Monday 24 June 2019

'It was nice to have that kind of chill time, go out and farm for an hour to pass the time, or watch a bit of Netflix'

Limerick's All-Ireland-winning centre-forward Kyle Hayes cuts a relaxed figure, unaffected by nerves or hysteria but deep inside him there is a restlessness to push out the boundaries with this team. He may be only 20 but he's in a hurry to make this Munster championship count

Kyle Hayes. Photo: Sportsfile
Kyle Hayes. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Three minutes into last year's All-Ireland hurling final, Galway defender Adrian Tuohey took a short puck-out and sought to run it to clear his lines.

Advancing to half-way, he looked for a colleague inside him, oblivious to the wingspan of a 6ft 5in opponent and the lurking danger that presented. Kyle Hayes waited and waited, sizing up Tuohey with predator-like intent before making his move. The interception was clean and so was the finish.

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Limerick had been full of energy but in that short space of time they had also amassed five wides. It had been a jittery start in need of intervention.

So it turned to the towering 20-year-old to give them that direction and, at that moment, an edgy stadium packed to capacity on that momentous day was calmed.

It was typical of Hayes that so early in the biggest game of his life he could make a play like that with such a conviction.

By his own admission, nerves are not an issue. Not in a good way, not in a bad way. Last year he recounted how, waking up in an empty house at home in Limerick on the Sunday morning of the final, his first thought was how well he had slept. Not a twist, a turn or even a thought as to what lay ahead.

His performance that afternoon - he would end up as the man of the match - reflected a man totally at ease with himself.

"Anyone who knows me knows that I don't be thinking about things or getting carried away with stuff. I'm just chilled out, for the best times, and take it as it comes," he revealed.

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Probably

"It's probably a good way to be in hurling, especially when those big matches come because I see some players worked up and working it up in their head and they're very tense.

"You can see that they're trying to do something right and it's not sticking or they're just not striking it right. I suppose I'm lucky, in that sense, that I don't get like that.

"It's experience, really. I'm playing matches for Limerick since I was U-14. I know, obviously, that wasn't as big, but it's just playing different counties every few months. At minor, I played two Munster finals and an All-Ireland. At U-21, I played a Munster final and another All-Ireland so it's down to experience, really, and getting used to playing matches week in, week out."

It helps that those around him observe a vow of hurling silence on the weekend of a big game. With his parents already gone to Dublin that Saturday before the final, being 'home alone' suited him. Everyone is different.

"It was nice to have that kind of chill time to do whatever you wanted, go out and farm for an hour to pass the time, or watch a bit of Netflix. It's no harm either to be on your own," he confessed.

"Your parents might mean well by it but they could be talking about the match, talking about the fella you might be marking. They don't know what you're really thinking then. And it's probably playing on your mind."

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For many, that relaxed demeanour Hayes portrays typifies the new breed of Limerick hurler unburdened by the past. But wrapped up in it is a burning ambition to win everything they can now while they are on the crest of this wave.

Hayes, and by extension this Limerick hurling team, are in a hurry to succeed. They need only to look over the border to Clare to see how a team that perhaps wins an All-Ireland ahead of expectation can struggle in the aftermath.

Thus, winning the subsequent league outright was quite the statement of intent. Kilkenny have backed up All-Ireland titles in this way in the Brian Cody era but outside that, only Limerick have done it since Galway in 1989.

"In years gone by, All-Ireland champions mightn't have focused on the league as much," figures Hayes.

"But if you look at the great Kilkenny teams, they were winning leagues every year along with All-Irelands and Leinster championships. It's still a national title. We wanted to just add to that."

Their thoughts turn now to a Munster championship and a provincial title that Hayes says is "the one that has escaped me".

Quite the statement from one with just five games over two seasons, but one who again reflected the deep-seated ambition in this group.

"I've never been in a Munster final at senior level. The Munster championship has always been special, not just the last few years, but down the years."

They are last out of the blocks, playing a team that they have not beaten in normal time in their last three meetings, a team that are clearly smarting from a home defeat last weekend to Tipperary.

Limerick know that, 12 months on, opponents are much more tuned in to their style of play and particularly a puck-out strategy that delivered over a 70pc success rate, ahead of any of their nearest challengers in last year's championship.

Hayes is an integral part of that. In terms of height, only Galway can come close to producing an imposing half-forward line like it.

Similar

The Kildimo-Pallaskenry man stands at 6ft 5in, Gearoid Hegarty checks in at something similar. Tom Morrissey may be four inches smaller but Cody's Kilkenny teams, at their most imperious, did not even produce stature like that.

Morrissey's propensity to ghost into a position on either wing unmarked and take from Nickie Quaid complements Hayes' ability to just stand his ground and make his considerable force count.

Together they have it down to such a fine art now. "At this stage I know if Nickie is going to go short or if he is going to go long by the way he's standing.

"It's definitely important but probably the most important is hitting that space at the right time. That is down to Nickie as well. If he sees you move he has to hit it so that you're not breaking your stride. That's most important for me anyway. You get that ball in your hand at full flight and it's a fairly dangerous situation straight off the bat."

Keeping grounded in the wake of such an emotional victory last August brings obvious challenges but Limerick look to have managed that side of it well, manager John Kiely repeatedly referencing enjoyment and players setting targets and motivation levels themselves.

But for Hayes, Kiely will always set the temperature.

"He obviously plays a major role. If you need a kick up the hole he is there to do it and if you need grounding he is there for that as well. He has that special skill and ability to judge guys and he knows everyone now on a personal basis.

"If you ever need a chat he is there and it is nice from a player's point of view to know that he is not just your manager but a friend. That gets that extra per cent or two out of you. He is a teacher by trade so he is probably dealing with people every day in that sense. He has it down to a tee now."

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