Deise's quiet man Tadhg de Burca setting the summer terms
Published 25/07/2015 | 02:30
Once upon a time, Waterford hurling wouldn't have cast a second glance at Tadhg de Burca. When forward-planning in the county was little more than a lucky dip, he would have been lost in the rush to pack teams with brawn and swaggering personality. No more extrovert than a book-keeper, De Burca would have been invisible before the re-drafting of Waterford's constitution.
To begin with he started out so small, the wonder was that magpies didn't try to feed him. Worse, he came from Clashmore in the west of the county where hurling tradition ran no deeper than bemused glances across the Blackwater river into Youghal. When De Burca was a child, nobody ever saw him hurl and went away with goosebumps.
So how did he come to settle at the epicentre of this Championship?
In the re-drafting of Waterford's hurling constitution, certain imperatives needed to be met. They needed to sidestep the traditional connivance of random game plans and over-heating minds. To that end, they needed to find a different kind of hurler. Maybe a different kind of man.
Perhaps the first thing to establish about De Burca then is that he didn't grow up wanting to be noticed. Youngest son of a Limerick father and Kerry mother, his early under-age years would have introduced him to A-grade football, B-grade hurling. "Being perfectly honest, you wouldn't have seen an inter-county hurler in Tadhg during his younger years," reflects county secretary and Clashmore clubman, Timmy O'Keeffe.
"But when he got to about 17, that changed!"
The metamorphosis had many strands but maybe none more pivotal than his personal voyage of self-discovery with Dungarvan Colleges. They've re-drafted the rules since to road-block the Croke Cup route to combined teams and it's a moot point if, in doing so, they've shut the door on countless other De Burcas around the country.
Because winning that All-Ireland colleges' crown in 2013 gave a status to boys from West Waterford that, historically, had been restricted to those schooled in the big, traditional nurseries of Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork.
Put simply, Tadhg de Burca became the man he is today by dint of having access to the top tier of colleges hurling.
To begin with, mind, they didn't know where to put him or what exactly they should ask him to do. Darragh Duggan, a selector on that Dungarvan Colleges voyage, knew De Burca since he was a 13-year-old First Year in 'The Friary' (St Augustines) and retains a mental snapshot of his first, real glimpse of the steely character within.
"The first match we took him to, we played St Paul's," recalls Duggan, a native of Holycross in Tipperary. "I think we were waiting around for the dressing-rooms to be opened and Tadhg was flicking this ball around. All of a sudden, I shouted 'Tadhg, control this!'
"I drove a ball as hard as I could at him from about 50 yards and he just trapped it dead on the hurley. And everyone just stood there looking at him, grinning."
With 'The Friary', he was always a midfielder or half-forward, but his lack of size kept people guessing. He started his first Harty Cup year with Dungarvan Colleges at full-forward, top-scoring in most of their games throughout the League. Everyone could see the purity of De Burca's hurling, the difficulty was in reading precisely where it should take him.
When Dungarvan drew St Flannan's in the Harty quarter-final, a decision was taken to re-register the poacher as a gamekeeper.
Flannan's had a certain Shane O'Donnell operating at corner-forward and, while De Burca might have been Dungarvan's sweetest stickman, he was also - palpably - their best man-marker. That day in Tipperary Town, he switched from full-forward to corner-back and a 14-man Dungarvan eventually beat down the fancied Flannan's team built around the majestic Tony Kelly at centre-back.
O'Donnell? Tadhg de Burca held him to a single point.
Maybe that was the game that shaped his future more than any other. Because, thereafter, the Clashmore kid was never really seen again as anything but a defender. Dungarvan won the Harty Cup that year (2012), retained it a year later before going on to win the All-Ireland, beating Kilkenny CBS in a Thurles final.
And there, rooted at the hub of business on all their big days, was the quiet, undemonstrative kid from Clashmore.
Duggan reflects: "Tadhg's as quiet as a mouse. Put it this way, he'll never wear coloured boots, he'll never be flash, he'll just arrive on and do his job quietly. You won't hear him unless you're talking to him.
"But he's not shy on the field. Like, to look at Tadhg, you wouldn't think he'd break eggs. But I remember he hit a challenge in that All-Ireland colleges' final and t'was the hardest thing you'd ever see. T'wasn't dirty, just a really big hit.
"And his reading of the game is second to none. He has a calmness and a movement about him that can't really be trained."
Now here's the thing. No one calls him 'de Burca' in Clashmore. The current chairman of the club is listed as a certain 'Tim Bourke'. His dad. Tadhg's two older brothers line out for Clashmore under the names Ciaran and Sean Bourke. His younger sister, Caoimhe, plays ladies football as a Bourke.
The Irish translation came from his time being schooled in Ring where his mother teaches and hurling for the Gaeltacht.
A fluent Irish speaker, he is now studying geography and Irish at UCC and, intriguingly, hurled centre-back in this year's Fitzgibbon under the management of current Dublin boss, Ger Cunningham. Take it then that wherever Dublin target their deliveries tomorrow, they'll be inclined to keep well clear of the Waterford man wearing number six.
Derek McGrath's use of De Burca as a sweeper has become the most scrutinised (and imitated) tactic in hurling this summer. It has given Waterford a level of defensive protection that makes them incredibly difficult to penetrate and also positioned the reluctant De Burca at the forefront of hurling talk.
As things stand, he's undoubtedly an All Star candidate. Why? Maybe McGrath is best qualified to assess him.
After last year's All-Ireland qualifier defeat of Laois, the Waterford manager was effusive about De Burca. "He is immaculate in terms of possession and when he has ball in hand," says McGrath. "But he is able to mix it as well. He will go long the odd time and then come short.
"It's a dangerous game at times and you just have to be very assured in your hurling. It requires a bit of patience."
The uneducated view is that a sweeper simply hoovers up loose ball, being spared the responsibility of spacial discipline. The opposite is actually the case.
For Waterford, De Burca's success has been franked by the humility to resist any temptation to showboat. He sits in front of Barry Coughlan, a virtual watchman in his hut, his game devoid of artifice or self-regard. He is strong in the air and so sharp in his reading of opposition minds, he will keep intercepting ball until the opposition begins to feel stupid.
He is one of the primary reasons that people see Waterford's system today as a miracle of simplification. Yet he can be a study in deadliness too.
As Duggan puts it "We always said he has the evil smile! Look, I'd be laughing at the way a lot of lads underestimate him.
If you watch his distribution, it doesn't go along the ground or two feet overhead. It nearly always goes between shoulder and hip. I don't want to build him up too much but, if he keeps improving at the rate he is, he's going to be very good."
The further Waterford develop, the more expression might be allowed filter into their hurling. De Burca could, in time, become the fulcrum of a conventional half-back line but, for now, he is the country's best-known sweeper.
"Tadhg's the type of fella you could play anywhere," suggests O'Keeffe. "He has that brightness about him. It's very easy to explain something to him if you want a job done.
"You know the way really good players always seem to have time on the ball. He has that. But you wouldn't get a word out of him.
"He does his talking on the field I suppose."