The league form of Stephen Bennett will ensure he will be targeted by opposing managers when the Munster SHC commences soon, writes Peter McNamara.
Bennett has been exceptional for Waterford, both in the second-tier of the secondary competition, and in the league quarter- and semi-final respectively.
Therefore, the Déise’s provincial championship opponents will be extremely keen to try and nullify his impact in their summer jousts.
Understandable, too, given the tallies he is racking up so far this term.
Against Galway last Sunday, Bennett hit another 1-7 including converting six frees.
Interestingly, in last Saturday’s Irish Examiner, Bennett explained how free-taking duty has elevated his entire game, has helped him to focus on producing some of his very best form.
“With Pauric Mahony gone with Ballygunner, we needed one for the Munster League matches and the league,” Bennett explained. “There would have been one or two other lads who would have taken them but for injuries but I’m really enjoying it. They keep me in the game when I mightn’t be involved for a few minutes and keep your confidence up. It’s not really about them though at the end of the day; it’s about nailing a starting spot in the team for what you have to offer as a whole.”
Later in the piece, Bennett said the following:
With Fanning encouraging his players to take risks in order to produce match-defining moments, it could be the making of Bennett and Waterford when the summer fare kicks off.
As excellent a coach as Derek McGrath is, there was a valid argument that he maybe inadvertently stifled the players by implementing such a rigid tactical approach.
The players available to Fanning might find an extra 5% within themselves by being afforded freer rein.
Opting for a more off-the-cuff approach should suit this particular Waterford group well.
In fact, it might be the key to unlocking their full potential, potential that we have witnessed to best effect at U21 level in recent years, albeit, we appreciate that senior hurling games at inter-county level is a step or two up from the intensity of the U21 grade.
Nevertheless, Bennett, for instance, is benefitting enormously from a greater sense of responsibility as well as the extra freedom Fanning has given to him this season.
And it says an awful lot about Bennett’s character that he is thriving with added responsibility. How many players, after all, ended up back in their shell when expected to lead a team despite still being of a young age?
Having Bennett on the frees might also alleviate pressure from the shoulders of Pauric Mahony.
The classy wing-forward contributed 0-3 from open play and we may see a new dimension or two to his all-round game in the championship as he does not have to primarily worry about ensuring every free opportunity is maximised.
And he is not a bad back-up as a free-taker to have anyway, is he?
Further out the field, Jamie Barron produced another performance against the Tribesmen that suggested his engine, if anything, is only getting more and more fine-tuned.
Barron is, as we all know, a truly marvellous midfielder, one of the best in the country.
And throughout the coming months we are likely to watch him driving at defences, being fouled and Bennett converting the subsequent frees.
Added to that, it was obvious from the aforementioned interview that Bennett is acutely conscious of Waterford’s need for creating and executing goalscoring opportunities.
I have felt that this is an area they have struggled with due to Tom Devine’s unavailability.
Devine was the one man who always seemed to think that making goalscoring openings was more important than tacking on a point here and there.
And every team needs one of them if they are to challenge for the All-Ireland SHC title.
Yet, if you were a Waterford supporter you would be content to read Bennett’s thoughts on that particular matter and how much store Fanning and co are putting on raising green flags this year.
They may have only scored one last Sunday in Nowlan Park, but look at how important that one goal turned out to be?
Stephen’s brother Shane is another attacking operator brimming with the scope to illuminate the summer.
Obviously, these two will have an understanding that defenders will find difficult to counter, at times.
Shane did not score against Micheál Donoghue’s outfit, but you can chalk it down that he will earn a man of the match award or two when the stakes are heightened.
Some people feel the Bennetts are hit-and-miss, but you get the impression they will perform to a higher level more consistently in the months ahead, based on what we are seeing of late.
Similar to Limerick, a high percentage of this Waterford panel know what it is like to win trophies at underage levels.
And now is the time for them to put those experiences to effective use.
As Anthony Daly put it in his Irish Examiner column on Monday morning, ‘this is not year one for the Déise. It’s year now’.
Cork remain in the head as the most likely team to win the All-Ireland this year, but the likes of Waterford will have other ideas.