Not that he sees it this way but it’s a triumph that Stephen Bennett is this evening expected to be named in the Waterford team to face Cork.
Two double-hip operations by the age of 20 would lower most sportsmen but this 21-year-old wasn’t going to be knocked off course.
From the blossoming Bennett household, it’s Shane who’s been making most waves these last couple of years, but Kieran could secure a slot in the backs in Thurles and now that his injuries are fully behind him, Stephen is in prime position to remind people of his electrifying underage form, as shown again in last year’s U21 championship.
Those who followed his league campaign will have noticed he is on the boil. Against Dublin, he notched up 2-2. In Ennis, he was at the centre of Waterford’s revival, which saw them avoid the relegation play-off, while in the quarter-final defeat to Galway in Salthill he again impressively filled the role of playmaker as the experimental visiting side almost pulled off a shock.
In 2015, he started both of Waterford’s Munster games but with the bank of uninterrupted work and games he has put in, he can safely say he is looking forward more to this championship. “I’m doing a lot of rehab but I’ve been able to train with the team since before Christmas and it’s the first time I’ve been able to that in a long time.”
The first operation came at 17, the second having just turned 20 at the end of 2015. Understandably, he wasn’t without his low moments. “You would have always thought ‘what’s going on here’ when things weren’t going right and you were struggling at club level. A lot of fellas have had injuries but they have got on with it. I would have been playing and not playing and minding myself but this year it’s been good to put myself in with a shout of getting onto the team.”
As a result of the surgery, Bennett’s preparation and recovery sessions are more elaborate than most but he has company for some of it. “It’s actually good now because the whole Waterford group are the pre-activation before the warm-up, which is great because I would have had to be doing it anyway. On your days off and days after games you’d be doing things to help them settle down.”
Given his goalscoring at the end of Waterford’s league run, Tom Devine’s decision to travel this summer seems to have deprived the team of a player who can cut full-back lines open. But then Bennett has always been known as a goalscorer. “You could ask a few underage managers, they would have killed me going for goals and losing matches! But if you don’t go for them you can’t get them. It’s just deciding what are the right moments to go for goals.”
At the opening of Ballysaggart’s new pitch in a challenge against Offaly last month, Bennett bagged a first-half hat-trick of goals. “It was a lovely evening, it was only the second time Waterford have ever played in Ballysaggart and the lads (brothers Shane and Kieran) were playing as well and the whole community was out. It’s always nice to get a few goals whatever kind of a match it is.”
But then Derek McGrath has been keen to diversify Bennett’s play, operating him on the half-forward line during the spring where he has had a taste of what it’s like to be the next link up on the supply chain. “As long as I’ve been playing in the full-forward line, you would have expected everything to come in. It’s nice to go in around midfield and realise it’s not as easy to put the ball into where the forward wants it. It’s not like it’s unknown territory for me anyway because I play out the field for my club.”
Waterford have waited 11 weeks for Sunday to come around, unlike the last couple of years when league final appearances have bridged the gap to the Munster championship. With the Cork border only minutes away from home, the rivalry is more local for Bennett than a lot in the Waterford panel: “Always growing up it was Waterford and Cork. They were convincing against us in the league this year and we know they can be again.”
Sunday is seen as a battle of a team that has embraced the sweeper against one that rejected it but Bennett is not sure if it’s that clear-cut. “A lot of things are made of the sweeper but I’m not sure about Waterford being different to any other county. If you watch Cork or Clare, they all bring fellas out to the half-forward line and deeper. Derek is four years there now and it comes down to the same as it was at the start — hard work.“
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved