Allianz Hurling League Division 1 Final: Déise's rebirth - hurling story of the year
Waterford are once more challenging for trophies after a 'horrible' 2014 - Flannery
FEW in Waterford saw this rebirth coming - a spectacular revival at breakneck speed.
Last year was, according to former Déise defender Brian Flannery, a "horrible season" ... now Derek McGrath's beat-the-bookie specialists are gearing up for an Allianz Hurling League final against Cork, having become "the hurling story of the year".
Question is, are we witnessing just a fleeting spring renaissance or something more sustainable?
Flannery, who has been at every Waterford game en route to Thurles on Sunday, veers towards the latter.
"All the Division 1B teams lost when they came to the first knockout round," he says, recalling previous leagues.
"Now, Galway are a bit hot and cold and the game was in Walsh Park. But to go to Nowlan Park and beat a highly fancied Tipperary - I think that really announced this Waterford team as one not just with potential but one capable of winning silverware this year."
He then adds: "You're sort of hoping this is the dawning of a new competitive era."
A Tipp native who switched county allegiance after moving to Waterford and joining Mount Sion, Flannery was part of the last great Déise revival. It started in 1998, when they qualified for a league final against Cork; the Rebels claimed their 14th NHL title - and are still waiting for number 15. Flannery was an unused sub in Thurles that day but went on to become a championship regular as Waterford reached that year's All-Ireland semi-final.
Seventeen years later, Waterford and Cork renew league final battle. Flannery admits very few in his adopted county foresaw this. "Absolutely not," he stresses.
"I mean, Waterford really is the hurling story of the year. Twelve months ago, I was in Nowlan Park when Waterford played Kilkenny in the league and we were beaten out the gate, by 20 points.
"They were down 23 points at half-time against Clare in the league. It was a horrible season, and it really then petered out - funnily enough in Nowlan Park again, losing to Wexford in the qualifiers.
"To go back within 12 months to Nowlan Park, the scene of some poor performances, and to beat a good Tipperary team is a real sign that this Waterford team are in a different place now."
Harking back to last year, Flannery surmises that several factors - a year-one management introducing a batch of talented underage graduates, while some older stars had stepped away - all combined to create "one of those difficult years" full of "growing pains".
Even against Cork, in their drawn Munster opener, they led by nine points but the quick evaporation of that cushion suggested a "lack of confidence from a team that just weren't sure of themselves. You definitely don't get that feeling this year."
McGrath has all of his players singing off the same hymn sheet - albeit a pretty defensive one. There has been that barbed depiction, the 'Donegal of hurling' … Flannery sees it as a convenient but "perhaps valid" media comparison.
"The one thing I would remind everybody is Donegal did win an All-Ireland!" he adds. "Yeah, there are times you look out onto the field and struggle to find a Waterford player inside the opposition '50' - or maybe even inside the opposition 65m line. It's not too dissimilar to Clare a couple of years ago, and with Colin Dunford and Maurice Shanahan, they have players with pace that can get into forward positions, maybe coming from a little bit deeper.
"But it's built on the back line really, your half-back line in particular - Austin Gleeson, Tadhg de Búrca, Philip Mahony, they've really been the bedrock of the team.
"You have the system that they play. Jamie Barron drops in as an extra defender from midfield. It has worked very well so far, but the league final is intriguing because you have an extremely good Cork forward line against a very good Waterford defence."
The flip side for Cork, he argues, is that they've "probably one of the poorest defences in the country", citing their full-back line as a huge concern.
Flannery finds it hard to pick a winner but then concludes: "Waterford have proved people wrong all year - it wouldn't surprise me if Kevin Moran was lifting the trophy by five o'clock Sunday."