Friday 24 November 2017

Checking in without any baggage, just his talent and dreams of success

Liam Rushe covets an an All-Ireland medal, and it doesn't matter how long it takes, as he tells Dermot Crowe

ASK Anthony Daly to select Liam Rushe's finest day in a light blue shirt and he can't pull one immediately to mind. They're not scarce and that's the problem -- he sees an inviting range of peaks but none which towers above all the rest. It is the blight of consistency. One good day blurs into the next and it feels as if Rushe arrived fully matured and schooled the first day he set foot in the place.

Daly remembers the initial sighting in the Blue Stars match in early 2009 when, just out of minor, he began fearlessly plucking balls from the air and driving over scores. He had stacks of attitude and no visible inhibitions and Daly had no idea who the hell he was.

But the question has been asked, to find a Rushe tour de force from a career still in its infancy, so Daly's mind sets off on a jog before halting in the summer of 2010. Three days after losing the Leinster senior final to Kilkenny by 19 points, the under 21s travelled to Nowlan Park in the provincial semi-final. Hearts were low. Daly was on the line. Richie Stakelum had the manager's bib. Unwittingly, the match had morphed into something of a rescue mission for Dublin's crudely stalled hurling ambitions. Right on cue, Dublin delivered a huge performance. Rushe, inspiring and beseeching all around him, embodied it.

"He was outstanding," says Daly appreciatively. "We were so fecking low. It gave us all such a boost in such a short space of time. Kilkenny in Nowlan Park as well. He's the type of character you are looking for. In the senior final he had a goal chance early on but we had to bring him out the field and things didn't go well. Then just to come out and produce what he did, I thought it was huge."

Daly marvels at how quickly Rushe has learned the ropes and can't help comparing his own career ascension, how in his last year as an under 21 he was "barely" making the Clare senior team at corner-back. Rushe came out of minor and went straight into the senior team for the 2009 league. He has been a totemic force of nature for the new Dublin hurling generation: richly talented and happily liberated from the chains and prejudices of past history.

There is the story of how he reacted to defeating Wexford in 2009 -- genuinely puzzled by the excitement generated over one championship win. The fact that it was Dublin's first Leinster semi-final victory in 18 years wasn't lost on him but he couldn't summon the same visceral joy as some of the older players who had been through terrible times and dreadful beatings. In many ways that is his strength and good fortune; he carries none of the baggage and inferiority complex of yesteryear.

Responsibility has been shunted onto his young shoulders but he is also naturally drawn to those heavier loads. In the win over Galway in the championship this year he moved to centre-back when Joey Boland went off injured and ended up with the man of the match award. He started the year in the middle of the field and if Dublin had everyone available then Daly would place him beside Alan McCrabbe in the engine-room for a mix of styles. Rushe can hold his own with any of the more abrasive and athletic midfield players. And he is almost implausibly versatile. Daly asked him to play wing-forward against Limerick following Conal Keaney's accident and to stand under their own puck-outs. He went on to play a crucial role in ensuring Dublin did not yield, sticking up his hand and taking the belts without flinching.

"He sees himself winning an All-Ireland before he's finished, that is the kind of fella you want," Daly enthuses. "He is confident without being cocky. He has the world in front of him, about to do third-year law, enjoying life and hurling, and captain of the 21s. He is embracing it."

It is not every GAA player that offers Pan's Labyrinth (a Mexican fantasy flick) as their favourite movie, as Rushe did some time ago, but he doesn't have an entirely conventional upbringing. He became involved in hurling and Gaelic football from "four or five" at St Pat's in Palmerstown and because resources were tight he found himself accepting major roles from an early stage. He played under 21 at 14; they were short and he was big enough to handle the leap. He missed out on the Tony Forristal which still pains him but made the Dublin development squads at 15. His father, Ned, is originally a St Oliver Plunkett's man and played in a Leinster colleges B final in goal but quit the game early due to poor eyesight. He threw himself vigorously into club activities and was manager of the St Pat's team that won the Dublin B championship and gained promotion to the top tier in 2008.

Outside the club, though, there was no hurling big brother to latch onto. Rushe spent most of his childhood going to Dublin football and

Clare hurling matches. His mother is from west Clare and he has treasured memories from the late 1990s following the county, and later some of the matches that Daly managed in Croke Park. He never attended a Dublin senior hurling match during that time. It was as if they didn't exist.

"I am ashamed to say it," he admits. "You never heard tell of a Dublin victory. I can actually remember hearing of that Walsh Cup win over Kilkenny (2003); I can remember my Dad telling me about that. I suppose I aspired to play county at my own age, playing for Dublin under 16s, minors. I thought: I am going to win All-Irelands, everyone has those dreams. But I couldn't have told you five players on the Dublin senior hurling team at the time."

A few years back he remembers being at an under 21 match between Dublin and Kilkenny, standing behind the goal in Parnell Park, and his father picking out Conal Keaney and saying: "That's what we need." But in terms of tradition, something to fasten on to, there wasn't anything. His generation had to create its own.

Rushe is a shining product of Dublin's successful underage programmes over the last ten years. He was part of the team that won the Leinster minor title in 2007 and captained the minors the next year. His minor manager Joe Fortune had him from the age of 16. "They have none of those traditional inhibitions at all," says Fortune. "We weren't beaten from 14s up to minor by Kilkenny. The development squads are a great way of giving lads games against counties on a regular basis. All of them have a massive sense of belief. Sunday might be a bit much to ask with the amount of lads missing. But they are definitely on the road to better things. And you'd still get a text from the likes of Liam after a match thanking you for the work done. They haven't forgotten that."

Facing Tipperary, the virtually unbackable favourites, doesn't unsettle him. "I wouldn't think of them that much," Rushe says, "I never really think of an opposition that much. Sure you'd be frightened nearly if you started thinking of Tipperary. You only have to think of their win over Waterford." While there are still aspects of his game that can be improved -- he has a tendency to take on too much -- Rushe's match temperament is impeccable.

He cannot control Dublin's match temperament though; all he can do is set an example. Being in bonus territory and having fulfilled all the basic goals as they've done can be counter-productive, tempting teams to settle for what they have achieved. They lose their bite. He believes the Leinster final defeat was a symptom of that mindset. The league had been won. They'd seen off Offaly and Galway. They were in credit and may have gone soft. "To be honest, the Leinster final is almost a motivation because we did settle. It was shocking."

Did you? "Yes we did. I know Kilkenny had a lot of players back and we lost a few players, but the difference in attitude between the league final and Leinster final . . . I don't know why we settled, but we settled for a Leinster final place. We settled for the 'ah sure we will give them a bit of a run'."

Didn't fancy it? "We didn't fancy it, we lay down. And I think now, you saw there against Limerick,

they were pushing in the last few minutes and we could have lay down again, but we didn't. And it certainly wasn't our best hurling of the year, there were plenty of fundamental mistakes, but we ground it out and showed a bit of character. We don't want to settle again, we want to drive on and do our best, give a proper account of ourselves."

He watched the match and noted the stark contrast in both halves of the field. Dublin's half resembled an open prairie; Kilkenny's looked cramped like Manhattan at rush hour. "They kept their half-back line and full-back line within 30 yards of one another. I spent most of the game at centre-back and you would follow the centre-forward to their '65 and if he went past that you'd let him go. But sure I was at the '65 and they managed to work it clear and it sailed over my head and straight into their full-forward line and all three of our half-backs were trying to get back. They stretched us and kept themselves compact. One half had 20 players and one half had ten, even less than ten. They were very clinical; they hardly dropped a ball between the two lines. They imposed their game on us and we let them.

"All year we have been physical; we didn't lose a physical battle. That's what really got us through the game against Galway -- bit of a miserable day for mid-June, yet we made it into a battle and came out five-point winners. Against Kilkenny, we didn't really impose ourselves at all; we were second to the ball nearly in every position."

Rushe has compared Dublin's style to Kilkenny's in the past, but all teams will respond to successful sides and the way they play is bound to have an influence. He prefers their direct approach to the short game. "Look at Tommy Walsh: when is the last time you saw him give a perfect pass? He launches it as far as he can, basically at the opposition goal, towards the small square, where the danger is. If you win primary possession you get it as quickly as you can in there -- any forward will tell you if you can't get me good ball give me quick ball. That was our failing in the Leinster final, wasn't it? We didn't move it quickly enough or win enough primary possession and any ball that went in they cleared it."

The loss of Keaney for the Limerick match heaped more responsibility on Rushe but he didn't blink. "You wouldn't be too worried about him," says Daly. "Like everyone else he isn't man of the match every day; sometimes things don't go his way, the odd time his shooting can be off. But in terms of attitude and willingness he's great. He came up with few massive balls against Limerick when we really needed someone to lift the siege. The (second) point (Ryan O') Dwyer got, he had a huge part in that. He realised someone needed to do it. That is what you want."

Rushe's robust virtues are mirrored in similarly combative types like Keaney and O'Dwyer who fit the classic hurling warrior mould. "He (Keaney) plays a much more physical brand of hurling than you'd expect from a forward -- a forward will try to avoid the contact. He goes into contact, he almost bullies backs in the club championship. I admire him. When I heard he was coming back I said I will believe this when I see it. I think it was a half six morning session and there he was -- practising frees."

O'Dwyer is another welcome signature. "I didn't know what to make of him at the start. He hadn't trained, had no trials and went out for the Blue Stars game and he was centre-forward and (laughs) I don't know what you'd call his style -- he has the skills but at the same time he just goes flying in, he's a real dog, like. He has been a fantastic addition."

How confident are you of beating Tipperary? "Ah I am going to have to be diplomatic," he grins. "Anything is possible, it's a once-off game. We have to give ourselves a chance. They are expected to breeze through. We must go out and hurl and hopefully come out on top.

"It is about doing it all under pressure. Everyone can look fantastic with no pressure on, but you need to be doing it faster and faster and with someone hitting you harder and harder. The difference is the experience. This year our very first league game down in Walsh Park in Waterford, it started off looking like we were going to run away with it, what we were 1-5 to 0-1 up and flying. Next thing down goes Brick Walsh. Ah sure, I think everyone in the ground knew he was faking an injury but it got them five minutes; next thing they have a point and a goal and it was half-time and they were level. Just things like that you learn, you get wiser."

Whatever transpires today, the work is only beginning. Do you see yourself winning an All-Ireland medal, he's asked? "I do. I saw myself winning an All-Ireland medal since I was 12. Ah, definitely. I'd feel a massive failure if I didn't win one."

How long will you wait? "I will go as long as Tony Browne if I have to."

That's a deadline of 2028. Time enough.

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