Friday 23 August 2019

'I was in shock, I was actually nearly embarrassed. If anyone could see me, I probably went red'

Man of the match as a rookie in the 2012 replay decider, he is now one of the leaders in Cats' quest for glory

Walter Walsh, Kilkenny, celebrates after the final whistle in 2012
Walter Walsh, Kilkenny, celebrates after the final whistle in 2012

Frank Roche

It's almost seven years since Walter Walsh went into a Kilkenny team meeting on the Friday night before an All-Ireland final replay... and came out a different man.

It was the last weekend of September, 2012. Kilkenny and Galway had played out a titanic stalemate three weeks previously.

There was talk in the Nowlan Park ether of changes, but the 21-year-old rookie from Tullogher Rosbercon never even considered that he might be part of Brian Cody's sequel strategy.

He had never played a single minute of senior hurling. The very best case scenario, he guessed, might be a run from the bench.

So he went into that meeting with no prior warning, no tap on the shoulder beforehand: "They kind of flipped back the sheet and there it was." His name. Beside a different number: not 24, as it had been for the original deadlock, but 14.

"Sure I was in shock, I was actually nearly embarrassed. I didn't know where to look. If anyone could see me, I probably went red," Walsh remembers. "I looked at the thing and I looked twice.

Lucky

"But I was lucky, I had my role models around me - the likes of Henry Shefflin, Tommy Walsh, JJ Delaney. They were the leaders of the team."

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Most hurling fans know what happened next: for Walsh, it was a baptism of fire. Switching to corner-forward at the throw-in, he scored 1-3 from play and was named man of the match as Kilkenny accelerated to victory.

At 28, he is now one of the leaders on a team scenting Liam MacCarthy glory after a four-year 'famine', faced by a familiar Tipperary foe in this Sunday's showpiece.

Different path: Walter Walsh's career story will always be framed by its unusual origins. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Different path: Walter Walsh's career story will always be framed by its unusual origins. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

And yet Walsh's career story will always be framed by its unusual origins. How many people get to make their debut in an All-Ireland final? Very few, especially in recent decades.

The most high-profile modern example before 'Wally' was Teddy McCarthy, Cork's iconic dual star, who announced his SHC arrival in the 1986 final victory over Galway.

More recently, John Hoyne made his first Kilkenny championship start in the 2000 All-Ireland final against Offaly - albeit after a couple of previous substitute appearances.

Otherwise, you're going back to the '80s and much earlier. Some notable full debutants on All-Ireland day include Tom McCormack, Kilkenny wing-back in their 1974 triumph over Limerick; and Tom O'Sullivan, the Cork forward who marked his baptism in 1953 with a goal in the win over Galway.

A handful of rookies have been sprung from the All-Ireland bench, including at least four from Cork, a Kilkenny priest (Ned Kavanagh in 1947) and a Tipp hurler (Michael Lonergan) whose only two SHC appearances were as a sub, in the victorious final of '64 and losing decider of '67, both against the Black and Amber.

In the case of Walsh, it's fair to surmise that his county U-21 involvement had a bearing on his replay promotion.

Kilkenny lost the under-age All-Ireland final to Clare but he had impressed in the semi-final win over Galway, in the company of Johnny Coen - a battle duly reprised in the senior decider. How do you top being man of the match on your All-Ireland debut? You don't - although after missing the 2013 league with knee tendonitis, Walsh returned as a Leinster quarter-final sub against Offaly and then marked his next start, a draw against Dublin, with 1-4.

"I think I got man of the match in that as well, and I kind of thought that this hurling thing is getting easier. But I soon learnt in 2013 that it is not that easy," he admits.

Kilkenny were stunned by Dublin in the replay and Walsh was taken off. "I was fighting for my place for the rest of that year," he says.

Drawn

In 2014, he started the epic drawn All-Ireland final with Tipp but didn't see a minute in the replay.

"It is hard to get your place in a Kilkenny team. And it has been like that. The competition has been serious and continues to be," he reasons.

And yet this 6ft 5ins powerhouse has grown into a mainstay of Cody's forward line. He was troubled by an ankle injury earlier this summer, but that is all in the past and he can't wait for Sunday.

In another life, Walsh was an aspiring rugby player as much as a hurler. He played with New Ross, alongside future Ireland prop Tadhg Furlong.

"I wasn't overly tall when I was younger. A lot of people must have thought I must have been a second-row - but I played in the backs, a bit at 15, but mostly at 10.

"Used to be a kicker as well," he reveals.

A call-up to the Kilkenny minors, under Richie Mulrooney in 2008, ultimately steered his career path away from the oval ball.

"We won the All-Ireland and I haven't looked back since," he says.

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