Monday 20 November 2017

John Mullane: Browne can provide X-factor as Waterford seek senior glory

Shane Bennett of Waterford. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Shane Bennett of Waterford. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

John Mullane

Derek McGrath's big challenge next year is to manage rising levels of expectation in Waterford.

The hope now is that players who have claimed All-Ireland minor and U-21 titles can go on to lift the big one in the not too distant future.

There's no guarantee, of course, but one of the big factors that will determine whether or not we reach the Holy Grail is the use of the Bennett brothers, Stephen and Shane, and Patrick Curran.

Finding Austin Gleeson's best natural position is another conundrum but Shane Bennett needs a long-term home too. Seeing how well he operated at midfield on Saturday will certainly have provided Derek McGrath with food for thought.

Another question for Derek is whether he'll go 15 on 15 next year on a more consistent basis but I don't think he went fully conventional in the two Kilkenny games.

Instead, he tweaked the system slightly, went with two inside, and sometimes three, but still had Tadhg de Búrca on the edge of the Waterford square.

Derek will come under pressure to let the shackles off after people watched how free-flowing and fluent the U-21s were but at senior level, there may be times when he'll feel that the sweeper is still required.

You have to acknowledge how Galway went with a sweeper after Waterford's third goal on Saturday and it begs the question - would they have been better advised playing that way from the start?

Some people might think that winning an U-21 title with so many seniors involved is an easy task. Believe me, it's not.

I was involved last year and managing the balance between U-21 and senior commitments can be quite tricky.

Seán Power and his management team deserve huge credit for the victory and Seán really did put his own stamp on this outfit.

He could have went with the senior template but instead, he placed Austin at number 6, Conor Gleeson at full-back, Shane Bennett (right) in midfield, Tom Devine centre-forward and Stephen Bennett full-forward. What a spine that is and Power's liking for physical power right down the middle was rewarded in spades.

At senior level, Derek should also consider freshening up his backroom team. I noted Dan Shanahan's recent comments, when he suggested that the same voices over time can begin to grate with players, and I agree with him.

From my experience of being in Waterford dressing rooms, things can go stale when you're listening to the same guys for two or three years.

It's now very common for inter-county managers to inject new personnel and even Brian Cody has chopped and changed in Kilkenny through the years.

I'd expect Derek to follow suit and one man I'd like to see involved is Tony Browne.

I worked alongside Tony with the U-21s in 2015 and I don't think he should be judged solely on not getting results last year.

It's a bit like Eddie Brennan in Kilkenny. Will Eddie be judged on their U-21s losing to Westmeath? Absolutely not, because he has so much to offer to Kilkenny hurling.

Tony is an encyclopedia when it comes to Waterford hurling and he'd bring a calm presence to the senior camp. He's extremely trustworthy and would be as good for Derek as Derek would be for him.

The window of opportunity is wide open for Waterford but we've seen many great U-21 teams through the years fail to follow through at senior level.

Clare are a prime example, winning four All-Irelands in six years but struggling to find consistency in the higher grade.

Limerick won three-in-a-row from 2000-2002 but didn't crack the senior code and it's only now that the true potential of Tipperary's 2010 winning crop is being realised.

A county that wins an All-Ireland U-21 title can often endure senior struggles in the following season and while there's a feeling that Waterford will be a serious force for the next five or six years, it doesn't always work out like that.

When a golden generation emerges, you'll have a 4-5 year window of opportunity but I think we're a year or two into that already. If Waterford are going to win a senior title, you'd think that the experienced heads, Kevin Moran and Michael 'Brick' Walsh, are going to be heavily involved but they're not getting any younger.

'Brick' will be 34 when the 2017 Championship rolls around and Kevin 30.

They bring such physicality and you need that too, combined with the talent and skill of the younger lads.

For the last two years, Waterford have gone gung-ho for the National League but Derek will have noted that Tipp tried out a few players this year, got what they wanted from the League and pushed on from there.

He'll want to look at the likes of DJ Foran while Darragh Lyons and Conor Prunty could come into the reckoning too. One lad who also deserves a mention following the weekend is the luckless Billy Nolan, a big casualty of the rule introduced whereby no minor player could line out for the U-21s at inter-county level.

Despite his tender years, Billy was on our U-21 panel last year but, because of the new directive that was introduced on January 1, he was prevented from being on this year's U-21 panel and missed out an All-Ireland medal.

The powers-that-be should have ensured that players who lined out in 2015 were exempt.

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