probable absence of Kelly, Richie Foley's stock rises as the team's free-taker.

It has the potential to be a Waterford team that signals the passing of the baton to a new era.

In Waterford, the next decade has the potential to reap what the last decade sowed.

Irish Independent

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