Deise give youth its fling for life after McGrath
WHAT WAS little more than shadow-boxing a year ago should be a proper hurling slugfest when Kilkenny take on Waterford in Nowlan Park tomorrow.
When they met in the last round of the 2010 Allianz League the game was a typical dead rubber. Kilkenny were playing for pride only, after uncharacteristically losing three games, so few took much notice of their five-point victory -- but their claws will be a lot sharper this time.
Kilkenny are coming off their first loss of the season (to Galway) while their neighbours are just a point adrift of them in fourth place. Bottom line: both must win this one to keep their league final hopes alive.
Tomorrow marks a major milestone for Waterford as it's their first game without the legendary Ken McGrath. The outpouring of emotion that followed the Mount Sion giant into the sunset last week after 15 years of dedicated service was well merited and his boots will be hard filled.
When his side last crossed league swords with Kilkenny he made his seasonal debut at centre-forward and got an inspirational block and point after half-time that kick-started something of a Decies revival.
Waterford's other iconic leaders -- John Mullane, Brick Walsh and the seemingly ageless Tony Browne -- remain but it is a new-look Waterford that has emerged this spring and eyes will be narrowed in Nowlan Park to see how some of their young guns fare.
Manager Davy Fitzgerald is also absent, serving a four-week sideline suspension. He vehemently contested an allegation that he had verbally abused a referee but once a proposed 12-week ban was commuted to four, took the ban and kept his mouth shut.
The earlier absence of the De La Salle contingent, a glut of injuries and the usual rest he gives to their older guard has seen Fitzgerald go out of his way to blood new talent this season, and some have impressed.
Darragh Fives (Tourin) was a county minor last year. Just 19, he made his league debut in the opening round against Dublin and has held a corner-back slot since.
Teenager Padraig Mahony (Ballygunner), captain of last year's minors, has similarly held onto a wing-forward spot.
His older brother Philip (20) has also got a chance and two more Ballygunner players, Wayne Hutchinson (25) and David O'Sullivan (22) -- whose surgeon father Tadhg has saved many an inter-county career -- did well at full-back and wing-back respectively when they got their first league starts against Cork and are expected to start again this week.
Eamonn Murphy (Dunhill), another of last year's minors, has also got a chance to impress off the bench.
Such youngsters make Maurice Shanahan look something of a veteran. The younger brother of Big Dan, the 6'5" 21-year-old is emblematic of the Decies' fearless new wave.
His finishing may still be dogged with the inconsistency of youth but he won an impressive amount of primary ball against Cork last time out and is unfortunate to have suffered an untimely broken finger that will keep him out for a month at least.
Of course when an experimental Waterford went 11 points down in last year's corresponding fixture Fitzgerald emptied the bench of experience and Eoin Kelly, Eoin Murphy, Stephen Molumphy, Kevin Moran and Seamus Prendergast flooded in to lead their fight-back.
Corner-back star Murphy is expected back this week and Aidan Kearney, Declan Prendergast and Liam Lawlor are also close to comebacks after long injury lay-offs.
Whether Fitzgerald continues to give youth its fling or goes for the failsafe of experience from here on in will be closely monitored. But as McGrath hands over the baton to a new generation, the Waterford boss has certainly developed a lot more options this spring and injected some youth at a critical period in a bid to maintain the momentum of recent years.