Perception and reality. Those uncomfortable bed-fellows can be mistaken as the same regarding Waterford hurling at the moment.
Perception says they are All-Ireland challengers; that their young guns have bulked up over the winter. The facts show they’ve scored just one goal in six matches, but drew with a Galway team having made 10 personnel changes.
Allow manager Derek McGrath to set you right, starting with talk of the team, particularly among their own, as contenders for September’s ultimate honour.
“It’s very hard to control what people expect. To give you a practical example, in the run-up to the Wexford game in Wexford Park, the general talk in Waterford was ‘banana skin’ or ‘difficult place to go’. For me, that was way off the mark and certainly not how we saw it, as a group. It was absolutely contradictory to how we saw it.
“Even in the aftermath, when we were meeting people we were told ‘ah, you didn’t play well’ and ‘you should be beating Wexford’, but that is not what you want to hear. There’s nothing between us and Wexford, particularly a Wexford team who were motivated coming off the back of stories in the county the week before the game.
“It’s only a year-and-a-half ago that Wexford put us to the sword in Nowlan Park, and having already beaten Clare, the All-Ireland champions. In advance of the [quarter-final] game, I read one headline that said: ‘Waterford in a different league to Wexford.’ Whilst it was true, literally, the chasm isn’t as big as people think.”
It’s been observed that Waterford seem to have grown, physically, since last August. While it may be true, a lot of it is down to simple maturing, says McGrath.
“It’s part of the good work done by Fergal [O’Brien], our physical trainer, Gary Walsh and Stephen Barrett. To me, it’s natural growth spurts for the likes of Austin [Gleeson], Patrick Curran, and Shane Bennett. That’s not taking away from our strength-and-conditioning team, but the boys are growing as much as anything else. I just think the mind and what’s in your chest dictates how strong you are.”
What can’t be explained as readily is Waterford’s goal shyness, the only goal of their campaign coming against Tipperary.
“I won’t say it’s a damning stat, but it’s not one we want to have associated with us. What we’re trying to manage now is the talk about it, that it doesn’t become engrained in our approach. We love to hit the net the same as any other team, but we’re trying to get the balance right so that while being conscious of it, it doesn’t become a burdening factor.
“We’re happy to win games in whatever manner possible. We’re working to hit the net, but we’re not going to promise any radical change in reaching that end. We’re like any management, we’re encouraging the lads that when they get the chance to take on their man, but we don’t want to over-emphasise it either. It’s like if you say to guys, ‘don’t give away frees’, and then there is a tendency not to tackle.”
Even though Waterford had qualified for the quarter-finals after round three, McGrath’s decision to experiment for the last-round was frowned upon in the county.
“That Friday night, when we named the team, I wouldn’t say there was negativity around on the Saturday, but I think the mood changed on Sunday when we got a good performance. It’s not tokenism either. It’s rewarding your panel for their commitment and endeavour over the winter. We think they’re talented enough and we might pick up nuggets from watching them that you could use later in the year, if you’re lucky to progress.”
Knowing TJ Ryan as he does, McGrath felt there was a strong chance Limerick would come good after their Division 1B promotion disappointment. “TJ is a good friend of mine. When things weren’t going so well for myself [in 2014], he was very supportive. He’s a sound fella. There was a bounce, because they have some very good players. With the Na Piarsaigh boys coming back in and the winning of the U21 last year and three of the four Fitzgibbon Cup semi-final teams, they have lots of good players in Limerick. Now they’re able to be a serious team.”
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