Visionary McGrath finds comfort in natural habitat
Positional shift brings new focus to Tipp midfielder’s radar
Ask Noel McGrath to identify a career highlight and one of his responses has you reaching for the archive vaults.
There was their barnstorming win over Wexford in the All-Ireland semi-final the last day because, presumably, it was freshest in the memory.
And, of course, his two All-Ireland final wins, crowning glories obviously. But a successful raid on Páirc Uí Chaoimh in the 2012 Munster Championship is one that McGrath bumps up to the top of his personal catalogue.
Tipp had won a championship game on Leeside in 2008 for the first time in 85 years, the year before McGrath’s debut.
Two years later they lost there by 10 points, the preface for a recovery that led to Kilkenny being halted in completing a five-in-a-row that September. But it underlines the value that a Tipp hurler still places on beating Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh that McGrath rates their 1-22 to 0-24 win in 2012 so highly.
“We had serious days, tough days, but having to go to Páirc Uí Chaoimh where Tipp, in the last 100 years, had won very little and to come out of there with a result was big,” he recalls.
“It was my first time to win in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. I grew up watching Tipp playing Cork in Munster Championship matches and watched the videos of Munster finals in the 1970s and 1980s, so to get that was nice.”
Yet it’s Kilkenny that McGrath’s generation of Tipp hurlers will draw all the parallels with. This will be his seventh All-Ireland final – all of which have been in opposition to their great rivals.
“I don’t know is there much more you can say about Kilkenny, about how good they have been over the last 15 years. They caused every other team to raise the bar.
“We have had some serious battles with them, won some and lost some, great days. And All-Ireland day seems to bring the best out of each other.”
Liam Sheedy’s second coming has been distinguished by very few changes in personnel as he opted to stick with tried-and-trusted players.
But one significant tactical shift has seen McGrath (28) play more as a midfielder – and it was there that his influence shone, having been taken off against Limerick in the Munster final.
Positions matter little to a player who seeks out the ball, but midfield is seen as his natural habitat, where he partnered Brendan Maher in the 2007 All-Ireland minor hurling final and where his intelligence and vision are, arguably, best deployed.
“It happened a bit more naturally than I expected myself. I grew up, from a very young age, playing around midfield and in the backline. It was when I was 18 or 19 when I fully moved up to the forward line. I don’t mind where I play.”
McGrath’s passing was pivotal to Tipperary’s last-quarter surge to get by Wexford the last day in the absence of his brother John who had earlier been red-carded. The older McGrath brother had no time for empathy though.
“You have to plough on, because if you let yourself go for a minute, the game is going to be over. Regardless of who it is, he is not going to be the first or last person to be sent off,” he says.
“It is part and parcel of the game and you get knocks but you have to stay going and I think that is what we did,” added McGrath.
“We showed serious character and I suppose along with that we had the skill to be able to do it.”
McGrath overcame testicular cancer in 2015 and naturally takes the ebb and flow of defeat and victory a little differently now.
“I always love playing hurling, whether it is with my club Loughmore-Castleiney or with Tipperary, but I suppose after that (cancer), it probably changed a small bit,” he adds.
“I am probably a little bit more carefree. You’re disappointed after you lose and happy when you win – either way, it has to be measured as well.
“But at the same time the desire and ambition is the same. You win as much as you can, while you can.”
Last year they failed to win a game in Munster, precipitating Michael Ryan’s departure, but Sheedy’s return, allied to the knowledge that they still had a strong squad of players, always made their return to this level an inevitability.
“We knew last year was disappointing but always feel there is a good group of players there.”
Being withdrawn from the Munster final against Limerick was a blip in an otherwise impressive season for the 28-year-old as Cian Lynch and William O’Donoghue prospered in a dominant middle third.
“I think any day that you are taken off, you know more than anybody else that you haven’t played well.
“You look at yourself and just put the head down and learn from the mistakes made on a given day and try and correct them the next day.
“Games change from day to day even from half to half and you just go again.”