'I hate losing' - No-one epitomises Kilkenny's rage against surrender more than Eoin Larkin
This wasn't Eoin Larkin's final, but it wouldn't have been the final it was, nor perhaps had the same result, without him. In his tenth season, stricken by injury and prolonged early-season illness, he won an eighth medal at 31 as arguably the team's most influential player.
To hurl at all, having broken a thumb two weeks before the final when the recovery period is well beyond that time scale, personified Kilkenny's unbreakable will and insatiable appetite.
Larkin offered proof, if it were needed, that the principles of the team ethos being paramount remain as pertinent as ever in Brian Cody's Kilkenny. He scored two points but his value is not counted in that currency as much any longer.
Larkin's credentials as a big-day player were already well established, having been man-of-the-match in the All-Ireland club final in 2005 against Athenry, the year he was introduced to the county senior panel, before soaring to the pinnacle of Hurler of the Year in 2008, all the more noteworthy as it was the year the team reached a level of performance unprecedented in the history of the game and never likely to be surpassed.
But seven years on, with thoughts of retiring having flitted through his mind, this chapter was about substance as much as style or decoration. When Kilkenny laboured in the first half against Galway, Larkin helped keep them afloat with an exemplary display of leadership and honest endeavour. If you were looking to explain what Kilkenny are about, well there was the quintessential Kilkenny player and performance.
On the day before the final, Nicky English wrote of valid concerns over Larkin's thumb injury where he noted his hands were "his ultimate weapon" and "for a thumb to be fractured or in any way affected really reduces that power". That was a perfectly reasonable concern but Larkin made light of whatever restrictions the injury and limited time of recovery imposed on him. You simply would not have known from looking at him.
He broke the thumb two weeks before the final while attempting to hook Michael Fennelly in a training match in Cork and Henry Shefflin later revealed that a text from Larkin left him in no doubt but that he intended to play. Niall Rigney, the former Laois hurler who managed Larkin's James Stephens when they won their last county title in 2011, had a similar response when he enquired as to his well-being.
Rigney has first-hand experience of Larkin's nature and monumental drive from his two years at the Village and nothing surprises him. After he finished as manager of Laois, he was contacted by Cody and invited to take on the Kilkenny club, who had won their first county title in 23 years, seven years earlier but had since been usurped by Ballyhale Shamrocks. One of his first tasks was to ask each player to provide a personal profile outlining their strengths and weaknesses. He looks back over them from time to time and one of Larkin's cited strengths stands out a mile: "I hate losing".
No player epitomised that streak more, that rage against surrender, than Larkin during Kilkenny's most uncomfortable spell in the first half last Sunday when Galway were on the front foot. Rigney was present and on his second viewing a few days later his impressions of Larkin's contribution hadn't diminished. "Even when Kilkenny were losing their way and their shape in the first half he was the one player who was keeping them in it. I thought it was one of his greatest performances for Kilkenny."
He admits he underestimated how good Larkin was probably because he was surrounded by so many outstanding players during Kilkenny's most illustrious spell, but the intimacy of working close to him left him in awe. "The one thing about Eoin to me is that he is the complete team player. If you go back to the 2009 All-Ireland final after the Shefflin penalty, who gave the final pass to Martin Comerford for the last goal? It was Eoin Larkin. In the 2012 All-Ireland final replay when Galway got two goals in quick succession he set up Richie Power for a goal straight after. He always popped up to give that last pass, the work he does is phenomenal. But more than his work rate, he is a brilliant hurler. His hands and his balance, his reading of the game. To be fair he has had to change his game so much from being an inside forward."
In Cody's era work rate is a given and even in a team where it is never in doubt that each one will work assiduously, he still looked like he was doing more than his fair share. Rigney remembers another instructive episode after Kilkenny won the 2011 All-Ireland final. The following Saturday the Village had their fierce rivals Ballyhale Shamrocks in the league final. Ballyhale were without Shefflin but won by a street and Rigney had a cut in the dressing room afterwards.
"Eoin was playing and Jackie (Tyrrell) was playing and they were shite, couldn't hit a ball. Ballyhale beat us something like 17 or 18 points. I hopped off him (Larkin) after in the dressing room because I caught his eye by accident. If it was a guy in Laois you would not see him again until you were gone, but Larks, I will never forget it, he came to me after training the following Wednesday, and the first thing he did was he apologised for his performance and promised to make up for it. He went on and scored 1-10 in the quarter-final (of the championship) the following Sunday, 1-9 in the semi final and was man-of-the-match in the county final replay against Ballyhale, when we turned the tables, he was just immense; that is just typical of Eoin.
"I was pretty annoyed at the time, I felt a good few of the Village lads went hiding in the league final, thought the Shamrocks were rubbing it into us too, which was fair enough. But to be hammered by Ballyhale, without Henry Shefflin, we were saying, 'Jesus, where are we going?' Eoin won the championship for us. He got his just reward because he went on to captain Kilkenny in 2012 when they won the All-Ireland the following year."
Rigney heard Cody say afterwards that in 40 years watching hurling it was the greatest individual display he had seen in a county final. When Rigney texted Larkin about the thumb, the reply he got betrayed no hint of doubt: the cast would come off on Wednesday, he'd get an injection and strap and he fully intended to play. "I broke a finger and didn't hurl for six weeks nearly," recalls Noel Skehan of his own playing days, "and I couldn't imagine myself trying to hurl. A thumb is worse than a finger, may I add, way worse."
Rigney recalls asking Larkin to make some medal presentations to Portlaoise juveniles last year, which he did without hesitation, just as he blankly refused to accept a cent for his efforts. Charitable off the field, on the field he is as ferocious and single-minded as the rest of them. "They are all so competitive, they are like the All Blacks to me," says Rigney, noting Mick Dempsey's contribution as physical trainer. "I looked at Eoin on Sunday during the parade, the way he has actually developed, the legs on him . . . Jesus! Their conditioning is incredible."
Pádraic Fanning was at Larkin's comeback match after a lengthy lay-off that saw him miss the entire National League campaign, when the Village played Mount Sion in a challenge. Fanning was manager of Larkin's club for a while in the last decade. "It was the very first game he played, he scored three or four points in the first half, easing himself back in, and they took him off at half-time. Brian Cody was at the match too. I would say that encouraged him to keep going."
He will be back in action for the Village today in Nowlan Park where they face O'Loughlin Gaels in the local championship and Rigney says that winning will again be paramount. Despite heading away on a tour of duty for the army which will mean he'll be out of the country until next April, Larkin isn't done, in Rigney's view.
"Make no mistake, he will go again. There is no question about that. He will stay driving on, because he has that incredible hunger."
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