It has been a strange couple of years for everyone but particularly so in the hurling life of Pauric Mahony.

The Waterford sharpshooter was captain in 2020 before he damaged his cruciate ligament that October and missed out on the chance to lead his county in a Christmas All-Ireland final - a game in which Tadhg de Burca, expected back before this summer, suffered the same injury.

Mahony's eventual return to action came in the second round of the Waterford SHC last September, meaning he has missed only one championship game for Ballygunner since last appearing for the Déise in March almost two years ago.

You can understand why the 29-year-old would be keen to make up for last time with Liam Cahill and Co, particularly after the Tipp man turned down his native county to stay at the wheel.

"Liam showed huge trust with the current Waterford team that's there," Mahony tells RTÉ Sport.

"It's over to the players now to respond to that in the right manner and show Liam that he's made the right decision because I'm sure it was a very difficult call to make.

"Maybe he feels like he has unfinished business with this Waterford team and it's exciting to be involved in the set-up for 2022.

"While there was no silverware on the table at the end of the last couple of campaigns, there was progression. Plenty of positives and plenty of room for improvement too, which is vitally important.

"If there was no room for improvement and there's no silverware, you’re after hitting your max and nothing to show for it.

"It’s exciting and there’s a good buzz around the team at the moment. It’s a relatively young team but lads have two or three years of playing in big games under their belts so I’d like to think we can take another step forward in 2022."

Pauric Mahony pictured ahead of the AIB Munster GAA hurling senior club final

Mahony stayed with the panel as part of the backroom team in 2020 before focusing on the final steps in his long recovery last summer.

"It has been difficult," he admits of missing out on representing his county. "Initially, when the injury happened I missed the run to the All-Ireland final against Limerick. That was very raw at the time because the injury happened just before the Championship season started and I was very much caught up in the emotion of it.

"The following year then you're away from the set-up and you're more like a fan watching the game and your mindset changes. I would say that last year was a little bit easier because you had more time to prepare for going to games and watching games."

"The knee itself is feeling very strong since June or July. When you're out for so long you obviously pick up a few niggles, but thankfully at the moment I'm pretty much 100%."

Mahony is looking forward to experiencing how the inter-county game has changed since the sin-bin rule - "You have to be that little bit extra careful when a corner-forward is taking on a corner-back in terms of your position of where you are on the pitch" - but he might have to wait another couple of months to don the white and blue again.

Ballygunner are still on the road after bagging an eighth consecutive county title in October.

It's one Mahony insists was harder fought than might be presumed, particularly in the semi-final against Mount Sion: "We were very lucky to get through that game".

Ballygunner celebrate retaining their title against Roanmore

Things have never been so smooth in Munster, where the consistent contenders have reached three of the last five finals but won only one - against Na Piarsaigh in 2018.

It will be Limerick opposition again in Sunday's decider at Pairc Ui Chaoimh. In the semis, Kilmallock made short work of Cork's Midleton while the Gunners were straining to dispatch 13-man Loughmore-Castleiney.

"I think we're very evenly matched teams," says Mahony of the Treaty champions.

"If you look at the two teams on paper, very very similar teams. Inter-county players on most lines, both past and present. It's really set up nicely for a cracking game.

"When you're coming up against the calibre of players like Loughmore have, we were just delighted to get over the line. Thankfully we have another game now to work on the areas where we have improving to do.

"With 10,15 minutes to go in that game, conditions were extremely tough and we were playing into a bit of a gale. It was nice to come out on the right side of it.

"A lot of our younger guys haven't been involved in any Munster championship campaigns. So what’s gone on in the past is irrelevant to them and they’re looking for their first Munster medal. They're coming in with a new energy to the set-up, new motivation, new levels of enthusiasm to training. That's getting more out of the more experienced players now and fellas are looking ahead more so than looking back."

The 'more experienced players' include the likes of Mahony's brother Philip - recovered from a double leg-break that saw him miss the county final - and goalkeeper Stephen O'Keeffe, who both retired from inter-county duty before the age of 30.

"With Ballygunner, the training and standards we set are very similar to inter-county teams," says Pauric, who is strongly supportive of the year being clearly defined between club and county.

"There probably hasn't been that down time at all in the calendar year over the last number of seasons and that’s maybe one factor (in the early retirements).

"I think right across the board, you’re going to see inter-county players retiring at an earlier age. Ten years ago, lads could probably go to their mid 30s but it’s going to be a freak-of-nature player that’s able to keep going for 16,17 seasons with the demands and levels of professionalism that are involved with inter-county setups at the moment.

"I think the split season is brilliant. We're probably not going to see the benefit of it while the Covid situation is still flaring up and fixtures are being moved but from 2023 on we should see the real benefit of it."