Vincent Hogan: Austin Gleeson's forward momentum may hold key to Déise ambitions
At a victory banquet for Waterford's All-Ireland winning U-21 team two weeks ago, the county was described as being "within a whisker of Liam MacCarthy."
Speaking in the The Park Hotel, Sean Power set down a challenge to the young men present to be the ones who spearhead a push to replicate the glories of Tom Cheasty and Co. It is closing on six decades since Waterford were last senior kingpins of the game and, in the week Donald Trump became US President, it was sobering to think that there have been 11 different occupants of the Oval Office since Frankie Walsh held that precious cup aloft.
Dwight Eisenhower still had two years to run when Waterford were crowned champions in 1959, but seldom through the great prairie of time since have Waterford looked better equipped to close a deal in September. True, Derek McGrath might not have particularly welcomed Power's call to arms given the fine lines so often separating victory and defeat when any of the current top six now engage in battle, but he will have understood its genesis.
So many of the group that Power led to All-Ireland minor success in 2013 were part of his successful U-21s last year and, maybe most pertinently, he reckoned that 14 of those getting medals in Dungarvan have also already been involved with McGrath's senior panel.
The growth in Waterford hurling has such a steady, organic feel that - with a modicum of luck - the feeling grows that it might just carry this group to the promised land.
As Power put it: "They've all grown up a lot in the space of three years. A lot of lads are now playing senior inter-county, most of them are playing Fitzgibbon and college hurling as well. So they've matured greatly, they've developed physically, they are bigger and stronger.
"But their mentality and the way in which they approach things has been pretty consistent since they were 14, 15 and 16-years-old. That's why they're champions.
"While it would be wonderful to win another U-21 Munster Championship this year and to retain the All-Ireland, where we want to go now is to win the Liam MacCarthy. That is where we want to finish up and we are within a whisker of it. We really are nearly there. I don't see why 2017 or 2018 couldn't be our year when it comes to winning the big prize."
Power's optimism was based on many factors, but he focused on the recent arithmetic of their Championship relationship with Kilkenny to emphasise the point. In 2015, Brian Cody's men had a relatively untroubled (six points) win over Waterford at the All-Ireland semi-final stage. In 2016, it took almost two and a half hours to separate the teams, Kilkenny winning their semi-final replay by two points.
McGrath himself reflected after that game that the closeness of the contest brought little consolation to him or his players.
"I think we are trying to get away from that whole environment (of moral victories)," he remarked. His three years at the helm of Waterford's seniors have been franked by that kind of candour and there is no doubting thus that, if McGrath might be loathe to entertain talk of winning this year's All-Ireland (especially in January), he will undoubtedly see 2017 as a year of compelling possibilities.
That said, those possibilities won't be finding expression any time soon.
The team he puts out against Clare in Dungarvan tomorrow will follow the experimental path he has been faithful to in this Munster Senior Hurling League, largely because McGrath remains an enthusiastic believer in the Fitzgibbon Cup which gets under way on Tuesday.
No fewer than 17 of the current Waterford senior panel will play in the competition and McGrath has already spoken this week of his belief that college-going hurlers are hopelessly over-burdened at this time of year. As such, he supports Davy Fitzgerald's preference for a 10-team top division in the National Hurling League, facilitating a less compressed and intensive early-season inter-county schedule, which would allow college players focus on their college throughout February.
That aside, the most obvious challenge facing Waterford this year is to untap more of the attacking potential at their disposal.
En route to winning the All-Ireland, Power's U-21s showed a devastating appetite for goals, scoring 15 in just four games. Indeed, seldom has an All-Ireland been delivered so emphatically, with victory margins of 18 points (Clare), 10 (Tipperary), 29 (Antrim) and 16 (Galway).
And if there has been a stone in the shoe of the Waterford public with regard to McGrath's impressive stewardship of their seniors, it has probably been a quibble about structure. From the outset, he sought to make his team difficult to score goals against, thereby depleting the numbers committing to attack.
This was perhaps seen at its best in the three high-profile games compressed into 35 days against Clare last year, the two National League finals and the Munster Championship semi-final. Clare were restricted to just a single goal across that four hours of hurling yet, significantly, Waterford won just one of the games.
No question, they believed (and still do) that they left that league title behind them, yet McGrath suggested after Waterford's subsequent Munster final collapse against Tipperary that that brutal 21-points mauling had, if anything, re-inforced his belief in the sweeper system.
"It actually re-inforces the way we set up," he reflected with refreshing honesty. "A close analysis of that game will show that for 45 minutes or so we were actually conventional. It was just that Tipp dropped a player back and it made it look like we had an extra man back. It would actually revert me to thinking that we're better off playing a particular way.
"What we kind of envisaged in our minds might happen, if we pushed on, actually happened. Tipperary cut us open."
Quite how or if Waterford now intend refining or adjusting that system through 2017 certainly won't be answered in Dungarvan tomorrow. But that will hardly suspend speculation on how the team might evolve this year.
McGrath has made a change to his management team, Philip Murphy - a teacher in St Paul's Community School - replacing the outgoing Fintan O'Connor as selector.
After a difficult time with hip problems, Stephen Bennett's brilliance with the U-21s last year suggests he will see a lot more senior game-time this season and other attackers like Mikey Kearney and DJ Foran may also come under consideration. But, arguably, the most intriguing aspect to Waterford's shape this year will be McGrath's preferred deployment of Hurler of the Year Austin Gleeson.
The Mount Sion man was almost unplayable against Clare in an attacking role for their Championship meeting last year and an opinion has been gaining traction in the county that Waterford might have suffcient defensive cover to now push Gleeson forward in a more permanent capacity.
Key to this may be the fitness of Darragh Fives, the Tourin man so plagued by injury he has already been ruled out of the opening stages of the league. A fit Fives would certainly be an option at centre-back, but McGrath may have seen alternatives too in Lismore's impressive run to a Munster club intermediate title and, specifically, the soaring form of half-backs and former county panellists Ray Barry and Paudie Prendergast.
Other positions that may come under scrutiny are full-back where Conor Gleeson (or a real left-field call, the 6'5" Conor Prunty) could offer a challenge to Barry Coughlan. The decision of father-of-three Michael 'Brick' Walsh to continue for another season has been met with huge relief in the Waterford panel as has that of Tom Devine to commit again despite his medical studies intensifying.
It means that McGrath's hand - in terms of squad-depth at least - will now be stronger than it's ever been when the real battles commence in spring.
January games tend to be wildly unreliable barometers of long-term direction as was probably best evidenced by Limerick bouncing back from last weekend's concession of 7-22 to a rampant Cork by beating Clare in Sixmilebridge three days later.
Just seven players started both of Clare's opening two games in the competition, the hands of joint-managers Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor compromised too by proximity to the Fitzgibbon Cup.
Clare went unbeaten into June during Davy Fitzgerald's final year at the helm, so Wednesday's defeat will, at least, have sobered up short-term expectation. Moloney has been open in his contention that Clare's seniors have lacked aerial self-sufficiency in recent seasons and it is likely that the league will be used to stress test the team in that department.
For now, there are few obvious new faces likely to feature in 2017 albeit Ian Galvin, Colm's brother, could come into contention in the attack. He was a member of Fitzgerald's extended panel last year until a cruciate injury ended his season. Jamie Shanahan is back in the squad too and a player who might break into the defence is Inagh-Kilnamona's Jason McCarthy.
But Dungarvan tomorrow will be, largely, a flexing of skeleton-crew muscle. Summer signposts are a long way off.
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