McGrath's case for the defence impresses jury
Even Waterford's hard-core supporters were surprised by how last season ended and how the 2015 campaign began in February.
The real loyalists were in Nowlan Park for Waterford's All-Ireland qualifier defeat by Wexford last July and in the Gaelic Grounds for the launch of this year's Allianz League against Limerick in February but many of the floating voters weren't.
Relegation from Division 1A last spring and a heavy defeat by Cork in the Munster quarter-final replay in June spread a sense of foreboding across Waterford, a feeling that more dark days were looming.
Derek McGrath had only completed one season as manager, but was already under pressure. Many in Waterford didn't like the game plan that he had devised after the defence was hit for a blizzard of scores, totalling 14-102, by Clare, Kilkenny and Dublin in the league and by Cork in the Munster Championship draw and replay.
He figured that Waterford's security arrangements needed to be reviewed. More defensive locks were fitted, backed up by greater vigilance and harder work all around the pitch to ensure that there were fewer breaches.
In order to implement the different approach, McGrath needed everyone to buy into the idea. On the basis that younger minds are more open to new ideas, changes were made to the panel. Some familiar faces were let go, further adding to fears among supporters that uncertain times lay ahead.
So when Waterford headed for the Gaelic Grounds for the first round of the league in mid-February only a trickle of WD-registered cars accompanied them. Waterford were third favourites (9/2) behind Limerick (4/5) and Wexford 7/4) to top the group, a rating which McGrath seemed happy to allow take hold in the public mind.
Even when Waterford drew with Limerick - thanks to a stoppage-time point by Paudie Prendergast - McGrath talked down their prospects of promotion. Eleven weeks later, Waterford are in the league final, following an unbeaten run (P7, W6, D1) and the scalps of Wexford, Galway and Tipperary neatly packed away after their last three games.
"If you asked every Waterford supporter last February if the team would get to the league final, 99 per cent would have said 'no'. That was understandable as they were in 1B and in transition. So the scale of what has been achieved is remarkable," said former Waterford captain Fergal Hartley.
He had no doubt that McGrath was the right man to lead the regeneration, even if the first season hadn't gone too well. "It takes more than one season to put a shape on a panel. But if things don't come right in the first season, questions are asked. There isn't much patience around in any county, Waterford included. In fairness to Derek, he still kept doing things his way and the players went with him. It has worked better than anyone could have thought," said Hartley.
He doesn't accept the argument that Waterford's more defensive style makes for a less attractive game, which is not appreciated by everyone in the county.
"I actually think it's good to watch. A lot of hard work and planning go into it. There's a lot of movement in the middle third and some of the point-scoring has been fantastic. Yes, there's a big emphasis on defence but what's wrong with that? Isn't it part of any game," said Hartley.
However, there have to be concerns in Waterford that the more often the opposition see their game plan in use, the more likely it is to be dismantled some time. However, Hartley believes it's more complex than that.
"Of course the opposition will look at it and try to break it down, but are they going to change their own style to do that? I wouldn't be so sure. You don't change what you're doing just to react to the opposition," he said.
Waterford's successful relaunch may have surprised many but that ignores the reality that the fundamentals are sound in the county.
The supply lines have become much more consistent as the generation which was were awakened to hurling by the exploits of Hartley, Ken McGrath, Tony Browne, Paul Flynn, John Mullane and Co in 2002 swell the playing ranks.
Interestingly, 16 clubs were represented on the 26-strong panel for the clash with Tipperary last Sunday week, underlining the health of the game across the city and county.
The new generation has no inferiority complex and no fear. That was evident in the league semi-final when they were swamped early on by Tipperary whose hurling was carrying the clear message: 'Welcome to the big time, lads.'
It didn't faze Waterford in the slightest, whose response to losing the first 25 minutes by 2-6 to 0-5 was to win the remaining 35 by 1-14 to 0-9. Being outscored by eight points in that time-frame is unusual for Tipperary, but on this occasion it looked quite natural as Waterford's relentless zeal became the dominant theme.
Waterford's approach to the game has a downside which could become an issue unless McGrath devises a means of circumventing it. With an under-manned attack, the chances of scoring goals decrease considerably.
Colin Dunford's strike in the league semi-final was the only time they found the net against Limerick, Wexford, Galway and Tipperary. They scored a total of nine goals against Laois, Antrim and Offaly, but found it difficult against better defences.
"Maybe it's a weakness in the system, but they are still working on it. And when you win as many games as Waterford have done so far, you can't be critical," said Hartley.
Inevitably, there has been much focus on Waterford's young age profile, but it may be overplayed. It's certainly a young squad but of the 19 players who featured against Tipperary, Tom Devine was the only one who hadn't played senior championship.
Despite their excellent run, Waterford find themselves in the familiar position of being outsiders both for tomorrow's game and the championship. They are only joint seventh favourites with Galway for the All-Ireland title, trailing Kilkenny, Tipperary, Cork, Clare, Limerick and Dublin. Even if they win tomorrow, little will change.
It no longer annoys them as a county. Nor do they peddle the "we told you so" line when, as often happens, they upset the odds. Instead, they hurl on regardless, ignoring outside opinions.
"You don't let things like that worry you. The important thing for Waterford is that we're going very much in the right direction. Isn't it great for the county to be heading to Thurles for a league final?" said Hartley.
He dismisses the suggestion that because Waterford and Cork are due to meet against in the Munster semi-final on June 7, tomorrow's encounter could be something of a phoney war.
"Absolutely not. It's big for both counties. Cork haven't won a league for a long time so they'll be really up for this game. So too will Waterford. It will be very interesting to see what sort of game the clash of styles produces but it's hard to see it being anything other than exciting. Waterford-Cork games usually are," he said.
Whatever happens tomorrow, Waterford are in bonus territory, having achieved their first (promotion) and second (proving they could match 1A teams) ambitions for the season.
"It would be fantastic to win, a great reward for the players and management who have put in such a massive effort. It would also be a real validation of all that has been done.
"And even if they don't win, the league will have been a huge success, a real springboard for the future," said Hartley.
All of which sounds like a win-win situation for the most improved squad in hurling this year.