Derek McGrath will now aim to prove that Waterford can be a championship force Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Can Waterford's hurlers carry League form into the championship summer?

Derek McGrath’s charges will meet Cork again in the Munster SHC next month

MUCH OF THE post-match reaction from Sunday’s Allianz Hurling League Division 1 final centred on the key themes of redemption and vindication.

Redemption for Waterford following last year’s relegation from Division 1A and vindication for manager Derek McGrath’s decision to dispense with some experienced players at the conclusion of a disappointing 2014 campaign.

‘Stick’ and ‘criticism’ were other words used by players and management alike as they reflected upon a turbulent journey which ended with a trek up the steps of the New Stand in Thurles to collect silverware.

Last year might not have panned out in the way McGrath, his players and Waterford supporters would have liked.

He came into the job following the controversial ousting of Michael Ryan by player power.

Michael Ryan Michael Ryan was ousted by player power in Waterford Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

Ryan is an immensely likeable man with a deep knowledge of the game but Waterford’s players felt that he wasn’t the man to take them forward.

County board officials turned to McGrath and that stance has been vindicated.

But it should come as no surprise to those who have followed the fortunes of Waterford underage hurling in recent seasons to see success come the county’s way.

When De La Salle college contested the 2007 Croke Cup final, Stephen O’Keeffe, Noel Connors, Philip Mahony and Steven Daniels were key members of the winning team managed by McGrath.

O’Keeffe, Connors and Mahony played starring roles at Semple Stadium last Sunday and when DLS retained their Harty and All-Ireland titles in 2008, O’Keeffe was still between the sticks, with Barry Coughlan at full-back.

Connors was stationed on the wing with Mahony anchoring the centre back position. Further forward, Mahony’s brother Pauric played an influential role and Jake Dillon also operated in attack.

Pauric Mahony Pauric Mahony shot the lights out for champions Waterford in this year's Allianz League campaign Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Fast forward over seven years and the bond between manager and players remains strong. Six of that starting 15 from 2008 lined out against Cork on Sunday with two more, Eddie Barrett and Daniels, on the bench.

Familiarity, in this case, breeds affection and respect. McGrath places his faith in tried and trusted soldiers and they reciprocate.

One swallow doesn’t make a summer, of course, and Waterford still have a road to travel under McGrath.

They lost by 14 points against Cork in last year’s Munster quarter-final replay before bowing out of the All-Ireland series against Wexford at Nowlan Park.

But Waterford’s stock is so high right now that Ger Loughnane tipped them as dark horses for the Liam MacCarthy Cup on RTÉ’s League Sunday, with the dust barely settled on the Cork win.

They’ve been unfairly labelled as the Donegal of hurling in quarters but that tag does Waterford a huge disservice.

Ger Loughnane Ger Loughnane has tipped Waterford to emerge as championship dark horses James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Sure, they’ve leaked just five goals in eight League outings this year and place a heavy emphasis on defensive solidity.

But Pauric Mahony finished as joint leading scorer for the campaign alongside Cork’s Patrick Horgan as Waterford hit 11-176 in total, averaging out at just over 26 points per game. They can hardly be accused of being shot-shy in front of the posts.

McGrath may still be a fledgling intercounty manager in many respects but with a vast amount of playing and coaching experience to call upon, he knows only too well that League success will only carry him so far in the minds of a demanding Waterford public.

And that’s why Waterford simply must follow up this psychological blow delivered on Cork with a knockout championship punch next month.

McGrath, with an astute tactical mind, knows too that Cork will launch an in-depth investigation of how he sets his team up and will surely be prepared to counteract that when the sides meet in Thurles again on June 7.

And so while, for now, Waterford will feast on a third League title, and rightly so, Derek McGrath and his players realise that the hard work has only just begun.

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