Vincent Hogan: McGrath may have the undying love of his team but he needs boys to become men to save their summer
Ten days before the start of the 2015 National Hurling League, Waterford unveiled a few stiffened ideologies behind closed doors in Sixmilebridge.
They didn't simply deploy a sweeper in that early February challenge game against Clare, they salted their execution with bitterness. On a night reeking of liniment and hostility, the game ended with few enough handshakes or gentle courtesies. Waterford had come out swinging and been met - as they expected - in the centre of the ring.
After a fractious winter for Derek McGrath, standing up to Clare felt like a compulsory opening declaration for the year ahead. McGrath had culled 10 senior players from his squad, lost two selectors and was preparing for a Division 1B campaign not many imagined would be uplifting.
But there was a personal context to their relationship with Clare too that, he knew, needed attention. The previous March Waterford had been devoured by the then All-Ireland champions in Ennis, setting in train a calamitous collapse to their National League campaign that would end in relegation.
McGrath's men leaked five goals that day and would concede four more in both of their remaining outings against Kilkenny and (in a relegation play-off) Dublin. Thirteen goals in three games then. And, when the subsequent Championship brought no respite, Waterford's manager found himself in the line of hostile local fire.
It was a sound he would neither forgive nor forget.
Almost exactly four months after that Sixmilebridge challenge, Waterford were National League champions and had reached their first Munster final in three seasons. They were still deploying a sweeper yet, as their 3-19 Championship return against Cork affirmed, that clearly didn't amount to hurling in a strait-jacket.
After the Cork win, McGrath reflected: "That was just a winter of hurt, discontent and purgatory at the hands of ... I won't say local scribes ... there was so much negativity in Waterford between October and January, it all came out there!"
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Waterford would come up short against Tipperary in the subsequent provincial decider (they lost five Munster finals to Tipp between '09 and '16), but McGrath's eloquence and willingness to publicly self-analyse were quickly establishing him as the most interesting manager in hurling.
In an age when so many see wisdom as adherence to banality and evasion, his collegiality has all but become a mission statement of its own. Even last weekend as Waterford's story seemed to lurch into some kind of Vaudevillian tragedy in Ennis, his instinct was to question their training load rather than curse the hurling deities.
Waterford's fitness levels have been calibrated differently for this season and, despite freakishly losing four defenders to injury in Cusack Park, McGrath was open to a discussion on that calibration being wrong.
Imagine any other manager today volunteering, unsolicited, the idea that those injuries may have been a product of Waterford's preparations pushing their players "a step too far"?
It might well be that they have calculated badly here. In his fifth season at the helm, McGrath reasoned against placing a heavy work-load on his players through Christmas, meaning they came to the National League essentially on a December setting. This was written all over his refusal to use a substitute during their opening round defeat to Wexford at Walsh Park and subsequent 11 changes for a heavy Thurles loss to Tipp.
Only one player, Barry Coughlan, started all seven of Waterford's League games.
It seemed to weave an atmosphere of flux around a group that had been a single score adrift of Galway in last September's All-Ireland final.
Waterford selector Dan Shanahan did summon the relevant observation this week that their relegation came on the back of two victories in the group stages.
But a faint sense of requiem follows them to Limerick now. Coughlan cannot play and McGrath's commitment to use of a sweeper, so abrasively announced that February evening three years ago, has leaned heavily on Tadhg de Burca and, in his absence, Darragh Fives, both now injured too.
And Waterford's modern aversion to the Gaelic Grounds as a venue has been finding much traction this week with the 1983 Munster final defeat to Cork (0-12 to 3-22), 2008 provincial defeat to Clare (0-23 to 2-26) and 2016 Munster final meltdown to Tipp (0-13 to 5-19) all highlighted as evidence of a place with ghosts in the stonework.
That certainly wouldn't have been on McGrath's invitation and, no matter the personnel deployed, it will be a surprise if his team isn't, at the very least, conditioned for a defiant show tomorrow. His relationship with the players brings to mind the English teacher Robin Williams plays in 'Dead Poets Society', encouraging his students to "make your lives extraordinary".
Eight of Waterford's All-Ireland final squad last year were former pupils of McGrath''s in De La Salle College, indeed four of the starting 15 - Stephen O'Keeffe, Coughlan, Noel Connors and Philip Mahony - had been hurling under his guidance since the age of 12.
Connors has spoken of the "total sense of care" underpinning McGrath's holistic approach to management, his interest in career-guidance or - as Connors put it so well last September - "the incredible sense of worthiness from this person who wanted you to play well, but also wanted you to do the right course and to succeed in life."
That sense of care isn't an everyday fashion in a senior championship environment and has drawn the odd derisory comment in his direction.
When it was revealed that McGrath had paid a visit to Conor Gleeson's parents in light of his suspension from last year's All-Ireland final, former Kilkenny star Eoin Larkin's caustic response was, "They're senior players, not under-sixes!"
It was a view, no doubt, informed by nights spent in the cold smithy of Nowlan Park, yet McGrath's answer was typically erudite and human.
He explained: "Conor is 20-years-of-age and there was a huge emotional scenario whereby he was going to lose out on an All-Ireland final appearance. What can be conveyed at times is this superhuman approach, as if I'm some sort of Mother Theresa character. And, to me, it's just the decent thing to do to talk to his mother.
"You can't really apologise for trying to do the right thing."
Nor should he. Waterford have been consistently relevant on his watch since that troubled first year and, more pertinently, carried themselves with the educated air of men who can make the distinction between friendship and any superficial unity of convenience.
Backtrack to that brutal pistol-whipping they took from Clare in the 2014 National League and how, trailing 0-4 to 4-15 at half-time, McGrath recalled asking his players simply to "keep going", adding "we tried to explain to them what was happening, but I think everyone got a bit of an education there.
"It was a chastening experience for players and management."
That's been his style. Never to separate the two, never to convey anything other than a co-operative at work in which everybody must fall and rise together. He undoubtedly shares Davy Fitz's frustration with what they see as ill-educated criticism of the sweeper system, criticism that ought really to have died the day in 2016 when Clare scored 4-22 and Waterford 3-23 in league semi-final destructions of Kilkenny and Limerick respectively.
But that hasn't happened and they spoke immediately after Waterford's All-Ireland quarter-final defeat of Wexford last summer, McGrath fully supportive of Fitzgerald's subsequent tirade against certain pundits.
He has, of course, a shared history with Fitzgerald of trying to manage Waterford on pragmatic terms when the broad taste within the county has always been for swashbuckling spontaneity.
But he knows a war-zone when he sees one too and there have been grumblings about a failure to integrate more of the U-21 attack that blitzed all in its wake en route to the 2016 All-Ireland crown. Of the six forwards who started a 16-point final destruction of Galway, only Tom Devine got a start last weekend.
McGrath has described current All-Star, Michael 'Brick' Walsh as "the best team player that's ever played for Waterford", yet the great Stradbally man struggled on his 70th Championship appearance and it remains to be seen if his manager now considers him an emergency option to play sweeper tomorrow.
Waterford could, of course, choose to to go orthodox too, but that would invoke so many bad memories of two years back when, forced to chase against Tipp, McGrath's recall was "what we envisaged might happen if we pushed on, actually happened ... Tipperary opened us up all over the field."
All eight Tipp forwards used in that Munster final are available to Michael Ryan tomorrow, plus John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer who came on as a half-time substitute against Cork last Sunday. Hence, to abandon the sweeper system now would surely smack of tossing dice.
What can be said with certainty is that McGrath will have the trust of his dressing-room and that, irrespective of tomorrow's arithmetic, his response will be considered and adult afterwards. He has given this job everything, italicised by that decision to take parental leave last summer as they chased a first senior All-Ireland since 1959.
More pertinently, he has the undying love of his team.
Immediately after last year's All-Ireland final defeat, he reflected, "it's just so hard to get back here and you have to take the chance.
"I've heard the words 'potential' and 'talent' in Waterford since I was a minor in '92. Potential and talent are not even a distant relative of what was needed out there today."
In Limerick, McGrath needs boys to become men before our eyes. Take it, they won't come up short for want of trying.