I try not to be critical of players, management or the officials of the Waterford County Board. Not just in a don’t-mind-as-long-as-it’s-constructive way, but try to never criticise them at all. There was a remarkable image in Monday’s Indo of Davy Fitz umpiring at the All-Ireland camogie semi-final between Wexford and Cork in Nowlan Park. You’d think given all the brickbats that have been thrown in his direction over the years, not least in recent weeks, that the last thing he’d want to do in his me-time was gorge on more hurling. Yet there he was, mucking in for the greater good. It’s humbling for a keyboard warrior like myself to see that kind of commitment, and everyone I see or write about displays a degree of devotion far in excess of what I provide to the association. If I see something being done wrong, it’s incumbent on me to get off my arse and do something about it. And spare me the idea that the dinosaurs in charge are preventing fresh blood from having their ideas implemented. My father once mentioned to a committee member of 52 years standing in Tramore GAA that our family were only ‘blow-ins’, a comment that brought a startlingly furious reaction. “I hate that phrase!”, he thundered. “It only puts people off coming down and helping out”. Not that such a statement encouraged me to chip in. It sounded too much like hard work.
So believe me when I say that what comes next is not uttered lightly or with any sense of malice. But the evidence of the last couple of weeks suggests that we’re doing something fundamentally wrong in Waterford hurling. The woes at Senior level are well-documented, but it was the performance of the Minors that was a real wake-up bomb. Aertel may have thought it was a ‘classic’ and a 60 minute match that has a combined score of 11-32 is certainly memorable. Let’s be blunt though. You can admire the courage of the Waterford team in putting respectability on the scoreline yet not pretend that the ultimate margin of defeat was anything other than flattering to Waterford. Just as in the Munster final we were utterly horsed out of it by a physically superior team. A good big ‘un beats a good little ‘un, and we have a lot of good little ‘uns.
When I started going back to hurling matches in 1997, one player who stood out in club matches was Ballygunner’s Tony Carroll. He looked so slick at such a tender age, effortlessly pirouetting past opponents and slotting the ball over from the silliest of angles. In my youthful ignorance – gosh, I must still be young – I eagerly anticipated his promotion to the county team. When that moment arrived, it was immediately obvious he wasn’t able for the step-up to the majors. A handful of appearances in the South-East League and a brief cameo against Cork in the NHL when the match was already lost seems to have been the sum total of his Waterford inter-county career at Senior level. Imagine a nine-stone weakling taking on the likes of Brian Corcoran or Seán Óg Ó hAilpín. Bears and rag dolls spring to mind.
And looking at Waterford on Sunday, we seem to be adept at producing rag dolls. What are we doing wrong? Much has been made of how much has been invested in underage hurling in Dublin. We had our own master plan in Waterford back in the day when Colm Bonnar was brought in to whip young Déisigh into shape. Boy, was it needed. I recall the delight when he came to our school. To be in the presence of a person who had won a Munster championship medal was inspirational – this was 1988, he hadn’t even won an All-Ireland yet he seemed like a colossus. On a more fundamental level, there was no coherent plan for bringing through talent. How do you expect to get decent hurlers when a right-handed young fella can play all his life with the left hand on top of the hurley? Where was the coaching to pick up on such a grotesque flaw? While living in Galway, a work colleague who was sufficiently good to have played Fitzgibbon Cup hurling and have been on the fringes of the Galway Minors was aghast. “That’s impossible!”, he said when I noted my handicap. It’s certainly impossible to be any good, that’s for sure.
Oh yes, the person with the gammy grip was me. Did you not guess?
Bonnar brought a fresh impetus to coaching in the county, and while it would probably be a leap to suggest the burst of underage success that characterised the early 1990’s was down to him – too soon – Waterford hurling was on a consistent upward trajectory from the nadir of the 1980’s. Hurling has burrowed its way into the collective psyche to a remarkable degree. When RTÉ’s Monday Night Soccer programme came to town to do a feature on the Blues’s run in the 2009 FAI Cup, they conducted a vox pop on what sport you associate with Waterford and the response was unequivocal: hurling, hurling and hurling. To be able to say that in a traditional bastion of the garrison game is something of which Waterford GAA can be immensely proud.
Yet watching us over the last couple of weeks, it seems clear we’ve plateaued. It’s not just Dublin. Clare have flattened us in successive Munster Minor finals and now we have Limerick roaring back from the brink. 100,000 people watched them win the Munster Under-21 title on TG4, an absolutely stupefying figure for a minority contest in a minority sport on a minority channel. God knows how many hurleys were picked up on Shannonside in the aftermath of that game. You could argue that underage success doesn’t necessarily translate into Senior level, and no-one could testify to the truth of that better than Limerick whose three All-Ireland successes in the early 00’s did not translate into a single bauble for the grown-ups. Still, it can’t hurt, and it might be said that while it is not a sufficient condition for Senior success it is a necessary one. And a necessary one that we’re struggling to accomplish.
With that in mind, the continued competitiveness of the Waterford Seniors for the last decade is nothing short of miraculous. The Waterford panel is stuffed with players who are routinely found wanting by the demands of summer hurling, yet they linger on like zombies because there’s no-one to replace them. An Moltóir does a fine job on his website analysing why Waterford came up short, but there’s no sense of what could be done differently apart from ‘don’t do stupid things’. Watching the Minors against Limerick, it seems the skill is there. But what separates the merely good from the great is the ability to make the right decision in the handful of picoseconds you have before the opposition get in your face. Nothing buys you a few more picoseconds better than having the physical chops to resist the first assault. And when you look at the lightweight nature of even successfully introduced players like Maurice Shanahan and Pauric Mahony, you fear that the robustness isn’t there.
What is to be done? I have no idea. Surely we can’t have genetically inferior stock in Waterford (although I’ve seen online Kilkenny know-it-alls make claims along those lines, sturdy Norman yeomanry and all that). Are we the only county not juicing it? The aforementioned Galway lad told me how a college room-mate from <county censored> had a regular regimen of, uh, vitamin pills. It’s not likely, but something has to account for the disparity between our scrawny pool of hurling talent and the seeming leviathans around us. If we don’t find out what we’re doing wrong we’ll be needing anti-depressants.