Friday profile: 'If you asked him to go through the wall he wouldn't ask any questions'
Kilkenny learn to appreciate value of player who always makes difference
Published 08/08/2014 | 02:30
The first time Michael Rice met Eoin Larkin was in St Kieran's College. Rice was a year ahead of Larkin. They were the same age but they never really got to play together because Larkin left school after his Junior Cert.
In Rice's final year, St Kieran's lost the All-Ireland Colleges final to St Colman's Fermoy by one point and Larkin hustled his way into Rice's thoughts.
Larkin wasn't a big name. Rice remembered him playing for the Kieran's U-14 side as a goalkeeper.
He wasn't even making the starting Kilkenny minor team when he was 18 but Rice always felt there was something about Larkin. He felt that if they had him, St Kieran's might have won that All-Ireland.
"Eoin is that type of player," says Rice now. "His value to a team is just phenomenal. He always makes a difference."
Larkin has been consistently making a difference to Kilkenny hurling now for the last decade. "I couldn't emphasise enough how highly I rate Larky," says his former team-mate Eddie Brennan. "And how good he really is."
In the early days, nobody was fully sure about Larkin. He had only been a sub on the Kilkenny All-Ireland U-21-winning team in 2004 and he came into the senior set-up the following season on the back of a devastating run of form during James Stephens' march to All-Ireland club success.
In 14 matches, Larkin hit 5-105 and was man of the match in almost every one of those games.
He took up where he left off when he got his chance with Kilkenny. He landed 2-26 in his first four league matches, 2-15 of which came from play. It was a serious statement from a 20-year old rookie but hard questions were asked of him in the first half of the 2005 league final against Clare and Brian Cody cornered him in the dressing-room at half-time and spelled out what was expected.
"It was a big moment for me," Larkin said in 2006. "That was probably the moment in my career when I made the step-up to becoming an inter-county player."
Because of his high strike rate from placed balls with James Stephens, many people in Kilkenny saw him primarily as a free-taker and wondered about his survival at inter-county level without the sustenance of frees.
That level of mistrust from a demanding Kilkenny hurling public was exacerbated because he hadn't played underage championship up until that point but Larkin always had a chance.
He was a strong ball-winner and an immensely skilful player with a brilliant first touch. Most of all, though, he had a wonderful temperament. "He's so laid-back," says Brennan, "he's almost horizontal. I have never seen him panic or get flustered."
Larkin always had ice in his veins. "He's one of the coolest customers you'd ever come across," says Adrian Finan, who managed James Stephens to the 2005 All-Ireland club title. "Nothing ever fazes him. If you asked Eoin to go through the wall, he wouldn't ask any questions. And he wouldn't think for a second that he wouldn't be able to do it."
Finan managed the Kilkenny U-21 team that lost the 2005 All-Ireland final to Galway by a point. Larkin bagged 1-9 out of 1-14 and was man of the match but it still took him a couple of seasons to win over the hurling public, both inside and outside Kilkenny.
After he scored a point in the 69th minute of the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final against Clare to put Kilkenny nine points ahead, Donal O'Grady said in his TV co-commentary: "Eoin Larkin missed two very simple chances in the first half but when the pressure is off, then he scores from 70 yards near the sideline."
O'Grady was saying what everyone else was thinking but Larkin's work rate was massive in that 2006 season and he had everyone convinced of his talent within a couple of years. By 2008, he was Hurler of the Year. He won his second All Star the following year and he has maintained a really high consistency ever since.
"I always felt he was one of our key men in 2006 and 2007 because of his work rate but that was never fully recognised," says Brennan. "He has a phenomenal first touch. He has unreal balance in how he glides in and out of tackles. He might not be a flamboyant player but he has that potential."
Despite all he has achieved at inter-county level, the 2011 county final replay against Ballyhale Shamrocks is the key reference point for Larkin's class and flamboyance. It was his finest hour. He finished the match with 1-11, a 100pc strike rate.
"Everyone talks about the exhibitions DJ (Carey) often gave, especially in club matches," says Brennan. "Well, the display Larkin gave in that county final was the greatest individual hurling exhibition I ever saw."
Despite all the scores he has amassed, Larkin has still been widely acknowledged as a creator as much a scorer, his game embellished from an amalgam of immense work rate and hard running.
Larkin scored goals in Kilkenny's opening two championship matches this summer but his role in the meantime almost sums up how Kilkenny have tweaked their style since the drawn Galway game by pulling so many forwards into deep-lying positions to offer more protection to the centre of their defence.
As a specialist No 12, Larkin always played a deep foraging role anyway but Kilkenny have been naming him at corner-forward and Larkin has mostly been playing as a third midfielder. That was evident in the second half of the Galway replay when Larkin made most of his 11 plays around midfield.
"Eoin's work rate was always very high but he is bringing something different to his game this year," says Finan.
"He is kind of sacrificing his scoring game but Brian (Cody) is happy for him to do that because he would trust Eoin with his life."
Larkin has adapted and evolved because it is almost a metaphor for his life. He left school after the Junior Cert and did an apprenticeship for three years before joining the Irish Defence Forces in 2004.
He served a tour of duty in Kosovo in 2007-08 and was based in Collins Barracks in Cork in 2011-12 when he took a break from his Army career as to sit his Leaving Certificate. He studied five subjects at Cork College of Commerce on a full-time basis.
Larkin is trained as an army medic and is now a corporal in the 3rd battalion in James Stephens barracks in Kilkenny. When Larkin led Kilkenny to the 2012 All-Ireland, he was the first player in the Defence Forces to captain an All-Ireland-winning team since Tony Wall in 1958.
"Eoin is a fantastic ambassador for the Defence Forces," says Kieran Brennan, Defence Forces director of HR, and former Kilkenny hurler. "He is a great leader and a courageous person. He espouses the values we want."
Larkin's attitude and application almost holds a mirror to his personality. "He's a quiet and unassuming guy," says Rice. "There are no airs and graces about Larky but he is really driven too. He is one of the wristiest hurlers I've ever seen but he has a natural appetite for work. He never shirks hard work."
Larkin has been a phenomenal player for Kilkenny but it is often difficult to fully acknowledge the brilliance of certain players in a team loaded with some of the greatest players of all time. Individual genius and bright colours of class bleed into one giant mosaic of excellence.
Certain faces will still always stand out but nobody in Kilkenny doubts Larkin's place in the masterpiece which the Cats have painted over the last decade.
"Because of the era we've had in Kilkenny, there is often talk about the pecking order and who are the greatest players," says Finan.
"Everybody rightly speaks about Henry (Shefflin), Tommy (Walsh) and JJ (Delaney), but Eoin has huge status too.
"He is much loved in Kilkenny because people appreciate him for what he has done and what he continues to do.
"When it is all over and people look back in years to come on a fantastic group of players in such a fantastic era, everyone will appreciate the impact Eoin Larkin has had on Kilkenny hurling."
For sure, time will reflect well on his deeds.