Column: Shane McGrath on hurling
By Shane McGrath
“Most people have the will to win, few have the will to prepare to win”
This week everyone in the country and around the world who have hurling in their heart are wishing they could play in Sunday’s All-Ireland Final.
We would all love to be there, but how many would be willing to put the effort in year round to be there?
Whilst we the spectators throw another log on the fire and decide whether to watch EastEnders or the recorded Corrie in the cold dark nights of January, these guys whom we are all jealous of this week are out running into tackle bags in the driving rain and wind, trying to catch a sliotar in the freezing cold, and working out the best meal plan for the week ahead at work to maximise training.
They do all that for a chance, and just a chance, of getting to the first Sunday in September and an even smaller chance then of actually winning it.
So, are the 45 weeks of training, sacrifice, pain and hurt worth it for that 70 minutes? You bet your life they are!
Anyone who has been lucky enough to run out onto Croker for All Ireland Final Day will tell you that the buzz and the roar of the crowd is just magical. You jump into the air as you run out and you feel like you’re twenty feet tall. The hairs on the back of your neck tingle, the adrenalin levels are at maximum.
This is it, the moment you’ve waited for, you’ve worked for, you’ve dreamed of, and now you’re living that dream.
But then professional mode must kick in. Let’s get the picture done and straight into the warm up. What’s the pitch like today? Have I the right boots on? Get the first few touches in, strike a ball over the bar just to confirm to yourself that, 'yeah, I can do this'.
Warm up out of the way, few more strikes over the bar, and now it’s on to meet the President. Formalities that have to be done and are nice too because, let’s face it, how often will you get the president wishing you the best of luck! Handshakes done, a few little sprints and into the parade. That walk around the field when you feel like the most important person in the world. 83,000 people are here to watch you and your team. Soak it all up, quick drink of water, words of the like - “Where else would you rather be lad?” - to the guy nearest to you.
It’s been tough, but my God is it worth it now. I’ve worked hard for this, I deserve this, now let’s get out there and perform.
Finally, Amhrán Na bhFiann before war. That song that no matter where I hear it, be it at the end of a wedding at 3am with the tie around my head or in the middle of Croke Park on All Ireland Final day, just sends shivers down my spine and gives me this enormous sense of pride.
And, of course, what is our National Anthem without someone roaring out 'Hon Whoever' after it. It’s in our genes. It’s who we are. Now it’s time. Throw that ball in. Let’s begin history.
That’s just a small glimpse of what I feel these two sets of warriors will be going through on Sunday. This is our Super Bowl, Champions League, World Cup all rolled into one.
The greatest game on earth showed off at its brilliant best. These last couple of weeks will have been about mental and tactical preparation more than anything because the body’s fitness levels are good from the year gone and hurling wise it’s just about sharpening up the first touch.
So the small things that not many know of will have to be taken care of. The suits, fitted up and sent to the hotels along of course with the partners’ bag of stuff. Very important that is! Next thing the media duties, done nice and early after the semis usually by two or three players who won’t be fazed by what may be seen in the papers in the coming days.
And, of course, the dreaded ticket order. Suddenly your ticket order from the semi has jumped from 10 to 50. Relatives are coming out of the woodwork who just have to be there. You hear things like, “Wasn’t she very good to you when you were small”, and, “Sure they might not be around for the next one”, and, “I owe this lad a big favour and you’d really be helping me out”.
The orders just come rushing in and this can be as much a headache as getting yourself right for the match. But with experience comes calmness and you find ways of working this out.
My best one was usually pick out the few I needed and just hand the rest over to a family member and say, “You take care of them for me now, I don’t want to know another thing about them til after the match”. and they always did and always sorted it out. One less worry.
All these things are not even considered by many in the build-up for an All-Ireland but they are things that can distract you if you let them. Neither group of Tipperary or Kilkenny will have any problem here with so many experienced heads on both sides to guide the new panel members experiencing this for the first time.
So, now it’s time to play! Without doubt the two best teams in the country have reached the final. Not many would argue with that. From one 15 it is very hard to separate them. Both teams dominated their province, both have come through tough battles in the semis. So it is now a question of, ‘Who wants it more?’
If you knew nothing of the sport and just looked at the recent stats, Kilkenny going for three in a row…again…Kilkenny going for their 9th title in 11 years, you would have to say that surely Tipp are hungrier for victory.
But this Kilkenny team do not conform to stats or theories. They have a drive and a desire to succeed that is second to none. Every year they seem to want it more and more and most years they achieve that.
Why? Well, it’s simple, most years Kilkenny perform when it matters most. They outwork their opposition when it matters most. They take the chances when the risk is highest and come out on top, all on the one day when it matters the most. They believe in themselves and their system when it matters the most.
This year they face a Tipperary team that in my opinion that will also rise to the occasion. This Tipperary team are different. I have said it all year. They are more physical, mentally stronger, working harder, better ball players then we have been for the last few years.
Tipp are now a real TEAM. Individually Kilkenny probably are the better team, Paul Murphy, Cillian Buckley, Conor Fogarty, Tj Reid, Richie Hogan, Walter Walsh, Colin Fennelly, all champions in their own right. But I feel that Tipp are now a champion team and to quote something I seen during the week, “A champion team will beat a team of champions”.
The match ups are going to be brilliant. Will Cathal Barrett pick up Richie Hogan? I would love to see it. The two front runners for hurler of the year going at it toe to toe. Whoever won this battle would determine the whereabouts of Liam McCarthy on Monday evening.
Who will Brian Cody put on Seamus Kennedy, the new guy to the Tipp back line? Usually Cody targets the newer guy on the team with one of his most experienced guys, so it will be very interesting to see who starts on that wing. And will TJ and Richie play as deep as they did the last day against Waterford?
Will Conor Fogarty revert back to number 6? I don’t think so for the simple reason that with Fennelly out Kilkenny would be losing their entire midfield so I feel Kieran Joyce will go in at 6 and Lester Ryan will partner Fogarty in the middle for a ding dong battle with Brendan Maher and Mikey Breen.
Who will mark Seamie? I feel Joey Holden will be given the responsibility and challenge to try and stop Seamie. This will be a great battle with Bubbles and John McGrath floating around too and perhaps interchanging with Seamie as worked so well against Galway for Tipp’s two goals.
So many questions and so many answers yet to be determined. My heart of course says Tipperary and my head (though it’s going to be a titanic struggle) also says Tipperary.
Finally, a little quote which I feel sums up just what it takes to win this game and Sunday and become immortal in the hurling World.
“It has little to do with the number on my shirt or the roar of the crowd, but everything to do with the dream in my heart and the desire to give everything I have to this game and to the victory”.
Let the battle commence!