Michael Rice - Once a Kilkenny hurler, always a Kilkenny hurler
By John Harrington
The closing minutes of last Sunday’s drawn All-Ireland semi-final between Kilkenny and Waterford was a sensory overload.
Croke Park vibrated with a screeching din as both sets of supporters implored their players for one last effort, and the choking tension inside the stadium was almost a physical thing.
In the midst of all the madness, Michael Rice sat calmly in his seat, utterly focused on what was unfolding below him on the pitch.
He had watched every minute of the game with a studied eye, and remained coldly analytical right to the end. Every tactical move and counter-move was noted, every individual battle gauged.
He’s might be a Kilkenny supporter now since his retirement as an inter-county player at the end of last year, but as an observer Rice was always unlikely to be the type to surf the highest waves of emotions in the stand.
He views the game through the eyes of a player and a coach, so while most Kilkenny fans simply roared with joy when Conor Fogarty scored that last minute equaliser for the Cats, Rice quietly marveled at the way his former team-mates had engineered it.
“I think everyone in the stand was screaming at Paul Murphy to launch it downfield,” he told GAA.ie.
“But, again, Paul was very calm with a lot of the short puck-outs and he just looked up and I think that's an element of experience. Paul has been there a good few years now and he realised that we probably had launched a nice few balls down the field and it wasn't working out.
“In fairness to Conor Fogarty, he has incredible fitness, and at the 75th minute lots of lads heads are gone with fatigue, but because of his fitness levels he had the presence of mind to move up the field and look for the pass and take it on.
“It took huge guts to take on that shot because I think 90 per cent of players would have popped it inside and hoped for the best.”
There’s every chance Rice will break down how Fogarty engineered the space for himself to get into that shooting position when he holds court at the coaching weekend he’s running for hurling managers and coaches in St. Kieran’s College at the end of this month.
Now in its second year, the ‘Michael Rice St Kieran’s College Coaching Academy’ sounds like the ultimate finishing school for aspiring managers.
Those who sign up spend a residential weekend in St Kieran’s College and are exposed to a series of coaching demonstrations and discussions that explore best practice in all areas of the game.
“It's coming from a player's perspective so I have David Herity talking about goalkeeping, Brian Hogan talking about defence, Richie Power talking about forward play, and I talk about midfield play,” says Rice.
“Martin Fogarty will be involved too giving his insights, and we have four professionals. We have a dietician a physio, a strength and conditioning coach, and a sports psychologist, Shane O'Sullivan, from the Waterford panel.
“We're trying to be a one-stop-shop for managers and coaches who want to learn quite a bit in one weekend. It's also the experience as such and the network that's being created by managers and coaches coming.”
Considering the line-up of coaches and speakers involved, it sounds like Rice’s weekend might be the closest any manager will get to discovering the secrets of Kilkenny’s hurling success in recent years.
Rice believes the best hurling teams are tactically flexible and factor the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition into their game-plan. But above anything else there must be a work-ethic that never wavers.
“There is no doubt that the whole thing is very much based on the hard work thing,” he says. “Often you talk about Kilkenny's half-forward line that they play deep or whatever, but that just comes naturally from the perspective of just hard work, you know, that they do get back.
“There's a certain expectation that you want your lads getting in around that middle third. That's nearly I suppose just intrinsically there.
“I think the building block that's always there is probably the teamwork aspect and the honesty amongst players. In terms of the tactical side of things, that's very much a variable depending on the team you're playing.
“I think for a team to be very much rigid in terms of how they're going to play, sometimes that can be slightly naïve. You do have to be aware of the opposition to a certain extent. You can't just go out gung-ho and say we don't care about them.
“Traditionally we wouldn't have looked at the opposition too much, but nowadays you just have to have some element of work done on the opposition.”
Kilkenny’s success in recent years hasn’t been down to just good management and coaching by Brian Cody and his backroom team at senior inter-county level.
Underpinning it all is a hurling culture that has no equal. St. Kieran’s College, where Rice is a teacher, is a huge part of that culture. Year after the year the Kilkenny senior hurling team is dominated by graduates of the country’s elite hurling nursery.
St. Kieran’s in turn is fed by primary schools who have vibrant links with their local clubs. When you break it down, the entire county is one big hurling conveyor belt of talent.
That’s not something that can be replicated by many other counties in the short-term, but Rice believes there are still certain principles you can put in place to foster the sort of culture that's at the heart of Kilkenny hurling's success.
“I don't think you can just create a culture overnight,” he says. “I do think it has to be put in place over time and you have stick to those principles that you believe in. You can't be wishy-washy. If it doesn't seem to be working you don't just throw it all out. You have to develop it. It has to be bought into.
“I suppose the culture, when you're talking about St. Kieran's College and Kilkenny, is one of just of trying to better yourself.
“Also, if you have been successful, that's only a stepping stone, it's not an end result. The next one is the one you're looking for. That culture has been strong in terms of both St. Kieran's and Kilkenny.”
The list of soccer players who played under former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and were inspired to go on to manage themselves is a lengthy one.
In a similar fashion, former Kilkenny players like Rice who came under Cody’s influence are now getting involved in coaching and management themselves. Rice learned a lot from the most successful manager in the history of the game, but he doesn’t think the Cody way is necessarily something that would work for everyone.
“Yeah, I've learned an awful amount from Brian Cody and Martin Fogarty, and Mick Dempsey as well since 2003 with the U-21 and that. Look, you learn a bit from all your coaches along the way, but they've been huge influences. You pick up some knowledge along the way and you try to use it. I suppose the important thing I've learned is you shouldn't try to copy one particular coach.
“If we all tried to go out and be Brian Cody, I don't think that would work either. He's his own man and that's the way he works. If everything all tried to be Cody and do whatever he does, it might not suit your personality and it might not suit the team you're over, either. That's the mistake that often happens in certain cases.”
As far as management is concerned, at the moment Rice is happy to focus his energies on the U-16 teams in St. Kieran’s College. You get the feeling there are more high-profile management roles in the future, but at the moment he still sees himself as a player first and a coach second.
He no longer plays for Kilkenny, but he’s a key man for Carrickshock as they bid to win the Intermediate Championship this year having been relegated from the senior grade last year. He’s content that he gave all he could for as long as he could for Kilkenny and retired at the right time, but there was a pang or two of envy when he watched last weekend’s All-Ireland semi-final from a distance.
“I do miss the big days in Croke Park alright, yeah," says Rice. "I enjoyed the match against Waterford because when you're in Croke Park you want to be playing there. It's the best stadium in the world. I definitely miss that aspect.
“You probably do miss that environment where it's 100 per cent all of the time and you're pushing yourself to the absolute limit. But, at the same time, I think my body was saying maybe it's time, you know.
“You do realise when you finish with the county team that you enjoy just playing hurling. Sometimes you think if I'm not with Kilkenny will I enjoy it anymore? But I've found that I just really enjoy playing hurling at whatever level it's at.
“When I'm feeling fairly good in my body it's just nice to be out there and be competitive. Whether that's at intermediate level with Carrickshock or whatever, it's just nice to be competitive and feel good in your own body.
“Ultimately, regardless of the level, you turn back into yourself and all you want to do is win. It's probably that competitive nature that you have since you were probably six or seven when you were out playing a small little game in the yard or whether you're playing in a club match, you want to win.
“That stays with you regardless. It's probably good on one side, but then it doesn't let you maybe relax and just enjoy the game win or lose. I don't think that will ever happen me to be honest. It's the winning I suppose that I want.”
Michael Rice. Once a Kilkenny hurler, always a Kilkenny hurler.
* For more information on the Michael Rice St Kieran’s College Coaching Academy, email: email@example.com