Saturday 25 January 2020

Lions' pride inspiring for Rebel Walsh

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

IF Aidan Walsh looks calm in the heat of battle in Limerick tomorrow night, it's because he has been through worse this week.

Even Munster championship football is a release from the exams the Cork midfielder, who is studying PE and Biology in DCU, has been sitting in the last 10 days. Sitting in a library from 8.0 in the morning until 10.30 at night wasn't doing his big-match preparation any good, but at least the game was off his mind and not dominating his thoughts too much.

The going was tough, but he got some relief this week when he heard the Lions were training in Carton House and he and housemate Michael Murphy took a spin out to have a look.

They expected to find the tourists locked away, but instead got to mingle with captain Sam Warburton and look up at Scotland second-row Richie Gray, a rare occurrence for the usually towering Walsh.

The exams finished yesterday and he travelled back to Kanturk last night to focus on what he hopes will be a successful summer for the Rebels.

While he is keen to leave his exams behind him and concentrate on football, the 23-year-old's visit to the Lions' den will linger in his memory as he goes after a second All-Ireland medal.

OPPORTUNITY

"I heard on the radio they were out in Carton House and that was an opportunity you couldn't really miss," he explained.

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"There'd be a big interest in rugby up in the house; myself and Murphy would be on about it a lot. We were sitting around and it got to the stage where we were sick of studying and it's only 20 minutes out the road, so we said it was worth a try.

"We weren't expecting to meet them, we thought they'd be all locked up, but we couldn't believe our luck when we got there and they were just finished training and there's Warren Gatland and all the players walking towards us.

"They were fierce inviting really, we got pictures with them and they're fellas you mightn't meet again. They're the ultimate sportsmen and it was unbelievable to meet them and watch them train. Seeing them like that, you see what they go through, what sort of weights they'd be lifting and that.

"It was unreal to see their physicality, the size of them. It was funny, I put up a picture on Twitter of us with Sam Warburton and people couldn't believe how small he was. But it was the width of him, his chest was crazy – how tall Richie Gray was – you can watch these guys on TV, but you don't realise how big they are.

"To watch them train, to see their set-up, the way they approach drills and perform it is very inspiring."

This year in Dublin was a whole new experience for Walsh who moved up after a spell in CIT and has been living with Donegal's Murphy and Dublin's Paul Flynn – a representative from each of the last three All-Ireland-winning teams under one roof.

Football is an obvious topic, although there is an unspoken rule that comparing camps is off limits. Walsh says the experience has helped him, while also giving him a perspective on what other players go through. "I suppose, our lives are based around it and it is nice to get away from it," he said.

"Before Christmas we did some training together, but now we're all in camps and do our own things. We cook dinner for each other and eat together.

"It's been a great experience to come up here and live with other inter-county footballers like that. You see what they're doing, they see what you're doing in terms of eating and things like that.

"Commuting to training is easier for Paul, alright. For Michael and the lads it is very tough. I'm lucky enough, I can take the train or have a good motorway to get home. The Donegal lads, Jesus, it's a fairly cat road all the way up. I suppose it's just the way it is, you get on with it."

Walsh looks beyond his housemates and the GAA for inspiration and watching the Lions was part of that process. He recently spoke to Ireland's UFC fighter Conor McGregor about his preparation and hopes to put bits of each experience into his own campaign.

"The way he approaches his fights is something you can relate to your own game," he recalls. "It is him against himself, he doesn't think about who he is facing and that is something you don't really think of. I look at NFL, every sport really and try and take something from all of it. If you base it on GAA, you only get so far."

After all of the distractions, Walsh is home now and can concentrate on the summer after a patchy winter for Cork.

He was the star when the Rebels finally got over the line in 2010, but they all remember well how their last meeting with Limerick in the qualifiers that year almost derailed them and are forewarned about the challenge at hand.

"It was close, but it showed a bit of character to come through that night," he said. "It was a hostile environment in the Gaelic Grounds... I remember the crowd getting behind them, but it really pushed us on and was a good stepping stone for the rest of that championship."

Now it's about getting back to the Holy Grail for a Cork side who have been accused of not maximising their talents in recent seasons. Walsh acknowledges that their collection of All-Ireland medals isn't what it might be, but won't be caught dwelling on it.

"Winning All-Irelands – maybe we could have done better in that," he admitted. "But we have to move on from that and look ahead."

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