They’ll enter Thurles on Saturday as unbackable favourites because of what Austin Gleeson did to Kilkenny in last month’s drawn All-Ireland semi-final, because of what he did in the replay six days later, because of Conor Gleeson’s assuredness when thrown in for his second afternoon of championship fare in the All-Ireland quarter-final win over Wexford and because Patrick Curran and Shane Bennett, between them, clipped 3-73 in the national league.
Seán Power wasn’t the least bit surprised by the exploits of his U21 players at senior level this year. He’s known since the summer of 2009 that this was a pretty special bunch.
The Waterford U21 manager was first introduced to Austin Gleeson, Tom Devine, Patrick Curran and the Bennett brothers from Ballysaggart, Stephen and Shane, at development squad level when the latter quintet were 12 and 13-year-olds.
Even then, he could tell.
This particular group, of which the core has changed little over the last eight years, reached the final of the Tony Forristal tournament in 2009, the final of the Arrabawn Co-op All-Ireland U16 hurling tournament in 2011, the All-Ireland minor final in 2013 and now the U21 decider.
The Tony Forristal decider ended in a 3-7 to 2-2 defeat to Tipperary, but the reaction of Power’s young team told him it wouldn’t be the last final they’d contest.
“The guys were heartbroken,” recalls Power.
“It said something that even though they were so young that it meant so much to them, that hurling was so important that they really hurt as a bunch of 13-year olds when they didn’t get the prize. They stuck with it. If you keep trying to better previous performances, you are going to get better. It is inevitable.
“You could see the potential was there from that age group. There were gems that stood out. A couple of those who are central to our senior hurling team at the minute, we would have identified way, way back that these guys had something special.”
Mind you, the U16 final against Cork two years later also ended in heartbreak.
“We rejigged it after U16. Teams were just physically stronger than us. That accounts for a lot at U14 and U16 level. We did a lot more work on our strength and conditioning plans after that. We had a strict fitness and strength and conditioning regime leading into the minor campaign in 2013, which I think told. You look at guys who would have played in the U16 two years previous and there was no comparison at all. They were much bigger, stronger and taller.
“A lot of this panel are six-foot plus. That makes it a bit easier when you are trying to ride a challenge, get around the park and take belts. There is a lot of physicality in these games and you need to be giving out big hits as well.”
From the starting team which overcame Galway to annex a first Irish Press Cup since 1948, 12 lined out against Antrim in last month’s U21 semi-final. Austin Gleeson, Tom Devine, Patrick Curran, and the Bennett brothers continue to backbone the team, with a couple of late bloomers playing their part in further strengthening the side.
“Conor Gleeson didn’t start the 2013 minor final. He is now a regular on the Waterford senior hurling team. From being a guy at 17-years old that wouldn’t be part of your first team, he is one of the fellas who is now first on the teamsheet.
“It just goes to show that we are doing something right in Waterford, that fellas are progressing along the right lines and progressing the way we want them to go.”
Progression must now lend itself to further silverware. Waterford haven’t enjoyed U21 success since late in the summer of 1992 and it is unlikely a group of such talent will present itself for some years to come.
Hence the pressure from outside the camp to deliver. The Déise manager doesn’t believe that’ll phase his troops.
“We are all looking for success in Waterford. There are some fantastic hurling people here who have gone before me at management level, gone before the lads as players. These guys gave their all for Waterford and didn’t have much to show for it. I mean that with all due respect. If we can at all, we will try and deliver for everybody who is involved in hurling in Waterford. If we can deliver, it will satisfy a lot of people.
“The potential is there. The will to win is there. We just need to implement that and apply it. Hopefully, that will be enough.
“The lads know the job at hand. Hopefully, we can deliver on our promise to each other.”
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