Waterford selector Fintan O’Connor believes the triggers for the county’s current hurling renaissance came before his involvement.
O’Connor joined Derek McGrath’s set-up following a turbulent 2014. That season featured a humiliating 5-18 to 0-20 loss to Clare in Ennis. The visitors trailed by 23 points at half-time that afternoon before salvaging a slither of respectability. Seven days later, Kilkenny meted out another sizeable beating in Nowlan Park to push them into a relegation play-off.
O’Connor makes the case those traumatic results fostered a new culture within the dressing room. “Sometimes those defeats give you a starting point to change. There have been massive changes with the panel and massive changes with the way the lads have approached it, even a lifestyle change.
“I’m not saying they weren’t approaching it in the right regard up to that point. I can only talk about from last January when I got involved. The level of preparation and effort they put in, it nearly frees them up.
“When you’re putting that much of your life on hold and you’re preparing in that manner for a game, there’s definitely a freedom that comes with that. If your preparation is so detailed and meticulous, you can go out on a Sunday and nearly relax because you know you’re 100% prepared.
“In our camp, if you’re prepared we feel that it gives you a freedom to play. We’re getting results and performances based on the way the lads are preparing. That’s no disrespect to the team that went out in Ennis.”
He notices the players grasping the initiative during the past two seasons. “Over the last number of months and years, they have been their own biggest critics. If something isn’t right, they are the ones questioning why isn’t it right and what can we do to get it right. Maybe that hunger to improve came out of those defeats.”
Since the Munster championship draw was conducted last October, Waterford and Clare sized each other up from a distance. O’Connor admits that they monitored the Banner’s growth in Division 1B.
“We always had a half interest in the Clare results and the way they were playing. When you’re in 1A, the tests are such that you’re trying to give your best every week so you don’t have the comfort of looking at your opposition in the championship because you’re so worried about the opposition for the following weekend. That’s what we’ve been doing all year. We’ve been keeping an eye on Clare but not overly so.”
He insists retaining their league title remains their sole focus at present. “It’s like the Cork situation last year where at the back of your mind you knew you were going to be playing Cork and then you’re facing them in a league final. League finals don’t come around that often either. We’ll definitely be gearing up for the league final as if it’s the be all and end all.”
Following their second-half demolition of Limerick, O’Connor and the rest of the Déise management team took up their positions in the stand to discover their final opponents. He marvelled at Clare’s all-round endeavour during their nine-point win over Kilkenny. “They looked very sharp on the breaks, on the 50-50 balls and on the rucks. Everything Kilkenny pride themselves on, Clare won. Take all that out and put in the skill, the goals, the scoring threat and the movement; everything they showed was hugely impressive.”
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