Friday 23 March 2018

Middle East tour of duty lets Larkin know what real nerves are all about

Kilkenny's Eoin Larkin Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Kilkenny's Eoin Larkin Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

This time last year the knot in Eoin Larkin's stomach was a lot tighter than it normally would be for an All-Ireland final.

One thing being anxious for what's ahead on hurling's biggest day, an environment Larkin has consistently proved he is at ease with, but it's something else altogether when there's a six-month tour of duty as a member of the Irish Armed Forces on peacekeeping duties not far from one of the most intense war zones on the globe.

Larkin left for the Golan Heights, where Irish personnel have traditionally acted as a UN buffer in the divisive territory between Israel and Syria in early October.

The civil war that has engulfed Syria and the proximity of Islamic State strongholds intensified the challenge.

"Definitely, I was nervous going over," he admitted. "I was nervous for a couple of months before I went. My family were nervous as well, obviously, so that made it that little bit worse but when you get over there you get into a routine and those things settle down and you just get on with your job."

Larkin had been to Kosovo on a previous tour of duty in 2007 but by then the Balkans region was getting back to some form of normality after the strife of the previous decade.

"It was tough to see because when you come back home and see all the lovely things around, you come into Langtons and get lovely grub after training and things like that.

"Those people over there, they have nothing. They can't come out of their houses.

"There were very few children around, even on the streets. They were all still in their houses but they are going through turmoil."

It passed off peacefully, Larkin recording "a couple of explosions within a 5km radius" as the only real turbulence they experienced.

They were largely confined to base during the six-month stint, broken only by a three-week break at Christmas.

"It is not in a good state now compared to what it used to be like," he said. "It is in ruins. If you go into any housing estate here, look at all the children playing.

"But when you go over there, it's a total different kettle of fish. We were patrolling that border. It was more challenging than my previous tour because when I was in Kosovo, the war had finished."

The experience has, naturally, given Larkin (right) a different perspective about the sport he has invested so much of his life into over the last 12 years.

"When you go over there and see that kind of stuff you tend to just regard hurling as a sport at the end of the day.

"You always want to do the best at what you're doing and that's hurling for me but it certainly has gone down the pecking order when you see things like that over there."

The opportunities to hurl were limited. Larkin stayed fit by running around the base but he was happy to take a step back after a troubling year with first illness and then injury.

"I had a couple of niggling injuries so I stayed out of the gym to let them recover," he explained.

Retirement never entered his head after an eighth All-Ireland medal was secured, although the onset of glandular fever earlier in the year had set him thinking.

"I had thought about retiring last year, when I got glandular fever, but as the year went on, I was enjoying things as much as ever. I was never going to retire. I just wanted to keep going and want to keep going for as long as I can."

It took him longer to get back to the pace of the game when he returned from the Middle East. He started the Leinster semi-final against Dublin but was taken off at half-time in the provincial decider against Galway and didn't start the drawn semi-final against Waterford before being recalled for the replay.

"I was gone for six months, from October to April, and I didn't expect to come back and just walk back into things. I knew when I came back I had to work hard, gather a bit of form - it didn't happen straight away.

"Getting up to the pace of the game took me that bit longer. I didn't do a whole lot of hurling out there, maybe just pucking against a wall. But there is a big difference pucking against a wall and going out there playing an inter-county game, even training with the lads.

"I felt in good shape because I had played a couple of club games and they went alright for me. I felt my touch was good but championship pace caught me and I found it hard to get back up to that pace. Hopefully, I'm back up to it now and can gather a bit of form."

If Larkin starts and Kilkenny win he will match Henry Shefflin's achievement in starting nine successful All-Ireland finals.

Last year he broke a thumb in the build-up to the All-Ireland final and didn't train with the team for the final two weeks.

But ruling himself out was never in the equation, he recalled. "No one wants to be injured going into an All-Ireland final. When I got the X-ray back it confirmed a break but there was only a crack in it.

"I had my mind made up that I wanted to play, I had a chat with Brian that evening and he wanted to know how I felt and I told him I'd be grand."

Beating Waterford ranks as one of his most treasured semi-final wins.

"Everyone could see Waterford's progress over the last couple of years. They haven't been looked at as an attacking team but in the drawn game they attacked us from minute one and again in the replay.

"It was so satisfying because we wanted to get back to an All-Ireland final and we were put to the pin of our collars. We were probably lucky in one sense to come out the first day with a draw."

Irish Independent

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