Wexford have to heal 'scar' of Cats mauling - Lee Chin
In the end, everything in hurling comes down to the one question: what does a team have to do to beat Kilkenny?
The extent of their grip on the title landscape has never been seen before - either in hurling and football - leaving all their rivals in a state of catch-up as they try to devise a way to rein in the rampant trend-setters.
Players from several counties, including Kilkenny, are in Austin, Texas this weekend for tomorrow's GAA/GPA Opel All Stars exhibition game at St Edward's University so it's a chance to compare notes in a relaxed atmosphere before they all return for the start of the new season's serious business next month.
Wexford and Waterford both felt Kilkenny's powerful hand crushing down on them in this year's championship, albeit in different circumstances. Wexford were trounced in the Leinster semi-final, while Waterford turned in a consistent performance in the last four of the All-Ireland but still came up short.
"Kilkenny have set a standard that everyone else is struggling to reach. They have a ruthlessness and determination which is very hard to match. It's what makes them so good. The rest of have to keep trying to get up to that level," said Wexford's Lee Chin.
Waterford corner-back, Noel Connors believes that Kilkenny's strength-in-depth remains the platform from which they re-launch so successfully every year.
"People are saying they haven't won a whole lot of underage titles in the last number of years but because they have so much strength-in-depth all they need is one or two to come in and add to the situation. Look at Shane Prendergast. He came in this year and made his (championship) debut at the age of 29," said Connors.
While admiration for Kilkenny's achievements resonates all around the hurling scene, the chase to join them is gathering pace all the time.
Waterford made considerable progress this year and while it was something of a flat season for Wexford, there's a real sense that their graph is on an upward curve.
"There's a bit of a scar there from this year. It's something we have to try and put right next year because our performances this year weren't a true reflection of how we see ourselves and where we want to go," said Chin.
Failure to win promotion from Division 1B was followed by championship defeats by Kilkenny and Cork in games where Wexford didn't come close to matching 2014, when they dumped Clare, the then All-Ireland champions, out of the race.
Wexford will returns to Croke Park after a lengthy absence next year (they play Dublin in the Leinster quarter-final) and Chin is hoping that it will kickstart a real drive up the rankings. By then, they will have a clear idea of where they stand after a competitive Allianz League 1B campaign where they will face Limerick, Clare, Offaly, Laois and Kerry.
"It's a tough group, especially as we play Limerick first and then Clare. But we'd be hoping to push on next year and give the supporters something to enjoy," said Chin.
Waterford provided their followers with some great days this year, including an Allianz League title win, followed by brave performances against Tipperary (Munster final) and Kilkenny. Their rate of progress under Derek McGrath was much quicker than expected but, having reached a certain level, the pressure is on to move even higher up the pecking order.
"If you stand still and don't change, you'll get stagnant and be caught. Derek (McGrath) is very intelligent - he knows we'll have to a adapt our game a lot. We're not happy with where we ended up this year. The objective is to win everything. You have to be ambitious and try to win every match. That's what we want to do, we'll be trying to kick on from January," said Connors.
He understands why outsiders were amazed by Waterford's rapid advance this year but says it didn't come as any surprise to the squad.
"We knew what we had in the dressing-room and what we are capable of doing. There's quite a lot of experience there and we also have some brilliant young talent coming through. That has been happening at underage and college level for a few years and now it's showing with the senior team," he said.
Waterford's style, based essentially, on a tight defensive system, came under heavy scrutiny, not all of it positive, this year, but Connors is adamant that it was right for them.
"You do what you have to do to be successful. If that's trying to change your style to accommodate what you have or changing it to nullify someone in the opposition, that's what you do. It has been done for years in every other sport and it's becoming more recognised in the GAA now. If you look at Clare the year they won the All-Ireland, they changed as well, with Shane O'Donnell in at full-forward on his own.
"It's just the way the game is going. Players are getting stronger, faster and fitter, and can move up and down the field a lot more so you work around that. It's just something you get on with - you don't listen to the critics," said Connors.
He expects McGrath to come up with some exciting new strategies next year, based on the experiences of a season where Waterford learned a great deal about themselves.
"For a few years we were probably missing someone like John Mullane to light up the full-forward line but we had a great target man this year in Maurice Shanahan. And now, you're looking towards the likes of Patrick Curran and a few other lads to kick on . It wouldn't surprise me if Derek has a number of scenarios going on in his head, " said Connors.
Meanwhile, Chin is adamant that his days as a dual inter-county players are over for good. "I can't see myself doing it again. I never got the same pleasure out of playing football as hurling anyway. I'm happy I gave it a go - it gave me a real sense of what I wanted to do. That's definitely to play hurling. It's hard enough trying to play the likes of Kilkenny when you're concentrating on hurling, but if you combine it with football it's never going to work," added the 23-year-old DIT student.