Rushe hour: Young star epitomises confidence of Dublin's new breed
ONE OF Anthony Daly's first acts as Dublin manager was to single Liam Rushe out for special praise. It was New Year's Day in 2009 and Daly's first match in charge.
Rushe was in action and, as captain of the previous year's minor team, he had been touted for a senior role at some stage in the future. But Daly recognised his talent instantly and, in a freezing Portmarnock, acknowledged as much afterwards.
"Some of the young lads did very well," he said. "Liam Rushe was very impressive. He's still very young but he showed great potential there."
Perhaps it was the Clare blood in Rushe that Daly responded to -- his mother hails from Miltown Malbay -- or more likely it was the four points he managed that day as a gangly 18-year-old. Whatever it was, Daly saw something he liked and went to work.
Rushe started every league game that year and was marked out as a boy with a big future. But his recent performance against Galway on his 21st birthday signalled the boy had become a man.
An early injury to Tomas Brady meant Daly had to reshuffle his deck, with Rushe the emergency centre-back. He initially served his apprenticeship at full-forward and was offered more responsibility at midfield in the league this year, but Brady's withdrawal meant a shift to centre-back, where some feel he is destined to end up long-term.
"It was nearly an automatic move to make," Daly said.
With the likely return of Joey Boland, Rushe will revert to centre-field for Sunday's Leinster final against Kilkenny in Croke Park.
Rushe has some previous with the Cats. In the days after the Leinster final in 2009, he described some of their tackling as "pretty dangerous" and suggested they were getting more leeway from referees than other teams.
"If the referees are going to let them away with it, it means we might as well do it as bad and hopefully we'll be let away with it as well," said Rushe.
It's not just opponents he questions. Asked about the relative support of the county's hurling and football teams, he drew a stark comparison.
"It's not like the football. There's 20,000 of them there that never kicked a football in their lives," he said.
Those statements aren't born out of arrogance or bitterness but a confidence that comes from being part of a new breed of Dublin hurlers, reared on a diet of big days.
After their Leinster semi-final win over Wexford in 2009 he turned to Kevin Flynn and, perplexed, said it was "gas" that all these people were running on to the pitch after they had only won a semi-final.
It was Dublin's first appearance in a Leinster senior final since 1991 and a 34-year-old Flynn, who had had more bad days in a Dublin jersey than he would care to remember, could only smile.
Rushe's sunny disposition means he's in demand. Bord Gais Energy use him to promote their patronage of the U-21 hurling championship and the media regularly seek him out for his forthright views and the fact that he's an Irish speaker. UCD also recognised his talent and handed him a sports scholarship.
Kilkenny full-back Noel Hickey isn't one for grandstand statements and when he described Rushe as "a handful" after the '09 final, it meant something.
He's kicked on since, demanding more from himself and Dublin. Back in January he was asked about his ambitions for the coming year and, as is his style, he replied bluntly and removed the excuses: "For the players we have now it is time to step up and actually do something. The building period is nearly over."
Despite all the plaudits, he has kept his feet on the ground, backing up some big (and slightly naive) talk with bigger performances. And with Dublin suffering from injury and suspension, Rushe will have to assume yet more responsibility if they are to uphold their proud record against Kilkenny this season, which reads: played three, lost none.
The signs are he's ready to step up to that role. He played through the pain of a shoulder injury he picked up on a team training holiday in Portugal for the historic league final win. And even when Joe Canning came sniffing around his territory in the victory over Galway, he was a picture of calm.
Around Dublin they say that the likes of Rushe and Brady could make an impact on Pat Gilroy's squad. In his youth, Rushe was earmarked for football and had been with various county squads up until the age of 14.
Rushe remembers a breakdown in communication that meant his club didn't get the call for U-14 trials, but the hurlers came knocking a couple of weeks later and he obliged, even if he was "probably better at football".
Kilkenny will keep a close eye on him on Sunday but with his matching white boots and helmet, he'll be easy to spot. He still hasn't had a chance to celebrate his 21st yet but might do so on Sunday night.
His party piece is juggling pint glasses, but it'll all be put to one side until after Kilkenny. He has an idea of what to expect from the Cats, but speaking after the Galway game, he was typically positive about Dublin's chances.
"We're getting better all the time. A bit quicker, faster, more mature. It'll be fun, won't it!"
As it should be.