Connors: Waterford have depth to make the breakthrough
Des Bishop needed a year in China to introduce the natives to the concept of stand-up comedy but Noel Connors had some local help on hand to explain the finer points of hurling to them.
A Chinese friend who did a masters alongside him in Waterford IT got fascinated with the game during his stay and followed their Fitzgibbon Cup team slavishly, so when Connors went travelling last winter he returned the compliment.
"It was amazing. He'd always told me that the only way to see China was with a local to guide you and we were lucky enough to go to two different provinces, as well as Beijing and Shanghai. The rural visits were like something you'd see in films, something you'd always cherish."
Connors (24) and his girlfriend Siobhan took off for three months and actually flew the coop just 24 hours after Passage had won the county SHC title.
The timing was unfortunate, ruling him out of his club's Munster foray, but he felt it was 'now or never' in his life, which he hopes will next include a PhD in business management.
He's already packed a lot into his young life. He was only a teenager when he helped Passage return to Waterford's senior ranks seven years ago and two years later he debuted for the county senior, so the break was timely.
"We had our minds made up to do it, a sort of reward after five long years of grafting and studying," he explains. "If I didn't do it then I probably never would."
It meant they followed Passage's two-point loss to Na Piarsaigh, with some regret, online in a restaurant in Phuket, Thailand.
The trip also took in Cambodia and Vietnam and it was a full two months before he even lifted a hurl again, resuming "a bit of tipping around on the beach with the cousins" when they reached Australia for Christmas.
It was the sort of extended getaway, he reckons, that a lot of inter-county players need nowadays to recharge their batteries.
It certainly provided adventure, cultural insights and an appreciation of life's priorities but equally a realisation of hurling's place in his own.
"I was always on Twitter or texting my father," he chuckles.
"Looking at other cultures actually gave me more of a gra for it and a belief that I wanted to be involved. Sometimes, when you'd come back in January, you'd question it and ask 'is it worth it?', but I actually came home very refreshed."
The sticky corner-back and 2010 All Star returned in time for the Allianz League and one key difference was the change in Waterford management.
But Connors needed no introduction to Derek McGrath, who first came to prominence by managing De La Salle College to consecutive All-Ireland schools' titles.
Connors was involved in both and captained them the second year (2008) so few knew as well as he the attention to detail that Waterford's new manager brings.
"Even back then Derek did things outside of the box when a lot of people were still inside it," he explains of McGrath's modus operandi with that team.
The teenagers did training camps, high-profile players and icons like Brian Cody were brought in to speak to them and they even went to Newcastle United on one preparatory trip.
Their views were respected, they were treated as adults and prepared for every scenario and Connors confesses: "I always felt Derek was the sort of man who would lead us (Waterford)."
He inherited a team hit with a succession of retirements and injuries; short on big-game experience and marquee forwards but Connors says Waterford will, yet again, feed off their underdog status against Cork tomorrow.
"Depth was a fundamental element we lacked before," he says. "We always had big players in key positions but we never really had the strength in depth to make that breakthrough. Now I think we have depth in abundance.
"The 15 fellas that put on that jersey will do their best, and the five that come on will be just as good because the injuries we've had has given them experience they mightn't have got otherwise.
"Cork are a traditional team with a history you can't underestimate and they were just 10 seconds away from winning an All-Ireland title last summer.
"But for some reason people always put us down in Waterford. They forget how traditional hurling is here, and how much Waterford's after giving to the game in the recent past. People seem to forget that we only lost to Kilkenny in extra-time last year but that's all fuel to us.
"We always use that as a motivational factor and long may it last."