It was Waterford's worst nightmare come true.

Just two weeks before the start of the Munster hurling championship, a competition they hadn't won a game in since 2016, captain Pauric Mahony ruptured his cruciate ligament in a challenge match.

Though he has surprisingly never been named an All-Star (three nominations) the Ballygunner man has long been considered one of the best forwards in the country and is particularly accurate from dead balls. 

In the Déise's march to the 2017 final, he scored 0-50 in seven games - including 0-13 from play - to end the year as the championship's top scorer.

What would manager Liam Cahill do without his free-taker? Find a new one, that's what.

Enter 25-year-old Stephen Bennett, one of three sons of former Waterford star and selector Pat to represent the county.

There is just over a year between the eldest - half-back Kieran - and Stephen, and then another 14 months to fellow forward Shane, who has stepped away from the panel this year.

The trio had the historic distinction of appearing on the same minor team in 2012 - Shane was 15 - and helped Ballysaggart (estimated population 250) to win Waterford and Munster junior titles in 2013 before becoming a senior club this year.

(L-R) Cormac Curran, Shane Bennett, Austin Gleeson and Stephen Bennett celebrate Waterford's All-Ireland minor triumph in 2013

Stephen and Shane were again team-mates on the Waterford team that won a first minor All-Ireland in 65 years in 2013 as Stephen scored nine goals in as many games.

The duo followed that up with starring roles in just the county's second U21 triumph in 2016. Stephen bagged two goals from full-forward while Shane hit 1-1 from midfield in a 16-point win over a Galway team featuring Seán Loftus, Shane Cooney and Conor Whelan.

At that stage, both had made their senior championship debuts but Stephen was plagued with persistent hip problems, and underwent his second double-hip surgery in 2015 when he had just turned 20.

As Shane and then Kieran established themselves, Stephen struggled to cement a place in then manager Derek McGrath's starting XV and was an unused substitute for the All-Ireland final defeat to Galway in 2017, when it wasn't entirely clear which of his brothers had scored Waterford's second goal.

Despite the winless misery of the 2018 and '19 campaigns for Waterford, Stephen was showing signs of how important he would become to the team.

He scored from play in the three of the four Munster round-robin games in '18 and last year, with Mahony having been on duty with the Ballygunner team that reached the semi-finals of the All-Ireland club championship, he was entrusted with the frees throughout the Allianz Hurling League, ending as top scorer with 4-85 as Waterford reached the final before suffering a heavy defeat to Limerick.

He remained as free-taker in the opening, one-point provincial loss to Clare and despite four Munster defeats split the posts from play in every game too.

"Stephen Bennett is lethal. He's an unbelievable talent," says the Déise's all-time championship top-scorer Paul Flynn, a man who knows a thing or 24 about taking frees and scoring goals.

"Nobody in Waterford is surprised at how well he is playing. There were a couple of years when he wasn't playing but he would be on the radar of hurling people for the past half a dozen years.

"He plays with instinct and his instinct is brilliant. His awareness and his eye for a goal, which has died out a bit in the modern game of teams scoring 30 points, you don’t see a lot."

Crucially, in recent seasons, Stephen has managed to stay fit.

"The hips are never going to be perfect but I know a lot more about them now and how to handle them," he told the Irish Examiner last year.

"They're the best they're ever going to be and I’m getting full training and full matches done with them so I’m happy enough."

Pauric Mahony (R) and Stephen Bennett before Waterford's win over Cork

Even though he can't influence events on the pitch, Mahony has continued to play a captain's role, helping Bennett to prepare for his crucial free-taking role at training and before his games.

His replacement has scored 0-34 points (six from play) in Waterford's three games to date - the Munster semi-final victory over Cork, the competitive final defeat to Limerick and last week's comprehensive quarter-final victory over Clare.

"Against Limerick, he carried it along the end-line and there was only one thing on his mind, a goal," observes Flynn. "But he had to settle for a point, and he had the patience and maturity to do that.

"He’s unselfish as well. The first minute of the game against Clare, when the ball broke to him at centre-forward, there was an easy score to be taken but he offloaded it to Austin Gleeson and Dessie Hutchinson put it in the net. That set Waterford up in what was a tense match.

"At times, maybe he goes back a bit too far taking frees but that’s just his confidence.

"He’s in the limelight and deservedly so. This is his time and the time for the team is now. Him, Austin Gleeson, Tadhg De Burca, Jamie Barron, they’re men, they’re not underage hurlers anymore. They are phenomenal players and their skill, the work-rate they have, it’s brilliant to watch."

Liam Cahill

In his first year in charge, former Tipperary U21 boss Liam Cahill has restored the self-belief that had ebbed away from Waterford in recent seasons.

Stephen himself admits that it has taken a while for the players to truly believe Cahill and his selectors when they tell them that that they can beat anyone, but, ahead of today's All-Ireland semi-final clash with Kilkenny, it seems Waterford have finally got their groove back.

"It's brilliant," he said of the team's revival this autumn. "We drew one game and lost seven championship games in two years.

"It's bleak enough when you're going down training thinking 'What are we going to lose by this weekend?'. When you're losing by 15 or 20 points, you're not exactly going to go to the next game full of confidence so you're kind of playing in your shell.

"You get stuck in a rut, I suppose. But it's great when you get back and start believing in yourself.

Stephen Bennett pictured at the launch of the Bord Gáis Energy Christmas Jumper campaign.

"Even in the Munster final, I'm not sure did we even believe by the end of it. Liam told us all week we were going to be in it, we were going to be level with them with 15 minutes to go and we'd win the game.

"Next thing it was 18-18 at the water break and the next five-minute period, too many of us didn't show up, we let Limerick get their couple of points and get on top, then we were chasing for the last five minutes.

"So it's definitely something we can work on. We just need to get back to believing that we are as good as all these teams.

"When fellas are confident, they're going to be shooting from different positions. They're going to be attacking more and enjoying it more. We're in a positive place at the moment so we just want to keep it going."

Watch Waterford v Kilkenny (6pm Saturday) and Limerick v Galway (4pm Sunday) live on RTÉ2, listen to live commentary on RTÉ Radio 1 or follow our live blog on RTÉ Sport Online and the RTÉ News app. Highlights on The Sunday Game (9.30pm RTÉ2).