Friday 23 February 2018

Redemption within touching distance for liberated Lar

Lar Corbett put his Kilkenny woes behind him in the drawn final
Lar Corbett put his Kilkenny woes behind him in the drawn final

The highs and lows of Lar Corbett's Tipperary hurling career string out like the profile of a Tour de France Alpine mountain stage.

A couple of sharp ascents reaching considerable heights, quickly followed by rapid descent and periods across much flatter tracks.

His first year, 2001, looms large like Col du Tourmalet, 2010 and much of 2011 reaching even higher like Col du Galibier and Ventoux stitched together in quick succession.

In between there is a protracted space at low altitude, barren spells where his career came close to bottoming out altogether, until the graph rises upwards again from 2008 onwards.

But post-2011 the peaks disappear until the hills of this summer's qualifiers resurfaced again, rising steadily until stopping at the relatively benign peak of the drawn All-Ireland hurling final with Kilkenny.

It's not quite the altitude he took his game to in the early part of his career or where he climbed to between 2009 and 2011. But it's a height that he is comfortable at, Tipperary need him at and Eamon O'Shea was clearly satisfied with after the last day.

The suggestion that Corbett was 'back', drew a knowing smile from the Tipperary manager in the press-room afterwards.

Confident

"My expectation of Larry would be pretty high and he knows that," said O'Shea. "I was pretty confident that today would be a good day for Larry," he reflected.

For Corbett it had been an afternoon of some redemption, and old gun-slinger finding his groove again in much the same way that Kieran Donaghy rediscovered something with Kerry this season.

In that five-minute period just after half-time when he caught fire and briefly electrified Croke Park, it wasn't just the Corbett of old, it was a recalibrated Lar running angles and attacking space with relish and with a sense of daring attached to it. He took on some of his old nemeses in the Kilkenny defence, ran down the barrels of their guns and survived.

The shot he rifled off the crossbar on 40 minutes was an opening created by an injection of pace that his withered hamstrings looked to have thieved, through a gap it no longer looked like he had the menace to navigate.

The cautious figure of recent years had stepped aside to make way for a more demonic presence. It was a heartening sight for Tipperary.

There had been signs going back to last year's epic All-Ireland qualifier against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park, when he scored a goal, that Corbett had lifted himself out of the mire he had found himself in since his shut-out in the 2011 All-Ireland final.

But a hamstring injury that forced him out of that game only served to remind him of so many of those lost years after his debut year in 2001 when Nicky English plucked him from relative obscurity.

No Tipperary player has inflicted as much damage on Kilkenny in one sitting but no Tipperary player has perhaps suffered the consequences of that as much either.

His record against their great rivals since his hat-trick of goals to win the 2010 All-Ireland final had been one largely of implosion in the four years since.

It was a cross that was beginning to bear a little heavily on this Tipperary team. In the three major games that these great rivals met in between 2011 and 2013, prior to that Nowlan Park qualifier - the 2011 All-Ireland final, 2012 All-Ireland semi-final and 2013 league final - Corbett failed to register a single score.

In that 2013 league final, also in Nowlan Park, he had one meaningful touch of the ball before being red-carded, along with JJ Delaney, when they tangled and he suffered a couple of broken ribs.

He did grab 1-1 in a league match in March 2013 but Kilkenny and Lar was being remembered more for what Kilkenny were doing to him rather than what he had done to them. That was until three weeks ago.

He wasn't the busiest Tipperary player, nor was he the most prolific but he could certainly lay claim to being one of the smartest. Corbett thought his way to a very decent performance.

It helped that players like John O'Dwyer, Seamie Callanan and Noel McGrath perhaps occupy the minds of Kilkenny defenders a little more these days.

On the ball 12 times, he scored a couple of points and set up another for substitute Jason Forde. He put too much length on a few deliveries and he'll have regrets about an over-ambitious pass across the goalmouth when an easy point option was on too.

But it was what Tipperary didn't do off the openings he created that stood out as much any other aspect of his game. That shot off the upright, his break and off load to Callanan, who was quickly closed out by Eoin Murphy, and later there was the penalty award where he outflanked Richie Hogan and weaved away from Jackie Tyrrell before Tyrrell hauled him down.

O'Shea's patience in awaiting a return to consistent from Corbett has been consistent and infinite.

He's had his challenges since 2011. Retirement, controversy over tactics deployed in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final, the voice of former Clare manager Ger Loughnane suggesting he should be dropped from the squad after taking on a trip to New York's storm-damaged Breezy Point with the GPA on the weekend prior to Thurles Sarsfields club semi-final defeat to Kilcormac-Killoughey in February 2013.

Above all what has held Corbett back most over the last 18 months has been injury. Throughout the early part of the season a knee injury had him rummaging for solutions until a Dublin-based surgeon directed him a different route.

But Corbett has maintained a strong focus that has allowed him to ride the bumps he has hit so frequently but haven't broken him. His affection for O'Shea is well versed.

When the Liam Sheedy's All-Ireland winning management of 2010 stepped down Corbett admitted taking it that badly that he shed a tear. O'Shea the coach was credited with giving his game the required freedom of expression to bring the best out of him in 2009 and 2010 and now O'Shea the manager is helping him to re-discover himself now.

It's why Tipperary coach Paudie O'Neill last week described Corbett as an "exceptional talent" who was a "privilege" to work with on the training ground.

"What people don't appreciate about him is, Larry has an incredibly deep understanding of the game. And he's a very deep thinker on the game. I enjoy engaging with him because he has unique insights into it."

Earlier this year he spoke of the Tipperary train leaving the station and his desire not be left standing on the platform. His destination may not be far away.

Irish Independent

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