WATERFORD LEVELS ON THE RISE
BEFORE Clare played Waterford in last year's Munster Senior Hurling Championship, Kevin Moran spoke about leading a new generation of Decie players on a new crusade. Waterford had haemorrhaged experienced players and Moran had been appointed captain of a squad with an average age of 23-and-a-half.
Moran accepted that Waterford may not win anything anytime soon, but he knew their future was pregnant with promise. "Some of our young players are as good as what's in the country," he said. "Some of the young Clare boys have a higher profile because they have won things but our boys are serious players. They are going to be top players for 10 years for Waterford." Waterford may not have an X-factor talent yet like Clare's Tony Kelly, but it is widely acknowledged that the county is also teeming with young talent. Between 2009 and 2013, Gerry O'Connor and Donal Moloney jointly-managed Clare to two Munster minor titles, and two provincial and All-Ireland U21 wins.
Their teams ran into Waterford on six occasions, winning five times. Some of those wins were comprehensive victories, including a 19-point hiding in the 2012 U21 semi-final, but during that period, Waterford were often the team the Banner measured themselves against. "Of all the teams we have played over the years, Waterford are the best players we've come up against," said O'Connor before last year's All-Ireland U21 decider. Last year's Munster U21 semi-final proved as much. Clare lost Kelly to injury after 10 minutes, and Waterford led 0-13 to 0-10 10 minutes into the second half when Paudie Prendergast, who had been one of their best players, received a second yellow card. Waterford played with seven defenders and although 0-12 of their final tally of 0-17 came from frees, and Clare showed their experience to win by four points, it didn't dilute the general feeling they had got out of jail.
In any case, it was Clare's toughest match all year en route to successive All-Ireland titles. Twelve of the Clare players who featured that evening have now played in the senior Championship, while 10 of the Waterford team have also sampled action at the top level.
Clare may have enjoyed far more success but the comparative figures from that U21 game highlight the young talent
Waterford have at their disposal. Winning last year's All-Ireland minor title for the first time in 65 years further underlined the potential within the county.
Eight of the starting team were part of the Dungarvan Colleges side that won a first All-Ireland title in 2013.
Historical barriers were broken down at every turn. Dungarvan beat St Kieran's College and Kilkenny CBS en route to that success. The confidence those wins engendered was evident four months later when Waterford beat Kilkenny in the All-Ireland minor semi-final.
The success at colleges' level has been critical to Waterford's development. The county was always regarded as a colleges' wasteland but it's now become one of the biggest talent pools in the country.
Prior to 2007, a Waterford college had only ever won the Dr Harty Cup (Munster senior colleges) once in an 89-year history and had never won an All-Ireland title. Then De La Salle won successive Harty Cups and tacked on successive All-Irelands. Waterford Colleges (an amalgamation of three west Waterford schools) became a powerful force in the competition over the next number of years before finally winning a first Harty title in 2012.
Then Dungarvan Colleges (formerly Waterford Colleges) bagged a first All-Ireland last year. The tide now is clearly being taken from the flood. After Waterford won the 1948 All-Ireland minor title, they contested only eight Munster minor finals over the next 60 years.
Now, they have contested five of the last six Munster minor finals. The belief and confidence in Waterford hurling was really evident last Sunday when the minors came from seven points down to draw with Limerick in the provincial final.
There is a clear pathway now for the county's hurlers at every level. Waterford IT has become an outstanding Fitzgibbon Cup outfit over the last 25 years but it was one of the college's biggest disappointments for a long time that the local catchment area was so poorly represented.
The 2000 Fitzgibbon success featured no players from Waterford but that has radically changed and this year's successful team featured six from within the county. Across the border at UCC, some of the outstanding players to have come through their successful outfits in recent years have been Waterford men - from Darragh Fives to Pauric Mahoney, Brian O'Sullivan and Tadgh Burke. The success of the Waterford seniors in the 2000s raised everybody's confidence but the genesis of the current boom can realistically be traced back to the end of the 1990s, when an intensive underage coaching development programme gradually broadened the spectrum.
The hurling heartland was always in the city and the surrounding hinterland of east Waterford. When the Decie played Clare in the 2002 All-Ireland semi-final, 11 of the starting team were from city clubs, with nine from Ballygunner or Mount Sion. Yet in the last eight years, the senior team has been largely populated by players from west Waterford. Ballygunner and Mount Sion shared every county title between 1993 and 2006, but that duopoly has been smashed and the spread of clubs has never been as large.
Sixteen clubs are represented on the current senior panel, while 18 clubs have players on the minor squad of 24.
Six of the side which defeated Laois three weeks ago are U21s and Derek McGrath and his management team are clearly building for the future with a talented young generation.
On Saturday, Waterford go into their Qualifier with Wexford in a great position.
As the season unfolds, maybe everyone else will soon see what Moran said last season - that Waterford's young players are as good as anyone else in the country.