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Rushe relishes survival fight

THIS weekend, Liam Rushe returns to the place where he came of age last June. O'Connor Park in Tullamore - the venue for Dublin's history-making championship breakthrough against Galway.

On that occasion, Rushe crowned his 21st birthday with a 'man of the match' display from centre-back. It was a stellar day in Dublin's small ball revolution and the first key indicator that John McIntyre's Galway reign was on borrowed time.

Now both counties return to the scene of the triumph/crime, but the backdrop has changed.



RADICALLY

Instead of defending their Allianz Hurling League crown, the Dubs are desperately seeking to stave off top-flight relegation. Ditto a radically altered Galway team under the management of Anthony Cunningham. Something's gotta give in this play-off 'final'.

Harking back to last year's Leinster semi-final, Rushe reflects on "a big win" for a Dublin team that had yet to beat someone of Galway's calibre in championship combat. The 0-19 to 2-7 scoreline carries an emphatic ring, but he wonders aloud if the 14-man winners were a "bit flattered" on the evening.

"It was frantic," he recalls. "I can just remember we were holding out ... they had a lot of wides and stuff like that, and maybe we were a bit fortunate on the day, but a win's a win.

"And I just remember the relief that we got back to a Leinster final again. Luckily it went my way. I caught a few balls and some just landed in my path, so it was a dream day for me."

Rushe ended 2011 as Young Hurler of the Year -- figuring out where to place him on the All Stars team was doubtless a bigger conundrum, the selectors eventually settling on midfield.

Against Galway that evening, he was parachuted into centre-back following the early double-whammy of Joe Canning's goal and Tomás Brady's torn cruciate; for this Sunday's Tullamore rematch, he's far more likely to feature up front.

Not that he minds.

"Some players are maybe specialists and they play one position and that's it, but I'll play anywhere I'm put," he insists.

"This year, with the lads coming back from injury and all that, I'll take anywhere I can get! There's a lot more competition."

Which brings us to the apparent contradiction of Dublin's current 'plight' ... their haul from five Division 1A encounters was a paltry one point, yet Anthony Daly's camp seems to be in a happy place right now.

Results don't reflect a generally upbeat performance graph while their legendary injury problems appear to be clearing up with perfect pre-championship timing, notably in the case of their 'Cruciate Trio', Brady, Stephen Hiney and Conal Keaney.



BLIP

After a day-one blip in Galway, Dublin hurled a mountain of ball against Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary -- only for their play-off fate to be sealed even before their final outing in Waterford.

"Disappointed alright," Rushe reflects. "Looking back on it, we should have picked up some points somewhere along the way.

"Probably the first day against Cork, we really threw that game away -- we even had a chance to draw it in the last minute."

Then the Dubs scored six goals in Kilkenny -- and lost.

"It was a strange day, a bit surreal," he recounts. "To lose in the last few minutes after holding out so long with 14 men ... I think the fatigue told, we were shattered."

Onto Tipperary in Croke Park, where a roller-coaster finish saw Dublin veer from likely winners to near-certain losers until Rushe's goal at the death rescued a draw.

"To put in three good shows on the trot and to lose every single one of them would have been harsh.



BITTERSWEET

"It was a bit of relief to finally get something on the board; but after that we knew we were heading for a relegation final, so it was bittersweet really," the 21-year-old admits.

Still, as Rushe expands, both management and the players know what needs to be done as another Leinster campaign -- starting against either Laois or Carlow on June 2 -- looms over the horizon.

"It's easy to fix those problems. We weren't clinical enough, and maybe at times we took our eye off the ball and made a few mistakes.

"So, it's good to be making these in the league rather than the championship," he stresses.

"We don't seem to have much problem scoring goals this campaign, which has probably been a weakness of our team over the past few years. We're happy enough with our performance; it's been solid so far. If we tweak a few things and get our few players back, we'll have a nice run-in for championship."

First things first, though: Galway. When these sides clashed in Salthill last February, a home team heavily populated by All-Ireland U21 graduates recorded a surprisingly emphatic 0-20 to 0-13 win.

"No point denying it," says Rushe, "it wasn't a good performance by us and in fairness to Galway they went at it hammer and tongs. They were ready for us -- first day out in the league, new management, they started a few new players, Niall Burke had a stormer that day."



YOUNG GUNS

On that occasion at least, the Galway young guns looked unlikely candidates for the drop but Rushe now hopes to seal their fate.

"We just want competitive games, and every one this year has been top-class," he says. "We'd like to stay up of course -- everyone would -- but it wouldn't be the biggest thing in the world if we were to lose, as long as we got another 'performance'."

Suffice to say, Sunday carries significance but isn't the be-all and end-all of Dublin's season.

"Ideally you'd have a league semi-final and final, two games to build up before championship. But this game might be a bit more intense -- neither team will want to go down a division, so there might be a bit of extra bite, and we can use that going into championship."

2012 NHL . . . AT A GLANCE

DUBLIN

Galway 0-20 Dublin 0-13

Cork 2-18 Dublin 2-17

Kilkenny 5-16 Dublin 6-12

Dublin 2-15 Tipperary 0-21

Waterford 0-17 Dublin 0-13

Played 5, Lost 4, Drew 1, Pts 1, For 10-70 Against 7-92

GALWAY

Galway 0-20 Dublin 0-13

Tipperary 2-20 Galway 2-18

Galway 2-17 Cork 2-13

Waterford 1-14 Galway 0-16

Kilkenny 3-26 Galway 0-10

Played 5, Won 2, Lost 3, Pts 4, For 4-80 Against 8-86


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