“To be honest, we weren’t too surprised by Cork beating Tipperary,” he says.
“That’s a tradition in the Munster championship, which lived up to its reputation, its name of being so unpredictable. Before you ever get to the All-Ireland championship you have a championship there all on its own, with its own traditions and trends, probably a bit like the Ulster football championship. That was a 50-50 game to me, with no clear indications as to who the favourites were.”
Cork’s excellence wasn’t a surprise either, says Connors. “You could see that Cork are incredible — they had a very good run in the league, they blooded a lot of young players and got a lot of game time into them. When you bring in that number of young players you get a certain amount of ‘shoulders back’ from them — there’s little expectation, not much pressure, and players can express themselves. I wasn’t surprised by the result, but for our part we weren’t focused on Tipperary or Cork, we’ve been focused on ourselves.
“We had the Galway game in the league and then it was a matter of getting back to the clubs for a couple of weeks and putting the head down. Getting into a different environment is always good.
“After that it’s back in with the county and head down again. A lot of inter-county teams would be similar, it’s in the last couple of weeks before a particular game that you hone in on the team you’re up against, and we’d be no different.”
This iteration of Waterford has been on the road a couple of years now. Surely that familiarity with each other accelerates the process of focusing?
“I think it’s a benefit, you look at the Kilkenny teams going back the years, you had a line with Tommy Walsh and JJ Delaney on either side of Brian Hogan, you’d know Henry Shefflin would be playing here, all of that. When you have that level of consistency, when you’re playing with fellas week in, week out, there’s a sense of comfort there, communication is good — all of that will benefit players. The Lions tour is on at the moment and a lot of the talk is around gelling those players together in a short space of time, which tells you how important this is, and how hard it can be. They’re all from different places, with different values, so that’s a challenge for them, and by comparison, when a team is settled then that work is done.
“There’s another side to that, too, of course, in that fellas who’ve been on a team for a few years can’t be allowed to rest on their laurels either.
“The changeover in my years with Waterford has been high, with lads retiring on one hand and new players coming in off the back of success at underage level with the county, U21, and minor in particular.
“That means you have a lot of younger players snapping at your heels the whole time, and it’s very competitive.”
Speaking of U21s, Clare joint manager Gerry O’Connor made a good point at the Munster championship launch, saying U21 and senior weren’t comparable in terms of physicality. Something for impatient Déise fans to bear in mind?
“It’s apples and oranges,” says Connors. “That’s not being disrespectful towards our U21s and all that they achieved last year, which was incredible and great for Waterford GAA. Inspirational stuff. But when you compare the physicality, the preparation — every aspect of senior inter-county, it’s a totally different animal. You have to be very patient, and Derek (McGrath) has spoken frequently about that.
“You have to bear in mind we had a lot of the U21 panel on the senior team already, which was obviously of value to the U21 team itself. You still have to give a small bit of time to get some fellas developed — to become stronger, faster, fitter — as others will adapt and develop quicker.
“You go back to the Tony Forristal, that age grade, and it’s generally the lads who are a bit bigger or a bit faster who dominate, but later they may drift away as other players catch up with them physically, and at minor or U21 they may be gone.
“It doesn’t fall into place seamlessly, that just because you win at minor and U21 level you’ll win at senior level. You have to be patient with those lads and let them develop.”
That development relates to game sense as well. Connors is well used to Waterford being ‘blamed’ for spoiling hurling with their sweeper system; contrast the love for Cork-Tipp’s ‘flow’ a few weeks back.
“We don’t think about that, we’re just there to put in the effort, to try to win. Whatever that takes we’ll do it — we want to make it and achieve the ultimate dream of winning the Liam MacCarthy. So to do that we try to keep as much of the outside out as we can. I know it’s a cliche to just focus on your game, and you do all you can. In terms of tactics, Eoin Larkin was one of the first to adopt a different approach. He probably wasn’t the most traditional forward, he was picking ball up in his midfield or half-back line and then working it up the field.
“Maybe ourselves and Clare... ‘scapegoated’ is probably the wrong word, but we were among the first teams to try something a small bit different. I don’t think that’s changed too much — I don’t think Cork vs Tipperary was an absolutely straight 15 on 15, either; a lot of the time Seamus Callanan was on his own up front for Tipp, for instance, and Alan Cadogan got a lot of ball on his own too, 40 or 50 yards of space in front of him, on the Cork side.
“You have to take a step back and realise that, too. It’s all about hard work. You’ve got to recognise the power of putting the jersey on and the pride you take in that, too. You can’t lose sight of that or you’re in danger of over-complicating things. It’s a simple game, it’s just a matter of win at all costs — but you have to enjoy it as much as anything else.”