Tuesday 17 September 2019

From cancer battle to possible Hurler of the Year: Noel McGrath adds another chapter to amazing Tipperary story

Noel McGrath of Tipperary following the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Kilkenny and Tipperary at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Noel McGrath of Tipperary following the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Kilkenny and Tipperary at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

Noel McGrath could barely smile in one of his post-match interviews, such was the amount of energy he had used en route to his third All-Ireland medal.

Forwards like Seamus Callanan and John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer may well get the majority of the plaudits following their goal-scoring exploits in the 14-point win over Kilkenny, or defenders like Ronan Maher and Barry Heffernan who marshalled the Cats dangermen so well - but it was telling that McGrath ended up scooping the Sunday Game Man of the Match award after conducting proceedings from midfield.

2019 represents the 28-year-old's best season in a Tipperary jersey - which is saying something considering how the precocious young star exploded on the scene ten years ago.

He was one of the driving forces behind Liam Sheedy's first reign on the Tipp touchline, collecting back-to-back All Stars in 2009 and 2010, including the Young Hurler of the Year award in the former year.

A goal in the memorable 2010 final, where Tipperary ended Kilkenny's Drive for Five, capped off a remarkable two years for the then 19-year-old as he cemented himself as hurling's rising star.

The next few years didn't go as smoothly for McGrath or Tipperary, as Brian Cody's men reestablished themselves as hurling's top team but for the Tipp star, there was a life-changing off-field battle to come.

In April 2015, McGrath was diagnosed with testicular cancer and had an operation to deal with the problem. A tough battle lay ahead, but McGrath tackled it with the same vigour that he brings to the hurling field.

Talking to Irish Independent GAA reporter Donnchadh Boyle earlier this year, McGrath opened up on that tough period.

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"It's something that will never leave you," he said. "It's just something that you had to deal with in your life, you have to deal with different things at different stages and that was just something that came my way. I was lucky enough to come out the other side. It happened so it will always be there, but it happened so you get on with doing what you can to the best of your ability afterwards."

Remarkably, McGrath was able to make a return off the bench against Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final later in the year. While the Tribesmen emerged as victors in a one-point thriller, one of the iconic images to come out of the match was Galway boss Anthony Cunningham passionately saluting McGrath for making such a heroic comeback.

With his health issues behind him, McGrath was a key man at wing forward the following year as Tipperary regained the Liam MacCarthy Cup after hitting Kilkenny with a ferocious second half blitz, turning a two-point deficit into a ten-point lead in just 17 second half minutes.

The subsequent two years were a disappointment for the Premier county, but Liam Sheedy's return ahead of the 2019 campaign gave the squad a new lease of life. Remarkably, the players who were young men back in 2010 - McGrath, Brendan Maher, Seamus Callanan and Padraic Maher - were the men who propelled Tipp to glory almost a decade later.

All four are set to win All Stars but none have been as influential as McGrath, who has excelled after being deployed in midfield. It will be a straight battle between him and his captain Callanan for the Hurler of the Year award, as McGrath and a select few team-mates become the first Tipp players besides Declan Ryan to collect three All-Ireland medals since the county's glory days in the sixties.

McGrath has already written some sensational chapters in his Tipperary hurling story, and with his 29th birthday yet to arrive, he has plenty of time to further push himself up the list of the county's best-ever stickmen.

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