Waterford's golden age
On the night of the 2004 Munster final, Ken McGrath sat down alongside Stevie Brenner in a bar in Waterford City. Brenner mentioned to McGrath what he had said at half-time when he had asked his team-mates to leave everything they had on the field.
It was a standard plea in the circumstances, but Waterford emptied themselves in that second half -- a man down and facing the breeze, they won one of the greatest ever Munster finals.
Brenner then asked McGrath if he ever thought he'd see the day when he'd win two Munster medals. McGrath said he didn't. When Brenner asked him if he ever envisaged captaining Waterford to a Munster title, McGrath was equally emphatic. "No way," he replied.
Then McGrath grabbed Brenner by the hand. "Jesus, bud," McGrath said to his goalkeeper, "it's unreal, isn't it."
McGrath went on to win two more Munster medals, but when he first joined the panel in 1996, dreams of winning Munster titles only existed in a parallel universe.
In January of that year, the panel were training one night in Abbeyside. It was a gruelling session, made worse by snow showers throughout. The showers were freezing afterwards, but the players didn't expect any better. Player welfare wasn't an issue. It was non-existent. There was only a burka boiler where the panel made their own tea. And then the players were given a 10p Touchdown bar for sustenance as their post-training meal.
It was a complete joke, but the Waterford hurlers were regarded as a joke at the time. Tipperary had hammered them in the previous year's Munster championship by 21 points. They hadn't won a championship match in four years, while they'd been beaten by Kerry in 1993, when Kerry won a Munster championship match for the first time in 67 years.
Between 1990 and 1997, Waterford won just two championship matches, one of which was against Kerry. They hadn't won a Munster championship in 34 years and that goal looked further away than ever. Big days out in Croke Park were only a pipe dream.
So, if someone had said at the outset of the 1998 championship that Waterford would win four Munster titles and play in nine Munster finals and nine All-Ireland semi-finals over the following 15 seasons, they'd probably have been advised to seek psychiatric assistance.
The statistic of Waterford having won only one of those nine All-Ireland semi-finals they have played since 1998 is routinely trotted out to underline their desperate record in Croke Park and denounce them as a really serious hurling force.
Yet, that completely misses the point. Waterford may have only won four of the 15 championship matches they have played in Croke Park since 1998, but at least they are consistently getting to Croke Park on the big days. Moreover, last year's All-Ireland semi-final appearance was their sixth in succession. In the history of the game, the only other team to have managed that feat is the Kilkenny side of the last 15 years.
It is easier to put Waterford's place in the hurling world in context when compared with every other top county's record in reaching All-Ireland semi-finals over the last 15 seasons -- Waterford have reached the semi-final stage on more occasions than Cork (eight), Tipperary (seven), Clare (five), Wexford (four), Galway (four), Offaly (three), Limerick (two) and Dublin (one).
Of the nine All-Ireland semi-finals they have lost, at least four got away from them -- 1998, 2004, 2006 and 2007.
An All-Ireland title may have eluded them, but they have consistently been one of the top three teams in the game, third behind Cork and Kilkenny at the height of their dominance around the middle of the last decade, and third again behind Kilkenny and Tipperary over the last five seasons.
They may have been on the easy side of the draw in the last four seasons, but this team have become the first Waterford side to reach four Munster finals in a row. Since their breakthrough in 2002, they have reached more Munster finals (eight) than Tipp (seven), Cork (five), Clare (one) and Limerick (one).
Their achievements have been even more noteworthy, given their lack of underage success since they won an All-Ireland U-21 title and reached an All-Ireland minor final in 1992.
In the meantime, they have only won one Munster U-21 title (1994) and one Munster minor title (2009). In contrast, Tipp have won eight minor and seven U-21 Munster titles, while Kilkenny have won 15 minor and 12 Leinster U-21 titles in the same time span.
However, the whole culture of Waterford hurling has radically changed over the last 15 years, which has been inspired by the breakthrough -- and subsequent consolidation -- of the senior team. Because of numbers, Waterford were always at a disadvantage -- they have 32 juvenile clubs compared to Cork's 167 -- but the county is teeming with young hurlers now. Waterford was always regarded as a colleges hurling wasteland, but it has become the biggest oasis in the country.
The tide is being taken from the flood. Waterford reached three Munster minor finals in a row between 2009 and 2011 and eight players from those sides have now played senior championship hurling.
That generation of talent isn't expected to produce the same level of individual blue-chip proteges that Waterford mined in the last decade. But they're still anticipating a bountiful harvest, which will keep the county competitive at senior level.
They're also consistently putting faith in those young players. In their opening Munster championship match last year, Waterford handed starting debuts to five U-21s. Against Clare last month, they handed debuts to another five U-21s, two of which were introduced from the bench.
The genesis of the current boom can be traced back to the end of the 1990s when an intensive underage coaching development programme gradually broadened the spectrum.
The hurling heartland was always in the city and the surrounding hinterland of east Waterford. That's where the power lay. When Waterford played Clare in the 2002 All-Ireland semi-final, 11 of the starting 15 were from city clubs, with nine from either Ballygunner or Mount Sion.
Ten years on, 15 different clubs are represented on Sunday's panel. That number also reflects a far more competitive club championship. The city powerhouses, Ballygunner and Mount Sion, shared every county title between 1993 and 2006, but that duopoly has been smashed and eight different teams have contested the last seven county finals.
A year on from last year's 21-point hammering, the biggest Munster final defeat in 29 years, Waterford are back hunting for another Munster title. What's more, they're on that trail with a new-look team; nine of the side that started against Clare didn't start against Tipp 12 months ago. Four of the five subs they used against Clare didn't see any game either last year against Tipp.
The wheel keeps turning and Waterford just keep on going. They may not win on Sunday. Many of these players who have given such great service may never win an All-Ireland. But that shouldn't detract from the real beauty and development of Waterford hurling over the last 15 years. Sometimes, the splendour of the team -- and county -- has nothing to do with the final score.