Vincent Hogan: Lightning Lar Corbett
TEN years ago, they pulled him from a hat. Nicky English had heard things, but hearing things could be an empty curse for Tipperary managers. Ken Hogan did catch a glimpse of him one night in Templemore, playing under-age for Thurles and remembers thinking he had something.
But Larry Corbett hadn't played minor for the county. He wasn't signposted for the big stage. Bringing him in for the South East League in October of 2000 was, essentially, a toss of a dice. English believed that Tipp lacked pace in their attack and everyone who'd seen Corbett seemed to be telling him the same thing.
Boy, could this kid run.
So, he was the product of casual feelers sent out after Tipp's All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Galway. 'Jet-heeled forward needed. Applicants invited to robust interview process in Ennis.'
As English recalls: "This fella showed up and I think we played him corner-forward." The game seemed to be meandering along unobtrusively as winter hurling often does. Then a bolt of lightning.
"Don't know who Larry was on," says English, "but he made this run in anticipation of a ball coming in. Just headed for goal, the hand out behind him like someone waiting for a relay baton to arrive. It happened right in front of the stand and he made this amazing catch.
"And I'll always remember Jack Bergin looking over at me and all he said was, 'Jesus ... '
"To be honest, that was enough for me."
Hogan remembers brows being furrowed that evening. "We didn't know him. The County Board didn't know him. Even 'Hotpoint' (Tipp's long-serving hurley carrier, John Hayes) didn't know him," he chuckles.
"He just came out of the blue."
Foot and Mouth would delay the start of the subsequent National League, but, when Tipp finally got their campaign under way in Waterford, English met Corbett's mother on the way in.
"She introduced herself to me and I told her that, if Tipp were in the All-Ireland final that September, her son would be playing. She thought I was codding her to be honest."
Nicky wasn't. Larry played.
PETER KELLY DIDN'T need a glance over his shoulder.
He felt Corbett's presence the moment the sliotar escaped his fingers. Maybe it's the feeling a thirsty zebra gets when there's sudden movement in the water. You know trouble before you see it.
There were two and a half minutes gone in the All-Ireland semi-final and Kelly was on all fours as the roar exploded. He'd survived for just 150 seconds. Looking up, he saw Corbett arc away, a raised finger signalling his seventh goal of the championship. Lovely.
Only 68 minutes to go ...
Corbett's first four touches that day would decant 1-3. Marking him was like trying to mark a rumour. He just kept moving, Tipp's other forwards blithely vacating the space into which he was arriving. What could Kelly do? What could anyone?
"I kind of knew going into the game that he was probably going to get a goal," confesses the Lucan defender, a strong contender for an All Star now. "Like it's going to be very hard to keep a proven goalscorer, who's got four in his last game, out for 70 minutes.
"His movement is incredible and you're trying to have eyes in the back of your head to keep track of him. That day, he never stood still. He kind of found himself in every position, never actually playing corner-forward, full-forward or whatever.
"When that ball came in, it looked fairly routine. I decided to go for it with my hand and I suppose I missed it because it slipped off the turf. But I knew I had the Hurler of the Year standing behind me ... "
We talk of him now as a virtual force of nature. Corbett's goal tally this summer is the same as Kilkenny's. He's actually scored 11 in his last six championship games and, for the third season in a row, is unequivocally hurling's most explosive inside forward.
Tipp have found a way of creating space and no one bolts into a clearing quicker than Corbett.
Since '09, they have been a goal machine, raising 42 green flags in 15 games, Corbett contributing an outrageous 19. Yet, in his previous 32 championship outings, Lar rifled a modest seven.
Which brings us to the lost years.
Corbett, after all, is 30. The kid who came from nowhere in his first season to win an All-Ireland, is a man now with the wisdom of a thousand disappointments. After '01, his career did not so much stall as drift towards the margins. His hamstrings became an issue and, with brittle hamstrings, threadbare confidence follows.
Lar started just two of Tipp's six championship games in '02 and managed just a single 70-minute stint under Michael Doyle in '03. When Hogan became manager in '04, he knew the problem he was inheriting. Lar would start just two championship games in Ken's time, finishing neither.
"We tried everything possible to get the hamstrings sorted," remembers Hogan. "We had him with Gerard Hartmann and the Great AK (Alan Kelly). We got him orthotics. But the problem was chronic.
"Lar was only really able to go for 20 minutes before he'd be in trouble. But then he played a Munster semi-final against Clare in '05 and he was unbelievable. Destroyed them. He had to come off limping after 25 minutes, but he'd scored a tremendous goal and made one for Micheal Webster.
"He effectively won the game for Tipp in those 25 minutes. But, because of the hamstring, he didn't figure in either the Munster final or All-Ireland quarter-final afterwards.
"And I often thought he might have been the missing link in '04 and '05 if we could only have kept him on the field."
The hamstring issue was a flip-side of growing. Corbett's acceleration was unusual in someone of his height and seemed to place stress on his biomechanics. In '06 and '07, 'Babs' Keating used him whenever he could, without ever uncorking a stand-out day.
Lar's county career looked like a story already told.
WHEN EAMONN O'SHEA stood in the Tipperary huddle just seconds before last year's All-Ireland final, bellowing "attack, attack, attack," he was speaking Corbett's language.
O'Shea is acknowledged as the man who liberated Lar. After years of trying to pin him down as either a corner-forward, full-forward or wing-forward, Tipp finally hit on the simple creation of space as the chance to open a new world.
O'Shea worked on the principle that a spinning forward line would confuse defenders and, in the confusion, someone with Corbett's pace and touch would be unstoppable.
It took time to sell and calibrate. In Liam Sheedy's first year ('08), Tipp won Munster, but lost an All-Ireland semi-final to Waterford. Lar finished the championship without a goal, Tipp yet to witness O'Shea's vision.
It began to find expression in '09, Tipp knifing 14 goals en route to the All-Ireland final, Lar delivering six of them. But Kilkenny ask different things of people and Tipp would go without a goal in the final, largely -- it might be said -- because PJ Ryan turned up for work in a cape.
Yet, Corbett's tally of 0-4 from a floating half-forward role would have won him the Man of the Match gong any other day and, but for Ryan's brilliance, his handpasses would have set up goals for Eoin Kelly and Seamus Callanan.
English watched him flower with an understanding of what it was that freed him.
"When Lar was with me, he was very young and carefree," reflects Nicky. "But then he had the injuries and a loss of confidence followed. He's very much a free spirit and he needs to be treated like that. I don't think you can corral him and maybe for a few years in Tipp, that's what was happening.
"People just had to find out that he works best as a free spirit."
Last year, after the loss to Cork, the goals came again in torrents. In the All-Ireland final, Tipp invited Noel Hickey on safari in pursuit of an assortment of putative full-forwards and Hickey's head was in a spin as Lar outfielded him to snipe an early goal.
Thereafter, Kilkenny were on the back foot.
Daft as it might seem, Corbett had a relatively quiet game, but, from seven touches, he would fire three goals.
"He's found himself at last," says Hogan. "But he's in good company. Like in his early years, Lar was playing a lot at wing-forward for Tipp. Why? Because he was trying to win puck-outs. Tipp didn't really have enough quality on the half-forward line until those U-21s came through, guys like Noel McGrath, Seamie Callanan and 'Bonner' Maher.
"Now Lar's got a free role. They took over the spadework and he just supplies the coup de grace."
Davy Fitzgerald still scolds himself over what Corbett did to Waterford in this year's Munster final.
Deciding to man-mark, Fitzgerald played Michael 'Brick' Walsh at full-back and deployed a championship debutant, Jerome Maher, to take up Corbett. Within minutes, the game was over, Waterford torn apart.
Tipp's half-backs and midfield effortlessly dropped ball onto handkerchiefs of ground that Corbett was arriving at. He scored an astonishing 4-4. It was slaughter.
"No one else has his speed or touch breaking onto ball," says Davy now. "And he's timing his runs brilliantly. If he gets the ball in front of you, I don't care who you are, you won't stop him. So you need your six defenders to hold their positions and make sure that any breaking ball is broken forward.
"Then you need midfielders tracking back so you can squeeze the space. You just can't leave gaps inside. That's where we went wrong."
Kelly reckons maybe a tactile approach is best.
"The guy marking him has to be prepared to be wing-back, midfield, anywhere," argues the Dublin full-back.
"You have to be loose enough to follow him because he's too good to leave off doing his own thing. He likes to play you from behind and make a run that you can't see. So I suppose playing him from the front, but keeping him within touching distance would probably be the best way.
"If you do that, you can feel where he's going. But he's incredibly quick, so you can't really let him get a head start at all. Apart from the goal, I don't think I had a chance with the points he scored.
"They were points that no one would have stopped."
CORBETT PLAYS AS IF in solitude now, torqueing into great prairies of open space.
The challenge for Kilkenny will be to, somehow, discourage those runs. To fill that space. Will they do it with zonal defence or the employment of a sweeper? Whatever their preference, nullifying Corbett will be central to Brian Cody's game plan.
He is a marked man then, but Hogan believes that status won't unsettle him. "Lar's cool out," he stresses. "Getting special attention won't deter him. He's a free soul and, to be fair, fellas like Eoin Kelly and John O'Brien are making huge room for him inside. They're the unsung guys."
The renowned sports physio Alan Kelly recalls one evening coming down the stairs of his clinic in Tallaght and finding Corbett asleep in the waiting room. "He's just one of the most pleasant, easygoing people I've ever treated," says Kelly.
"Even when he was going through all that trouble with his hamstrings, nothing ever seemed to phase him. I used slag him that he was Tipp's Rip Van Winkle."
Ten years have passed in the hurling life of Lar Corbett since that day that thieved English's breath in Ennis. Eight of them were empty. Now he is Tipp's record championship goalscorer and a man, finally, fulfilling his destiny.
English believes the beauty of Corbett is his difference.
"Even in training, there was always something Larry would do that you wouldn't have seen before," says Nicky. "You'd be looking at people, saying: 'Jesus Christ, I wouldn't have been able to do that!' Now it might go horribly wrong, but he'd be trying things. He can do things that most can't.
"For me, if I was a corner-back, the last person I'd want to see coming in is Larry Corbett. I wouldn't want to be in the same parish as him."