Waterford reaping rewards for putting faith in future
DAVY Fitzgerald's decision to give Waterford's youth its fling this season was seen by some as a massive gamble.
But they have not let him down yet, and not surprising given the recent trajectory of the Decies' underage teams.
Waterford are contesting both the Munster minor and senior hurling finals on Sunday for the third season in a row. That is a statistic which many have ignored while still hailing Tipp and Cork as the traditional giants of Munster hurling.
But if Waterford could pull off a big double on Sunday, their claim to be recognised as a new Munster hurling superpower could no longer be ignored.
Fergal Hartley, the former county star who is now managing the U-21s, says their underage ranks are brimming with talent and that Fitzgerald's faith in their young guns is well placed.
"Unfortunately we met Tipperary in the first round of the U-21s this year and lost by five points," he said. "But nine of those U-21s are in Davy's senior squad and they've more than held their own. They have great talent, a fantastic attitude and are hugely committed.
"Darragh Fives and Paudie O'Mahony were only minors last year and are really great prospects. In fairness to Davy, he hasn't been afraid to give them their chance, he blooded them in the league and has really gone with a whole new team this year."
Senior starters like Noel Connors, Brian O'Sullivan and Maurice Shanahan were also still U-21 this year, as were senior panellists like O'Mahony's older brother Philip, sub goalkeeper Stephen O'Keeffe, Brian O'Halloran (currently injured) and Eamon Murphy, another who is just out of their minor ranks.
And many are already pointing at Waterford's burgeoning minor talents as further cause for optimism.
This year's minor crop, managed by Liam O'Connor and coached by Dave Bennett, have already knocked out two fancied sides -- Tipperary and Limerick, after an extra-time thriller -- en route to Sunday's U-18 decider against Clare.
Teenage centre-forward Jake Dillon has already played in a Munster senior club final with De La Salle and Stephen Bennett (still only 15) is regarded as yet another precocious talent who could do great things.
"I believe it is close to 30 years since any county contested both Munster finals for three years in a row," said Hartley, a reference to Cork doing it last from 1985-87.
Statistics like that have really heartened the county and Hartley points to another milestone which he believes is a further promising indicator for the Decies' future.
"We have reached three of the last four Tony Forristal (U-14 tournament) finals, won two of them and lost another by a point," he said.
Indeed, Dillon was a member of Waterford's team that finally made a big breakthrough by winning Division 1 of the Tony Forristal in 2007 after 26 years of hosting the tournament.
"Our good underage teams are being driven on by the clubs, they are doing fantastic work and it is really paying off," Hartley added.
He believes that the county's consistent appearance in Munster senior finals -- Sunday will be their eighth in the last 14 years, with four won since 2002 -- has definitely strengthened Waterford's claim to being a 'top four' team.
A nimble 38-year-old may still be leading them from wing-back, but Hartley feels that it's their young guns that are making their future especially bright.
"We still haven't won the big one (All-Ireland) and until we do cannot be classed as good as Kilkenny or Tipperary," Hartley admitted.
"But we have a lot of genuine underage talent coming through and I really believe that many of them are going to become household names in the coming years."
Senior boss Fitzgerald will be without the injured full-back Wayne Hutchinson (broken bone in his hand) on Sunday.
He has the option of moving centre-back Michael 'Brick' Walsh to cover at full-back but is expected to look to fit-again Liam Lawlor or Fives to fill the No 3 shirt.
MUNSTER HURLING FINALS
2009 -- Tipperary 4-14 Waterford 2-16
2010 -- Waterford 1-16 Cork 1-13 (replay, after extra-time)
2011 -- Waterford v Tipperary
2009 -- Waterford 0-18 Tipperary 1-13
2010 -- Clare 1-16 Waterford 1-11
2011 -- Waterford v Clare