Thursday 26 April 2018

Consistent selection holds key to Déise's rise to title

In Waterford's eight league games, McGrath made just one defensive change in personnel

Waterford Manager Derek McGrath
Waterford Manager Derek McGrath
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

There was something appropriate about the Waterford hurlers making a trip to Dungarvan in the west of the county last night as the celebrations continued for only a third league hurling title in their history.

In the midst of Derek McGrath's overhaul of his squad at the end of the first year in charge, an undercurrent had developed over the geographical profile of players who had departed.

Ballyduff Upper's Stephen Molumphy, Fourmilewater's Shane Walsh and Ardmore's Seamus Prendergast all announced their own retirements but were from west Waterford clubs.

Jamie Nagle (Dungarvan), Richie Foley (Abbeyside) and Liam Lawlor (Fourmilewater) who had been released also hailed from the 'west'.

It was a matter of pure coincidence of course but that didn't stop the undercurrent, fuelled by a disappointing first year in charge, that Derek McGrath would look back to the city and powerhouse clubs that were the supply line for his successes with De La Salle college teams in 2007 and 2008.

Those teams and clubs have provided the bedrock for a league win that is only matched by Anthony Daly's success with Dublin four years ago which came off the back of an embarrassing defeat to Antrim in the previous year's championship. Even Waterford's previous league win in 2007 had been prefaced by two Munster titles in 2002 and 2004.

But the influence of west and north-west Waterford clubs, which provided such a bounty for Justin McCarthy and Davy Fitzgerald, has scarcely been diluted.

Shane Fives, Tadhg De Búrca, Jamie Barron, Stephen Bennett, Colin Dunford, Maurice Shanahan and Michael 'Brick' Walsh and substitutes Brian O'Halloran and Tom Devine all have roots in the 'far end' of the county, places like Tourin, Colligan, Clashmore-Kinsalebeg, Fourmilewater and Modeligo making their mark on the national stage.

At a time when city clubs are as dominant as ever in the senior championship, a return of nine from 20 players on the day only a third league final is secured is a very decent one for the 'west'.

McGrath has skilfully put the broken pieces back together again with careful consideration to all sensitivities and needs.

His single-mindedness about the team he wants and the way he wants them to play has been reflected in the consistency of selection over an eight-game programme that has rarely been as transformative for any team in recent history.

Nowhere has this consistency been reflected better than his choice of defenders. In the same way that Jose Mourinho has been virtually rigid in his defensive selection policy to win a Premier League title with Chelsea, Waterford have benefited from a familiarity rare in league hurling.

The temptation to give exposure to more players and 'test' their credentials at this level was rebuffed in favour of stability and it has worked.

It has given McGrath a certainty, ahead of the championship, about the shape of his defence that no other manager possibly has at this stage.

Only once, when Austin Gleeson picked up an injury, has a change been made to the six defenders.

Kevin Moran dropped back to the half-back line for the Antrim game but that apart Shane Fives, Barry Coughlan, Noel Connors, Gleeson, Tadhg De Búrca and Philip Mahony have been given the time and patience to knit together as a highly impressive unit.

Leaving aside their protection that a heavily populated middle third offers, five 'clean sheets' in those eight games, including two against Division 1 opponents Galway and Cork, reflects quite an efficiency of performance.

Further forward the cast has been more fluid but Moran, Michael 'Brick' Walsh, Pauric Mahony and Jamie Barron, now firmly established as their dynamic end-to-end midfielder, have been ever-present with Colin Dunford and Jake Dillon rarely out of the picture.

Consistency of selection aside, the campaign has helped to foster new-found maturity in the team. For many their ability to grind out a draw in the Gaelic Grounds on the first night and their recovery from the concession of two goals against Tipperary in the semi-final were the biggest steps they took.

But those who recall their resilience to hold Galway scoreless for 21 minutes in the quarter-final five weeks ago, after Galway had cut a nine-point deficit to just four in eight wind-assisted second-half minutes, might just as easily point to that as the most important spell of their development.

With Stephen Daniels close to a comeback and Shane Bennett likely to play a more prominent role once his exams are complete, McGrath's hand is only going to get stronger.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport