Waterford forward Stephen Bennett insists Derek McGrath is key to the future health of hurling in the county following their All-Ireland SHC semi-final replay loss to Kilkenny last weekend.
The Déise pushed the All-Ireland champions all the way over the course of two tight matches, drawing their first encounter at Croke Park after leading for over 40 minutes into the second-half of that game before suffering a heart-breaking two-point loss in Thurles last weekend.
Waterford boss McGrath admitted he was shattered by the loss, while the Déise manager has also been frustrated by consistent analysis surrounding his team’s tactics and, in particular, criticism of their use of a sweeper system.
Bennett claimed that McGrath was devastated following last weekend’s defeat, but the Waterford forward is hopeful the manager will remain in place to rebuild for next season.
“He was devastated. He was brilliant, he just went around, thanked everyone,” said Bennett on McGrath’s response in the Déise dressing room after their loss.
“He’s brilliant. Man-management, the way he deals with the players. He has everything off to a tee. It’s a very good set-up there.”
When asked if it would be a big setback for Waterford if McGrath opted to step down, Bennett said: “Oh yeah, I think he’s brilliant. Man-management, he’s brilliant the way he deals with the players. They have everything off to a tee now to be fair. It’s a very good set up there.
“He’s brilliant and every one of the players are happy, of course, but everything is going well,” added Bennett, who revealed McGrath called on the county’s U21s to raise spirits by booking a final place this weekend as they take on Antrim in the Bord Gáis Energy All-Ireland semi- finals in Thurles.
Bennett started last Saturday night’s loss to Kilkenny before being called to the line 12 minutes into the second-half.
After trailing by three at half-time, Waterford fought back to get within one but Cats keeper Eoin Murphy leapt high to catch Pauric Mahony’s late free above his crossbar to stop the Déise from levelling.
Just six days prior to the loss, McGrath’s men had held a five-point second-half lead against Brian Cody’s side before finishing level.
Bennett said: “A lot of people are saying we threw it away the first day but I don’t know. We had chances both days.
“We had our 10 minute period the first day when things were going great. They had theirs – unfortunately, it came at the end and we couldn’t see it through.
“It’s just disappointing over the two games that we didn’t get over the line,” added the Ballysaggart man.
The 20-year-old must now refocus on the county’s U21 bid with Waterford slated as unbackable 1/500 favourites by the bookies to beat the Ulster champions and money-on favourites to claim the Cross of Cashel.
“When you’re so close, it’s worse than if you were to lose by five or six points and you’re thinking you didn’t deserve to win it,” said Bennett on last weekend’s loss. “When you’re that close it is devastating.
“At least we’ve the U21 to really focus on, which a lot of the other players don’t. We’re lucky that way.
“The first few days are always negative. But when you think back, you have to focus on the positives. Being so close, hopefully we’ll get back now and get to an All-Ireland under-21 final which none of us have been in.
“It’s good to get over the disappointment. At least we have something to focus on again.
“You haven’t time to be dwelling on last week. It’s great to still have a chance to win a bit of silverware.” The 20-year-old is one of a number of under-21s to feature on the senior panel and Bennett has had to carefully manage his hurling duties having undergone two double hip operations since he was 17.
He underwent the most recent operation last winter and hopes to help Waterford to All-Ireland success before resting and recuperating.
“I’m just hoping for this winter now, hopefully we win the U21 and I can go away and try to build it up again,” said Bennett on his physical battle. “The more stronger they are, the less pressure on the hips. I just have to be sensible.”
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