Sunday 26 March 2017

The best is yet to come from natural born hurler McGrath

Jackie Cahill

IT'S first-half stoppage-time in the All-Ireland senior hurling quarter-final -- Galway are looking good for a half-time lead.

Enter sub Seamus Callanan, doing what he does best, ghosting in behind the Galway defence for a goal which sends Tipperary down the tunnel with a two-point lead and a pep in their step.

TV replays reveal what might have gone unnoticed in real time -- a moment of Noel McGrath genius as his instinctive overhead flick on a dropping ball leaves Callanan with a straightforward task.

We're anxious for McGrath to put our minds at rest and ask if the most audacious of assists was deliberate.

He replies with a grin: "Ah sure we'll say it was meant anyway. Seamus got into good position, he's the best player we have for doing that -- I'll say I saw him!"

Indelible

You can be sure that he did and while, in an overall context, McGrath struggled to cope in Ollie Canning's company, he had left an indelible mark on the afternoon before being called ashore in the second half.

In Tipperary, some have spoken of 'second-season syndrome' but they should remember that McGrath is still just 19 and since bursting onto the inter-county stage as a minor, he's barely had time to draw breath.

Between club and county, he's been pulled from pillar to post and expecting McGrath to perform at the peak of his powers every time he goes out is simply unrealistic. It's time to cut him some slack, because the best is yet to come.

Tony Browne crops up in conversation and it's mentioned that McGrath wasn't even a year old when Waterford's biological phenomenon made his senior debut.

Ever imagined playing for 20 seasons, Noel? "2029!" he laughs.

Of course, he's already achieved so much: double All-Ireland minor medallist, Munster U-21 winner, county and Munster senior club medals with Loughmore-Castleiney. His debut season with the Tipperary senior team in 2009 brought with it an All Star award and the Young Hurler of the Year accolade. This guy believes in moving quickly.

"It's good in a way that I'm able to play all those matches," he reflects. "Once things are managed properly, and Liam (Sheedy) has no problem giving players a rest, if you need a break for a night.

"It's cooperation between players and management. I enjoy playing and when you're enjoying what you're doing, you don't feel tired."

Tipperary's Central Council delegate John Costigan, who spent 37 years teaching at Our Lady's Templemore, remembers a young McGrath coming to watch school games involving his cousins Aidan and Ciaran.

"He was maybe six or eight years of age," Costigan recalls. "He was a big chap for his age but very mild-mannered, a very nice young fella."

During Noel's time there, he came under the guidance of Gerry Ryan, Willie Butler, former Tipp hurler Seamus Bourke and Noel Fogarty, who played alongside Noel's father Pat on the Harty and All-Ireland winning team of 1978.

With Noel as captain, Our Lady's won their only Dean Ryan Cup (2007) and while the coveted Harty Cup eluded him, McGrath took some solace from playing in some of the greatest games in the competition's history.

Costigan will never forget the epic matches between Templemore and Thurles CBS in 2007 and 2008 when Templetuohy and The Ragg were lit up by some of the most magical hurling ever seen there.

Before he left school, McGrath was already a two-time All-Ireland minor medallist with Tipperary and the proud holder of county and Munster senior club hurling medals with Loughmore-Castleiney (2007).

Eamon Sweeney, who captained the club to their only previous senior championship win in 1988, headed up the management team almost two decades later, assisted by Noel's uncles Frankie and Michael.

"The thing that will always stick in my mind is the county final in 2007 when Noel hit a shot from the Old Stand sideline of Semple Stadium. It was a fabulous, fabulous score," Sweeney recalls.

McGrath hit six points against Drom and Inch on that afternoon, including three frees. Already, at 16, he was being entrusted with placed balls.

Sweeney reflects: "Noel was always a very skilful young hurler and a very nice young lad, very easy to get on with, always ready to listen. I'd put that down to his parents Pat and Mary, great people.

training

"Being one of the McGrath clan, there was always, five, six or seven of them playing hurling around their own houses or up in the field whenever training was on. They'd all come along and have their own little match in the juvenile field. That's where it was all done."

The first Sunday of December 2007 saw Loughmore-Castleiney turn out for their debut Munster club hurling final, in truly awful weather conditions at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick.

McGrath bore the brunt of some ferocious physical punishment from Tulla but didn't respond in kind.

Instead, he let his hurling do the talking and, with 11 minutes remaining, he nailed a 50-yard free into a gale as Loughmore defied the odds to win.

"As young as he was, Noel was a leader for that team," Sweeney says.

"When Noel was going well, the team went well. His hurling brain far exceeded his age.

"Everyone around trusted Noel because you knew you could give it to him and that he would do something good with it."

Irish Independent

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