Kilkenny vs Waterford: What a difference a year makes
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Kilkenny vs Waterford: What a difference a year makes

DEREK McGrath took a seat in the corner of the Nowlan Park dressing room, alone in his private world of pain.

A rookie in inter-county managerial terms, he must have feared that his first year in charge of Waterford would also be his last. Wasn't this how it worked, this management game?

When you won, it was on the back of the good players around you. And when you lost, it was your fault. Well, Waterford were losing. On this day, Kilkenny trimmed them for 24 points, sending them packing into Division 1B. Summer didn't lighten the mood.

Three games, two defeats. In hurling's unofficial rankings, they were so far down the pecking order they could no longer see who was on top. "We said some fairly harsh things to each other that day in Nowlan Park," McGrath recalls. "We were looking at the direction we needed to go in."

They didn't have the answers then but by autumn, there were clear signposts to follow. His team were leaking goals, 17 from six League games. That had to change, and so did the personnel. Winter brought a cold climate. Twelve players were dropped from his panel but it wasn't the only thing binned.

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For years, Waterford had operated off a simple philosophy. They attacked. They entertained. They were the country's second favourite team. Sure, the underdog theme appealed to outsiders' nature, but so did their flair. McGrath, though, couldn't afford to be sentimental.

When Kilkenny had dished out that 24-point hammering, no neutrals had come to his door to express sympathy for how he was feeling. A proud, sensitive man, he knew, aside from everything else, that his coaching reputation was on the line.

"On St Stephen's Day, we had 37 players training at 8am in the morning"

So, in those circumstances, he had to be ruthless and had to adopt the detached persona that his role demands. A sweeper would be introduced. Waterford's work-rate needed to increase. They'd train harder than ever.

"On St Stephen's Day, we had 37 players training at 8am in the morning. Those are the small things we said we would look back on as the year develops." And the players loved it. "Initially we didn't make it a consultative process with them," said McGrath in a recent interview with the Sunday Times.

We said this is the way we are going to do it. The key was backing it up with video evidence and analysis. They were receptive to it." Work on the training ground is all well and good but spring would prove a tougher testing ground. And the League posed its challenges. Division 1B, for some, is a disaster zone but for others, it's a tough place to get out of. Ask Limerick.

Waterford, however, kept winning. Eight times they played, winning seven, drawing once and by May they had won just the third League in their history and their first national title since 2007. "We enjoyed it," said Noel Connors, their tigerish defender.

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"There were days when we were left in that dressing room, just the 30 of us, with everyone else forgetting about you." Yet it wasn't enough. They may have beaten Galway, Tipperary and Cork en route to the title, but the GAA's calendar year, to all extents and purposes, runs from May to September. They needed a scalp. Cork provided them with one.

"A great day," McGrath recalls. But the Munster final wasn't. Tipperary proved more clinical and immediately McGrath's defensive system – the very structure that had brought them this far – was blamed for the loss. "Look, the reality is that we are no different to any other team," says McGrath.

"We're looking for fluidity within a structure. Nobody is on a leash. I watched Kilkenny recently. Richie Hogan was back inside his own 45. The thing I admire about Kilkenny and Tipperary in recent years is that they are able to do extraordinary things in an ordinary way." The same can now be said of Waterford. Semi-finalists for the first time in four years, they are genuine contenders for the All-Ireland, even if it is Kilkenny who lie in wait.

"To be in an All-Ireland semi-final is a great achievement," McGrath says.

"Obviously we have a massive challenge ahead of us. The pressure from the outside is all gone. But there is a pressure from within. We have two choices, we can go up to Croke Park and have a look around or we can go there and try and be as competitive as possible. I am a big fan of theirs.

They have a savage intensity to their play. They are favourites for a reason. They are admired for a reason. They have proven to be a great team. They have done so much." Yet so – given where they were last year – has McGrath.