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Waterford hurlers ready to seize the day
By John Harrington
For the second weekend in a row, the Waterford hurlers have an opportunity to lay down a significant marker.
Were they to follow up last Sundays Allianz League win over Kilkenny with another over All-Ireland champions Tipperary this Sunday, it would prove beyond doubt their graph is still on an upward curve.
After all, Kilkenny and Tipperary are the only teams to have beaten them in Championship hurling for the past two years.
It might be still early in the season, but matches like these matter for a young team like this Waterford one thats still evolving.
Both the manner and merit of their win against the Cats last weekend will have strengthened them as a collective.
Coming out of Nowlan Park with any sort of victory is a cause for celebration, but the gutsy manner in which they did it added to the sense of achievement.
At times they physically bullied Kilkenny which is something were not used to seeing, and the fact that they were able to hold off the home teams late charge will have buttressed their winning mentality.
Thats important, because as impressive as Waterfords improvement has been in recent years, theyve still fallen short of winning Championship silverware which is the litmus test of any serious side.
Players like Philip Mahony are well aware of this.
He doesnt really care about the respect they earned for the manner of their performances last year in the drawn and replayed All-Irelands against Kilkenny, what resonated with him was the pain of the defeat and the harsh truth they had come up short yet again in a big match.
Yeah, it was tough, says Mahony. If you look at the big games last year, the two League Final games even when we were in winning positions but didn't manage to get over the line.
Then obviously the semi-final was a huge disappointment considering that we were in a decent enough position even up to the 68th minute or whatever it was when Kilkenny got the goal.
Obviously we didn't manage to close it out. People were saying that last year was a success but we ended it with no silverware and we were beaten very convincingly in the Munster Final which was a tough one to take.
We haven't beaten Tipperary in the Championship or Kilkenny, and they've obviously been the bench-mark."
Defeat to Tipperary and Kilkenny in last year's Championship was hard to take for the Waterford hurlers.
For Waterford to reach that bench-mark and surpass it, it was vital that Derek McGrath agreed to stay on as team-manager for 2017.
It wasnt always a given that he would. The De La Salle secondary school teacher pours his heart and soul in to the job, and after last years All-Ireland replay defeat to Kilkenny he was mentally drained.
The rumour that he might step away from the role gained some currency in Waterford for a while, so the players were a relieved bunch when he finally recommitted.
It was very important, says Mahony. He's put in Trojan work for the past few years and changed a lot of stuff in terms of how we train.
The professionalism he brings to the set-up is second to none. The most important part of what we have is probably Derek himself.
One thing with Derek is that he's constantly trying to find ways for us to improve. He's never really looking back, he's always looking forward.
So it was great to hear that he was going to commit for the year.
The bond between McGrath and the Waterford hurlers goes beyond most manager-player relationships youll see.
Hes known a good chunk of the panel since they were boys having taught and trained them in De La Salle school, and hes no less close to those hes only worked with since becoming Waterford manager.
Waterford manager Derek McGrath and his players have formed a very strong bond.
McGraths approach is to get to know the person behind the player and build a bond with them on a human level. The family atmosphere that has created within the panel is one of this Waterford teams greatest strengths.
Yeah, I think one of the best things we've had in the last few years is that our panel is very close, says Mahony. We have very good team spirit which can't be underestimated either.
Even off the field there are some very good friendships there. Again, Derek is probably the fella who has brought that whole thing together.