Sunday 18 March 2018

Former Kilkenny ace Rice has 'no regrets' as he adapts to new life without the Cats

Michael Rice at St Kieran's College in Kilkenny. Photo: Pat Moore.
Michael Rice at St Kieran's College in Kilkenny. Photo: Pat Moore.

Michael Verney

Not everyone gets the Henry Shefflin Hollywood ending, where you sign off your inter-county career on the steps of the Hogan Stand.

Most mere mortals slip quietly out of the limelight. April signalled the end of Michael Rice's 12 seasons with Kilkenny and while it didn't finish as planned, he leaves behind no regrets.

A litany of injuries scuppered his progress in recent years but at his best, Rice exemplified everything that has made Brian Cody's Cats an irresistible force since the turn of the millennium.

Skilful, uncompromising, versatile and teak tough, he served his apprenticeship like so many others before nailing down his own starting berth.

His emergence around the middle third played a huge role in James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick's decision to retire at 26 as Rice developed an unbreakable midfield axis with Michael Fennelly.

All-Stars in 2009 and 2011 proved his value to the black and amber and he was in the form of his life in 2012 before a rash stroke from Tipperary's Padraic Maher cut his finger to the bone.

Read more: Kilkenny 1, Others 88 - Cody faces new test on familiar stage

It forced him to the sidelines for much of 2013 and the Carrickshock powerhouse struggled for form as Kilkenny limped out of the race for Liam MacCarthy. 2014 was a year of redemption but the seven-time All-Ireland winner was struck down with the curse of the cruciate in Carton House.

Such a severe blow was always going to be a massive obstacle to overcome aged 30 but it wouldn't be for the want of trying. Returning for the Kilkenny intermediates last summer was a step in the right direction but he watched from afar as back-to-back titles were annexed by a new-look Kilkenny side. A big call needed serious consideration months later.

Would he stay and fight for his place? Or would he exit stage left, pockets filled with Celtic Crosses but tinged with a sense of unfinished business? While knowing there were no guarantees in such a competitive environment he chose the former, a brave decision given the potential disappointment involved.

Cody's ruthlessness came to the surface once more when Rice, after seeing no Division 1A action, was released from the panel alongside Brian Kennedy after Clare ripped them to shreds in the League semi-final. If you thought there would be bitterness you'd be wrong.

Because to have tried and failed is better than to have never tried at all.

"I fully committed for the year, I was all in. Myself and Brian would have spoken at different stages throughout the year and I would've been around long enough to know that if Brian felt he wanted to get rid of you then he would have told you no problem, he'd have no problem doing that," the 32-year-old says. "I realised going into the League that there was a huge possibility that Brian wasn't going to play me. I weighed up all the options and my goal was to put my head down and see where it took me. As you get older you realise and you've seen a lot before in how Brian approaches the League, in what he wants to get from it.

"My eyes were wide open to what could happen and I wasn't kicking myself when I wasn't playing. If we weren't hurling with Kilkenny I'd play with the club and what I learned is that I actually just enjoy playing hurling. Somewhere along the line you can forget that, you forget that feeling good and hurling is what it's all about."

Read more: Tribes' silent assassins must prove their toughness on big stage

And that chapter-closing conversation with Cody?

"It was very straightforward really," Rice says. "I knew that this conversation could be coming, that's another thing I would've taken into account, just because you're there for the last 10 years it doesn't mean you'll be there forever. That's not how it works.

"I've seen it before, that's Brian's way. At first you're taken aback but the one thing with Brian is he's honest, and I respect honesty; once he was honest with me that was better for everyone.

"I went for it and that's what has my mind at ease. This is going to sound weird but I've found it great. I gave everything I could, I emptied the tank. Everyone wants to be at their best the whole time. There is a certain frustration level, and it's frustration with yourself, sometimes the harder you try the harder it gets.

"Now if I'm not feeling right with the club I can take a night off whereas there was always a pressure inside, and it's a pressure you put on yourself, to constantly be fit every night, and I wasn't but you'd try."

Stags and weddings have come on his radar in recent weeks, things which weren't priorities in the height of county training, and he attended the Kilkenny-Dublin match three weeks ago, his first game outside the bubble in over a decade.

He recalls feeling empty-handed without the norm of kit-man 'Rackard' Cody giving him a match programme on the way in.

They were "spoon fed" and details like what time he'd leave for the game or where he'd park were alien to him, but thankfully the tradition of Choc Ices being on sale was still alive.

The Irish and Economics teacher is keeping busy and will run his hugely successful Michael Rice St Kieran's College Coaching Academy once again from August 26-28.

Tomorrow will be his first visit to Croke Park without a gear bag in many years and from his own experience, he's always alert to the Galway challenge from reversals in 2005 (senior and U-21) and 2012 - "those things stay with you".

Some questions linger around Kilkenny's three-in-a-row charge and their "functional" label but Rice sees such talk as an added incentive.

Read more: Too often Tribesmen fall short when it comes to the crunch


"I've seen this before where we've been written off and if I've seen it then Brian has seen it umpteen times," he says. "You mightn't have read what was in the paper but someone will have said it to you and you'll use it. You'll use anything as a player. All you want is lads to criticise you and drive you on again."

Much is written and spoken about tactics within the game but the Cats are the one constant and as the game evolves, they evolve in their own way. Rice hails Cody's empowerment of players as the driving force.

"A lot of it is handed over to the players, that's why certain players are picked, they're able to make certain decisions on the pitch.

"There wouldn't be a whiteboard out saying 'you go here, you go there', that doesn't happen because hurling can take on a life of its own.

"A player shouldn't have to look over to the bench asking 'what do I do now?' or think 'where should I be now?' rather than just naturally being there. If anyone looked over to Brian to see what to do, they'd be out beside him on the line."

While his exit from hurling's elite might not have been the stuff of fairytale on the grandest stage of them all, Michael Rice has lost nothing in defeat. If anything, he's braver and better for it.

Irish Independent

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