Derek McGrath hears them knocking — but they can’t come in.
The bangs have been persistent in Waterford since last year’s All-Ireland semi-final when critics surmised tactics were responsible for the team’s inability to close in on Kilkenny when they were three points down and 15 minutes remaining.
A county spoiled by the swashbuckling but ultimately underachieving Justin McCarthy era gleefully accepted the results achieved on McGrath’s watch last season – played 12 won nine, drew one lost two — garnered predominantly by a flock of fledglings. But the manner in which they achieved that return wasn’t palatable to some. Never mind Waterford were breaking scoring records from previous years, the ways and means was apparently unbecoming.
Now, as he prepares his charges for another meeting with Kilkenny, McGrath is expected to change as if last year was a defensive dalliance. Except it wasn’t. Except he won’t.
“It’s hard to ignore it because there’s so much talk about. I think I only mentioned the word ‘system’ in one interview last year. I was caught on the hop for that one!
“We changed our game four or five times last year. We’re like any other team. We don’t feel we have an exact science or a right to play in a particular manner or that we’re so much smarter than others.
“We’re not. We’re just trying to develop a game that will suit our own team and we’re going to stick to our guns on that.”
McGrath read and watched with a wry smile the commentary before last Sunday’s Ireland-Wales Six Nations game and the demand for more offloads.
Joe Schmidt had given a talk to the Waterford hurlers last summer and again McGrath recognised symmetry.
“I couldn’t help but notice the correlation with the want for an expansive type of game in the run-up to the rugby match. I can already pre-empt in my mind say in the event of a loss on Sunday ‘oh, you’ll never beat Kilkenny playing that way’. That’s going to be hard to avoid so it’s important to stay strong as a group if we are to play in a particular manner.
“Sometimes, it intrigues me because some of the stuff is a bit lazy. If you take most of our possible forward line on Sunday – Patrick Curran, Colin Dunford, Shane Bennett, Tom Devine, Austin Gleeson – all of them are still U21 and all of them playing colleges.
“Take most of the Kilkenny forward line – Richie Hogan, TJ Reid, Walter Walsh, Colin Fennelly. The point is that they’re all in their mid-20s and offer a threat that as yet we don’t but we hope to in time.
“It might be too late for me but somebody may come after me who is more traditional and all the talk will be of Waterford but that doesn’t bother me. We’re just working hard and seeing where that takes us.”
With over half his panel in Fitzgibbon Cup action and a latter start to pre- season than last, McGrath admits Waterford have had little or no time together as a full unit. With that and the demands to change the team’s style in mind, he find it bemusing that expectations have reached epic proportions when nobody was giving them a prayer 12 months ago.
“You can reconcile with that by just sticking to what you know about this particular team and the development they’re in.
“It’s not a matter of being ignorant but mindful that the same people last year who said we were absolutely crazy to cut the panel are saying this year ‘you have to change this, you have to do that’.
“Expectations on the outside? We can only stay true to ourselves. If we do the analysis of it, since (the six-team) 1A came into being, Waterford have won no more than two matches in the round stages per year People talk about the (three) home games but we’d be hoping we can stabilise and stay up. That brings a certain amount of pressure in itself in terms of the build-up to games. We’re just trying to be free and go for it.
Implicit in our mindset is ‘the long term’ and I know people absolutely hate hearing those words.
“I don’t see any difference between ourselves, Wexford, Limerick and Clare. Limerick won an U21, a Munster senior championship
“. Wexford won three Leinster U21s, were beaten in an All-Ireland (senior) quarter-final and Clare have obviously won an All-Ireland and have three All-Ireland U21s. If people stand back they’d see our acceleration of progress last year was fairly rapid alright. The genuine supporter realises we’re still building.”
Pauric Mahony and Stephen Bennett remain sidelined while Tadhg de Burca won’t return until the middle of March having jarred his knee playing for UCC in a Fitzgibbon game last week. Devine is also a slight doubt after picking up a dead leg for UCC on Tuesday.
“I’d expect a situation whereby we’ll try and use as many as we did in the All-Ireland semi-final,” reckons McGrath. “I think Kilkenny will come with 12 or 13 of their team of the team that played because they won’t want to be in the same situation as last year when they were in a relegation match.”
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