Wednesday 21 August 2019

McGrath staying on is a boost but Déise boss might have to roll dice to secure ultimate glory

Waterford manager Derek McGrath Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Waterford manager Derek McGrath Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

Late on Monday night, the news emerged that Derek McGrath would remain as Waterford hurling manager for the 2018 season.

It's known that McGrath had the overwhelming backing of the players to continue for a fifth season but given the time consumed by the job - he took time out from teaching in order to concentrate on his role with Waterford - it was far from a certainty that he would return for another campaign.

But now that he has confirmed that he will be in charge, there's a whole host of questions for him and the Waterford management to deal with ahead of the new season.

Playing personnel, the make-up of his backroom team, the development of new players that might hold the key to taking them one step further than September's All-Ireland final defeat are all issues that will be dealt with in the coming months.

And perhaps most significantly, they will look at their tactical approach and ponder whether deploying an extra defender remains the best course for their exciting young side. Amongst that youth, lies some invaluable experience. Kevin Moran (30) skippered the side this year and given the fact that he picked up an All-Star award last week, it's expected he'll be around in 2018.

However, another senior figure in the dressing room, Michael 'Brick' Walsh may well consider his future. The durable Stradbally man has put down 14 seasons and 70 championship appearances.

There are no question marks surrounding his form given the 2017 campaign also yielded an All-Star but McGrath admitted in the wake of the All-Ireland final defeat to Galway that, with a young family, the return of 34-year-old Walsh was a matter for debate.

If the likes of 'Brick' does walk away, there'll be big shoes to fill. In any case, they'll need new impetus from the squad. Kieran Bennett made a late surge into the starting team this summer. He made his debut in the All-Ireland semi-final against Cork when Tadhg de Búrca was suspended and he held onto his place for the final.

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A quick look at the team that stormed to an All-Ireland U-21 title last year suggests that there's more to come from the likes of Patrick Curran, who top-scored with 1-9 in that final win over Galway but was a 64th-minute sub for a seniors in the final. Stephen Bennett hit two goals that day too but didn't see action in the senior final.

It's worth bearing in mind too that Conor Gleeson - an increasingly important cog in the wheel - missed the final through suspension.

Off the field, it would seem that there is unlikely to be much change. McGrath only freshened up his backroom team before the summer when former All-Star Eoin Murphy and Munster-winning captain Fergal Hartley were added to the set-up.

Perhaps the biggest question mark surrounding Waterford in 2018 will be their style of play.

Much has been written and said about Waterford's sweeper system and at times it irks McGrath. He has insisted similar tactics adopted by some other teams that are couched in terms other than 'sweeping'.

And his made his displeasure with 'Up for the Match' clear after they ran a piece showing a sliotar being passed around by brushes on the eve of the All-Ireland final.

"It was disappointing to see the ball being passed from brush to brush on national television," he said on the Monday after the All-Ireland defeat.

"People might say I'm being over the top in criticising it but we're better than that, I think, in Waterford. We're better than passing a sliotar from brush to brush. I don't think it was right but that's just a personal opinion."

The Waterford management and squad have taken significant shelling from both outside and inside the county over their tactical approach. Perhaps Waterford legend Tony Browne best summed up the mood amongst Waterford hurling people.

Speaking ahead of their All-Ireland semi-final clash with Cork, Browne insisted the county would need to see tangible progress in 2017 if they were persist with a sweeper.

"If I'm perfectly honest about it, it is very 50-50 in Waterford. A lot of people think it's positive and a lot of people think it is negative.

"If you look at that Munster semi-final (against Cork), I think Waterford went to a more conventional system … the way the Waterford U-21s won the All-Ireland last year and the perception was out there that we should push on a bit and go for it.

"The stats are there to prove they have pushed on slightly and this sweeper role is adjusting," Browne continued.

"If we are being honest about Waterford, this is their third year in a row in an All-Ireland semi-final. I think if they don't get to an All-Ireland final with a sweeper this year, maybe then it's time for change and that would answer everyone's question on it."

Waterford made that final but ultimately fell short. The argument against the sweeper system was backed up by the fact that their haul of 2-17 against Galway would only have won one of the 10 All-Ireland finals (including replays) played since 2010. And as Browne pointed out, the way in which they won their U-21 title suggests this group of players could play a more expansive style.

That's ultimately a question for McGrath. It could be that he will have to roll the dice and hope it comes up trumps for a Waterford side that look within touching distance of history.

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