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It's wild being a top cat – Ryan

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Lester Ryan, Kilkenny, named as the Players of the League in hurling. Picture: Barry Cregg / Sportsfile.

Lester Ryan, Kilkenny, named as the Players of the League in hurling. Picture: Barry Cregg / Sportsfile.

Lester Ryan, Kilkenny, named as the Players of the League in hurling. Picture: Barry Cregg / Sportsfile.

THERE are few (any?) counties in Ireland where the hurling stars need to align so neatly for a man to get a chance just to play as there is in Kilkenny.

And Lester Ryan is just the most compelling recent example, though far from the first or, doubtless, the last.

Yesterday, he was named Opel/GPA Hurler of the League, a fully deserved, unanimously elected gong, though one unlikely to grant the Clara man much gravitas in a Kilkenny dressing-room flooded with celtic crosses all the same.

If the name didn't mean much to all but the most discerning Kilkenny follower before this year, that's just because he hadn't sampled the rarefied air of seniordom until this season's league, but the player's acclimatisation process has been brief and management's faith, mutually beneficial.

"It's very intense. Every match is intense. It is intense, physical, fast," he notes of his baptism this year.

"Your head has to be in it from the start or you're going to get blown out of the water.

"Coming from having trained with Kilkenny, the standard is very high in training. Especially the training matches.

"After that it's about trying to get the most out of yourself for the matches and stay going for the 70 minutes. The hardest thing is getting used to going from a 60-minute match to a 70-minute match. You really feel those last 10 minutes."

He has, for the record, two All-Ireland medals already, yet is only establishing a reputation on the field of play this season when the Cats midfield options dried up at an alarming and, for Ryan, convenient rate early this year.

Having won an All-Ireland Intermediate club title back in February with Clara, Ryan arrived back into the Kilkenny senior squad to find that Michael Fennelly, Michael Rice and Cillian Buckley were all stricken with injury.

Two weeks later, he began the league in Kilkenny's engine room and such was the strength and consistency of his performances, has been an ever-present ever since.

"I didn't really have the head focused on combinations and permutations, and as regards who's in or out," he maintains.

"It was just when the team was named on the Friday night, I was on it. That was the Galway match. From there on in, I just kept at it. When we were in the All-Ireland club, Kilkenny were just at winter training and getting the fitness up. At the time I maintained my fitness with Clara in the club championship."

 

exposure

A year previous, he had missed the entire league with a cartilage problem on his knee, so wasn't about to gaze too long into the mouth of this particular gift horse.

A mid-season call-up in 2011, Ryan's exposure to senior life had been confined solely to the Walsh Cup prior to this year, though he is, of course, just the latest example of necessity being the mother of invention in Kilkenny.

Fennelly, for instance, was a substitute in the All-Ireland final of 2009 at 25 years of age, yet just two seasons later, won Hurler of the Year and now is widely considered one of Ireland's most influential players.

In some counties, there are late-bloomers. In Kilkenny, it seems, there are fully formed stars queueing patiently.

"When you go in there first, you're going into training matches and you know you're playing with players of a very high calibre. You know there is a very high standard and very high expectations so you know you have got to stand up to it."

Perhaps patience then, as much as talent, is a valued virtue in Kilkenny?

"Maybe it's not so much patience," Ryan counters. "You're still part of a county set-up and no matter where you're from, that has to be something that you're aiming to achieve and beyond that as well.

"It's great to be part of the panel, but at the end of the day, if you're not kicking on to get onto the team, there is a big chance you won't be part of the panel in the first place.

"I think being part of the panel in the first place is a huge honour. You know you're part of something big. And being on the panel and pushing everyone else in training, you know you're part of a setup.

"But personal ambition would dictate that all players want to get on the team. So in that sense, you're trying to push for a place on the team.

Ryan adds: "It's more enjoyable playing in Croke Park than being in the stands in Croke Park."


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