'Injury defines some lads but I won't let it define me'- Kilkenny's Richie Doyle
Hailed as the next JJ Delaney, Richie Doyle was living his dream with Kilkenny before injury intervened, but his life still revolves around the Cats
Published 28/12/2015 | 02:30
If Kilkenny's young guns were to emulate their illustrious predecessors, it was assumed that the new breed would be led by a prodigious talent already performing admirably with the greats.
A long apprenticeship is usually served in Brian Cody's squad but an exception was made for Richie Doyle, who was introduced aged 20 and seized his opportunity a year later in 2012.
Compliments were immediately flying in his direction. He was hailed as the natural successor to his "hero" JJ Delaney - similar style in the No 7 shirt and a determination to excel in the black and amber.
After a Leinster final demolition at the hands of Galway, Cody's Cats overcame stubborn Limerick resistance in what Doyle describes as "the toughest game" he ever played in.
He was at the forefront of the Young Hurler of the Year betting and was living out his dream, ready to take the game by storm. But slowly, and painfully, his dream was shattered.
A nagging hip problem began to chip away at his form. Kieran Joyce took his jersey for the All-Ireland semi-final, and he was visibly suffering when Clare put Kilkenny to the sword in the U-21 final.
While not making excuses, more time was being spent on the physio's bed and he watched on from the sideline during the senior side's historic comeback All-Ireland win against the Tribesmen.
"You're playing with legends, guys that you idolised growing up," says Doyle (24). "I remember when Henry (Shefflin) presented us with our Tony Forristal medals years ago and then I was playing on the same team as him.
"I made my breakthrough in 2012 and got my place, that's what made it even more gut-wrenching. I was living the dream, I was bringing what I had to the table. . . and then it was all taken away."
His hip mobility was deemed abnormal, and scans highlighted a progressive deterioration of the joint, with inter-county training intensity taking its toll.
Struggling to get out of bed some mornings with pain meant a series of surgeries would follow that winter as the medical theatre became a second home, and 2013 became a write-off.
While all the attention was on the return of Shefflin, Doyle "pushed to the limit" and took his place on the panel for the eagerly-anticipated 2013 qualifier joust with old rivals Tipperary.
But it was a case of one step forward and two steps back as his Kilkenny career receded into the background amidst increasing pain. Despite every avenue being explored, the news was bleak.
"No stone was left unturned but eventually I was forced to stop," he recalls. "I went to different hospitals and everyone said a hip replacement was needed.
"But that would mean the end of hurling. I couldn't accept that I would have to finish sport, I had too much left to give."
With his hip in tatters, his identity shattered and contemplating the sickeningly premature end to his sporting career, Doyle turned to someone who had been through it all himself - Ger Hartmann.
If one of the world's most renowned physical therapists couldn't provide the magic touch, who could? Hartmann's positive approach reaped immediate dividends. "I went in a cripple and I left feeling like I could I hurl an All-Ireland," Doyle says.
However, despite his extensive work, irreparable damage had been done and the Limerick man details Doyle's trials and tribulations.
"His journey has been especially hard physically but more so psychologically," Hartmann says. "He has so much potential and wants to be a Super Cat but his own body has let him down so badly.
"He has worked every angle to the bone to try to make the cut and it's painful!"
2014 was a chastening experience and Doyle was so "browned off with hurling" that he confined his hurls, his most precious possessions, to a dark corner. Constant reminders were too much for him to cope with.
The Bank of Ireland official says: "Something is missing when you're not hurling, my identity was lost and I felt lost. When you're in it, all you want is to play and be part of it. It's not a sacrifice, you're doing something you love.
"Sometimes I just wouldn't feel like leaving the house and while you have the freedom to socialise, there's only so much of that you can take when you're used to a regime."
With dreams dashed, many players would be overcome by resentment, but Doyle's passion remains, even though he is now an outsider looking in.
"It's tough but I'll always support the lads," he says. "Cody said the jersey will always live on and there is no bitterness at all. There's always a lad there to take your place, that's the thing in Kilkenny.
"Once you're gone, you're gone. You support the lads all the way but really it's just your family and friends that are left. Everyone wants to know you when you're in the spotlight but not when you're out of it."
He turned to boxing to take out his aggression. This release rekindled his love of sport, and his love of hurling, and he sought a return to club action.
This year Doyle lined out in every one of Barrow Rangers' JHC games, and while inter-county intensity is too taxing, he can control his physical condition with the club.
He's enjoying it again and after what he's been through, it's a "relief to be playing again".
The experience has shaped him positively, and the Kilkenny fire will always burn.
"It has made me realise that there's more to life," he says. "I want to be able to run around the garden with kids in years to come but the way science is going, anything is possible. Every day I think I'd love to go back."
Hartmann believes finding something to fill the abyss left by inter-county absence is huge for Doyle, saying: "Sport can be mighty for some but it can be brutally cruel for others.
"He has so much to give if channelled in the right direction. Hopefully he can find something worthwhile to fill the void and enlighten his life. He has so much to give."
On the topic of giving, Eddie Brennan made a beeline for the young rookie at his first Kilkenny senior training on a dark winter's night and provided advice and a friendly word in his ear.
And fittingly, it was Brennan who turned to Doyle, who qualified with a Sport and Exercise degree from Carlow IT, this winter to come on board as a selector and strength and conditioning coach with the Kilkenny U-21s.
On the appointment, a beaming Doyle says: "It's amazing how things have come full circle and while it's a privilege to play for Kilkenny, it's an even bigger honour to be asked to manage your county."
Richie Doyle's battle against adversity and his unbreakable spirit is a lesson for us all. You get knocked down but you get up again"Injury defines some lads but I won't let it define me," he concludes.