'It's made me realise that it's only a game'
Published 05/11/2016 | 02:30
Stephen Lillis was in China when Thurles Sarsfields won their one and only AIB Munster club senior hurling championship almost four years ago.
A Tipperary senior panellist in 2011, Lillis was approaching what are the perceived peak years of a player's career when he decided to up sticks.
But the stylish defender was bitten by the travel bug and decided to apply for work in China and South Korea as an English teacher.
China replied first and Lillis remembers not even researching what life might be like there. He just went to Beijing - and would stay for three years.
Lillis left Ireland after the mid-Tipperary final in July 2012, a 7-16 to 2-13 thrashing of Loughmore-Castleiney in which Pa Bourke amassed an individual haul of 6-3.
That was Lillis' last full game at senior level for the club until he lined out back in April when Sars beat Borris-Ileigh in the first round of the county championship.
Lillis recalls: "I had all the pre-season work done. But there were still nerves going out, wondering had I still the hurling. As the game went on, it came back pretty easily."
Not that it was all plain sailing before that. When Lillis returned to Ireland last September, he damaged both hamstrings as he tried to re-adapt to the pace of hurling.
He says: "Playing sport abroad, the intensity would not have been at the same level.
"I was maybe naive and jumped in too quickly. Eagerness got the better of me. My hurling was grand but the legs were killing me."
Working with a personal trainer over the winter, Lillis placed particular emphasis on his hamstrings, gluteal muscles and hip flexors.
This year, he hit the ground running and while renowned as a wing-back or midfielder, Lillis has been operating in a deeper defensive role in recent times.
That has taken a bit of getting used to, but the return to senior club hurling, barring those minor injury setbacks, has been pretty much seamless.
During his time in Beijing, hurling took a back seat as Gaelic football dominated his thoughts.
Lillis (30) reckons he played two games of hurling in three years in China, one of them an exhibition game in 2013 when the All-Stars visited, but he helped to create a nice piece of history along the way.
In the summer of 2015, Lillis and his Beijing GAA colleagues sent a team composed entirely of Chinese nationals from the Beijing-Dublin International College to the All-China games in Hong Kong.
The BDIC is connected with University College, Dublin, and Lillis, with help from his friend Colm Walsh, began coaching prospective Chinese Gaelic footballers.
Average numbers at training were 15 or 16, he remembers, but the foundations laid by Lillis and Walsh were solid and now, it's not unusual to have almost 40 players being put through their paces.
Lillis smiles: "I got a shock when I saw a few pictures, with the amount of people involved at the moment. There's a tournament this weekend in Shanghai and hopefully they can bring home some silverware."
Lillis would love to go back to China some day, not necessarily to live, but to explore parts of the country that he didn't get a chance to.
He thoroughly enjoyed his experiences there and while he was constantly sourcing information from home in the early weeks in China, that trend wore off.
"When I first left, I was following them (Sars) every week, ringing home, asking lads how things were going," he says.
"They won the (2012) county final, that was great, and won Munster, even better. I remember hearing the result and watching it the next day online, I was still nervous even though I knew they'd won.
"After they lost the All-Ireland semi-final, my interest in hurling faded a bit, I totally zoned out.
"Since I was minor, all the way up along, I was involved with Sars and Tipp at some stage.
"There was always that commitment needed and when I finally got to travel abroad, a sigh came over me, realising that I could relax, do what I wanted and have weekends off.
"When I first started, I was happy just to fit in, join in and not be involved too much.
"As time went on, I got a bit more involved in the coaching side of things. I could still enjoy it and play along and that's helped me this year, knowing how to go out and enjoy the game rather than getting worked up about it.
"It's made me realise that it's only a game at the end of the day. You're out there to have fun, and the more fun you have, the better you can play. Don't get uptight and worry about things that may or may not happen."
It's a refreshing perspective from Lillis, who hails from a club who has suffered its fair share of sadness since this time last year, when much-loved selector and trainer Jackie Griffin was killed in a road accident.
More recently, on the morning of the county final, the legendary Mickey 'The Rattler' Byrne passed away. Lillis believes that since Griffin's death, the Sars players have become an even tighter unit.
At the time, Lillis was finding his feet as a hurler again. After coming home, he played some junior and intermediate games before making his senior return as a sub in the Munster club semi-final defeat to Na Piarsaigh.
That game was played a fortnight after Griffin's passing and Lillis remembers: "It was tough but we did try to go out and do it for Jackie. Unfortunately, we couldn't overcome Na Piarsaigh, a good team.
"We had our chances as well but it wasn't to be. There's learning experiences to be taken from last year and when we saw Na Piarsaigh go on to St Patrick's Day, we realised we weren't too far off them and it would give you that bit of inspiration and knowledge, that we could actually do this if things go right."
Lillis' second coming as a Sars hurler has allowed him to play alongside emerging young stars such as Billy McCarthy and Stephen Cahill, and newly-crowned All-Star Ronan Maher.
"I wouldn't have played with them but through those events, I did get to know them a bit better," he says.
"Now we have a clear mindset of where we are, what we want to do and where we want to go."
Lillis has followed a different career path since coming home, now living in Kilkenny and working in Waterford as a validator with Teva Pharmaceuticals.
He explains: "The job came up and I wouldn't have come home if I didn't have work. There's no point coming home for six months, looking for work and having nothing to do.
"Hurling is an extra incentive and I knew coming back that the lads were after winning a couple of county titles in a row and I wanted to win another county medal myself.
"I got one last year but didn't feel part of it, just togged out. I missed three-quarters of the year but from the beginning of this year, I wanted to win another county medal."
In 2005, when Sars won a first county title in 31 years, that was probably seen as enough for then.
But after adding further Dan Breen successes in 2009, 2010, '12, '14, '15 and '16, a haul of just one Munster title from that run should be viewed as under-achievement.
Lillis admits: "We soon realised there are bigger fish to fry out there. The county is only a stepping stone on the way up and when you win the county, you have a right chance to go on in Munster.
"But we can only look at one game at a time and we have a huge challenge on Sunday (against Ballyea)."