The reinvention of TJ Reid: League final saw a man operating at the peak of his power
Lee Chin was browsing through Facebook last week when he came across a video promotion of the weekend's Allianz Hurling League final between Kilkenny and Tipperary.
The action contained a flashback to their last league final meeting in 2014 in Thurles, which Kilkenny won after extra-time thanks to an exquisite TJ Reid point from along the sideline, created by Richie Hogan.
What struck Chin most about the clips he watched, however, was the physique of Reid; or rather the absence of it when compared to now.
"He looked like a little boy. Compared to him now, you can see he's a different specimen of a man," noted his Wexford rival.
"The same type of hurling is all there, he's an incredible hurler. He looks a bigger, stronger athlete than anything else."
When Chin drew that comparison he may well have last Sunday's second quarter in Nowlan Park on his mind.
Reid, not that any evidence was required, underlined why he has consistently been the best hurler in the game over the last four years and why he is now the undisputed king in Kilkenny, the leader who put a new team on his back and carried them through a difficult period against their biggest rivals on their own home patch.
For the second successive Sunday, Reid finished with 15 points, but it was three from play in the 20th, 30th and 36th minute which set his performance apart.
It crystallised Chin's observation that he is a much more athletic, powerful man than he was even just four years ago, when his graph was finally rising to the levels those around him had long predicted.
For the first of those points he caught above the head of Ronan Maher, his marker for the afternoon, and swung over effortlessly to make it 0-5 apiece.
Ten minutes later it was James Barry beaten in the air with a similar conclusion, before he burst past Maher and then brushed by Alan Flynn for a third point just before the break. It left Kilkenny just two points in arrears with wind advantage to come. And it looked effortless to him.
The significance of the three scores was that Reid won possession in the same area of the field each time - loosely where left half-forward operates in a conventional format.
Reid is a predominantly left-handed striker of the ball, but so often he starts in the No 12 position where he can exploit his supreme fielding ability most, and so often he makes many of his important plays from that part of the field - with that 2014 league final winner being a prime example.
These days Reid is making an impact just about anywhere on the field, memorably tracking back to bottle up Michael Cahill, strip him of possession and win the only free that he missed all day, albeit from 100 metres out.
There is no doubt that Reid has taken his game to a different level, amassing eye-catching numbers at every turn.
Together with Tipperary's Jason Forde they broke all previous league records since the current format was devised in 2011, with Forde's 7-72 and Reid's 1-81 taking them above Seamus Callanan's 5-62 in 2014 - when Reid himself shot 6-31, his most productive campaign up to that point of his career.
While Forde's goals took him ahead, Reid being in double-figures in each of his six starts - the same number as 2014 - has a superlative feel to it. It's even more impressive than his landmark 2015 championship campaign, after which he was crowned Hurler of the Year, and scored a goal in each of Kilkenny's four games.
These are the type of returns Reid has always been capable of and should always be aspiring to, his manager Brian Cody insisted afterwards.
"He's been really consistent for us and, I mean, that's the level he's at. TJ is on the team a long time now, an outstanding hurler, and he has to step up," he said.
"He has to be the player he's capable of being, not just a player who is tipping away at maybe scoring five or six points.
"He's capable of playing at that level. That's his ability, and his application has been terrific. His fitness levels are huge as well, so he's reaping the benefits of the work he's putting into it."
His performances have been so good that Eoin Larkin was moved, earlier in the week, to suggest that he is now "at a higher level" than what Henry Shefflin was at in the same stage of his career.
"They seem to have cemented him at centre-forward and built a team around him. He can make the ball talk, he has a great pair of hands on him and physically, he is after maturing very well, he has all the attributes," observed Larkin.
Much the same testimony is delivered by Colm Bonnar, the former Tipperary hurler and current Carlow coach who was involved with Ballyhale Shamrocks when they won their last All-Ireland club title in 2015.
Bonnar coached Waterford IT to an epic Fitzgibbon Cup final against LIT in 2008 that required two periods of extra-time to divide them. Reid and his brother Eoin were instrumental in that victory.
Memorably, they conspired to deliver the equalising score between them, with Bonnar recalling how it was par for the course that season as they formed a deadly alliance.
"When I saw TJ first I thought he was one of the best I had ever seen. Now that I've seen even more of him I'd say he's now the best I have ever seen without a doubt," said Bonnar.
"He's a different kind of player to Henry Shefflin. I probably wouldn't have seen as much of Henry, but it's hard to believe they're from the same club.
"His ability to win his own ball is phenomenal and what he can do with it then, the confidence to go off left and right and hold on to it. He can put the ball around in a circle. I've seen him do it at club and county, it's incredible what he can do with a ball."
Bonnar believes the confidence in him permeating from the Kilkenny management has been a big factor over the last few years.
"That's worth its weight in gold. Early in his career, with such big names around him, maybe he didn't have the confidence and he didn't feel it from management, I don't know. But the last four years he's the go-to player and when he knows that and he has the confidence of the manager, he has nothing to fear, he's not looking over his shoulder. That gives great freedom to hurl."
Reid opened his own gym in the last 18 months and, like Mayo's Andy Moran, who has pursued a similar line of business, being in an environment that aligns itself so easily with their sport has reaped benefits.
Bonnar accepts the physical difference in Reid is noticeable, but qualifies that it's only part of the equation.
"If I was to name 10 things that were important to a hurler that would be down the list; if you're not a good hurler it's very hard to do what he is doing."
However, his physical progression has clearly accelerated in recent years and when Cody looked for something different from his midfield for the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final replay against Waterford, it was to Reid and Hogan he turned. Right into the thick of the action.
That Reid remains the only hurler to win three All-Ireland medals off the bench, 2008, 2009 and 2011, gives an instant insight into how his career path has developed.
That he was the only outfield substitute introduced in the 2008 All-Ireland final rout of Waterford - fellow future hurlers of the year Michael Fennelly and Richie Hogan weren't used on the day - illustrated the talent the management knew the then 20-year-old had.
Within two years he was captain as Kilkenny's five-in-a-row dream hit the rocks against Tipperary, but by 2011 both Hogan and Fennelly had moved well ahead as Reid struggled, losing his place to Eddie Brennan for the All-Ireland final.
By his own admission he hit a low point in his career after the 2012 Leinster final defeat to Galway and briefly considered stepping away.
However, talked around by his club colleague Shefflin, he hasn't looked back - save for a broken kneecap sustained by a nasty blow in the 2012 All-Ireland final replay against Galway and a hamstring injury that plagued him in 2013 when he missed the qualifier win over Waterford.
With the baton of leadership and free-taking responsibility passed on from Shefflin, his scoring returns in league and championship have spiked.
Even in interviews his certainty in his Kilkenny team comes across as absolute.
He knows his place. He knows what he can do. He knows what he has to do.
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