Sport Hurling

Friday 23 February 2018

Electrified by the big switch

Ryan O'Dwyer's move to Dublin has given the Tipperary man a new lease of life, as he tells Damian Lawlor

O N the edge of Pallasgreen, just off the main Limerick to Waterford road, Paddy Ryan's bronzed image overlooks the townspeople as they go about their business.

The sculpture is impressive. The citation underneath states that he won gold and silver medals in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics in the hammer and weight-throwing disciplines.

Born in the Limerick village in 1883, he emigrated to the US in 1910 and served in the first World War. With a background as Irish champion in weight throwing, he represented USA in the Antwerp Olympics and won those two medals. Eventually, when his career wound down in 1924, he moved back to Limerick, settled down and raised five daughters.

One of those was Bernie, mother of Ryan O'Dwyer. Paddy was his grandfather and he still pops over to Pallasgreen to see the grandfather he never knew. "I suppose I don't have too far to look for a sporting hero," O'Dwyer smiles.

"I haven't really told anyone about him before but he is some inspiration to me. Not many would know of his achievements, but in America books and websites have been dedicated to him. He held world records in hammer throwing from 1913 onwards and probably would have won gold in the 1916 Olympics only for being stationed in Britain. And he wouldn't represent them for love nor money.

"He was 36 when he won gold, that's some going. You'd hear stories about him the whole time, all the yarns. He was in his 40s when he moved home and married a girl 20 years younger. He was some man in all departments by the sounds of it. That's the way it should be done."

O'Dwyer never saw his mother so proud as when the statue of her father was unveiled by Ronnie Delany in 2004. "You could tell by her," he says. "The whole family were chuffed. It was a bit of recognition."

These days Bernie and Ryan's father, John, get their kicks from watching their son make his own name. At 24, he already has a respectable track record in his own right, holding Munster championship and National League medals with Tipperary and also playing senior football for his native county under John Evans. Today he hopes to add to his tally with a second league title for his adopted county, Dublin. Not that he sees them as his adopted team anymore.

"No," he insists. "I've been with teams all my life. Cashel, UL, the Tipp hurlers, Tipp footballers. I played hurling and football in Boston but I'm happiest with these lads. I've never clicked with fellows better. It was hard leaving Cashel but moving to Dublin is the best thing I ever did."

Before Christmas, when he was presented to the team at a meeting in the Castleknock Hotel, he felt like the new kid in school. "I thought they would think 'who the fuck does this lad think he is coming up from Tipp' but they have no egos and they came straight up to me afterwards. Already, I really feel part of it. I have all their phone numbers and vice versa. The banter away from the hurling field is priceless and the practical jokes are cruel -- I was the victim coming home from Cork recently. They took my phone and lashed out all sorts of texts. I spent from Portlaoise to Dublin apologising to people."

He made his debut against the Blue Stars in January and scored two points. But he picked up a serious shoulder injury in a freak training accident, and had he not been so stubborn in his recovery from that injury he might well be only finding his feet now.

O'Dwyer was holding a punch bag with Ronan Walsh at the other end of it and one blow went astray, landed on his shoulder and disrupted a piece of cartilage. The team physio diagnosed a six-week break at least.

"I'm a stubborn fecker so I said I'd be back within three," O'Dwyer recalls. "The physio just gave me a look that said that we would have many run-ins together." Feeling he had to make a mark, he worked incessantly on it and came back after just 20 days, missing Dublin's thrilling opening draw with Waterford but returning for their second fixture against Tipperary.

That was another challenge; he wasn't sure what reception he would receive from his former team-mates.

"I wasn't expecting much beyond a five-minute cameo but I actually got on five minutes before half-time and was thrown right into it. I passed Paudie Maher who just wished me the best of luck. I ran by Brendan Maher who smiled at me. The lads were great although I did get a shot off a lad who shouted about 'pride in the jersey'. I thought 'well feck you anyway, I couldn't make the Tipp team and you're begrudging me this?' I left for Dublin to live, work and play club hurling and why would anyone begrudge me for leaving because I wasn't needed is beyond me."

The home team held on to beat the All-Ireland champions in a thrilling finale and walking off the pitch O'Dwyer shot his arms towards the heavens. He shifts uneasily as he recounts the moment.

"Ah, there's this stupid picture of me coming off, throwing the arms up. I got some slagging over that but it was a spur-of-the-moment thing. The second I did it, I knew I'd regret it," he admits. "All the emotion came out. My head had been melted a bit. Like, last September I was on the Hill when the lads did the lap of honour after beating Kilkenny and although it was bittersweet for me I was truly delighted for them.

"After they'd lost to Cork, Liam Sheedy asked me back on the panel but I'd given my word to go playing in Boston and I don't go back on my word. Yes, on All-Ireland final day I was cursing myself but if I'd my time back I'd still make the same decision. I'd only be on and off the Tipp panel -- when Dublin called I had a chance for a new start."

He's sanguine about that chapter of his life. And save for people wondering if Tipp let O'Dwyer go too quickly, there has been little or no adverse reaction to his switch. In fact, friends and family members reported a huge cheer in both Foley's and Campion's bars in Cashel when he was introduced against Tipp. After that tense win, he spent time chatting with Brendan Cummins in the players' lounge which put him at ease again. The next day he felt he could move on. What other teams said didn't really matter.

Against Galway, he was told to fuck off back to Tipp and stay there and he just laughed when an Offaly opponent declared that if he was any good he would be on the Tipp team. In response, he signalled to the scoreboard. "If you reply to all shite your concentration is ruined so I just smile and it kind of freaks them out a bit. You take the rough with the smooth," he explains.

He's only taking flak because it's been a decent league for him. There would be no grief if he wasn't standing out. He set up three goals against Wexford, scored 0-6 in the process and single-handedly gunned down Offaly too. It's much different from his time back home when he had a much meeker job specification.

"I have a different job every day," he says. "With Tipp, my only real role was to stop the opposing centre-back from hurling. But Anthony Daly kind of gives me a free role and that's great for the confidence. He makes you feel you could be the best centre-forward in Ireland. All you'll get from me is an honest effort, whether I score or just upset an opponent."

He lives with his brother in Tallaght, teaches technical drawing at St MacDara's, Templeogue, and plays with Kilmacud Crokes. "My sister is here too and I feel it's right for me," he says. "Leaving Cashel was the biggest gripe but I'm so lucky with those club lads -- they text after every Dublin match. I didn't expect that. There was never any anger, they were all supportive."

And this year everyone is tuning into Dublin's League campaign which has seen them claim big scalps like Tipp and Cork. O'Dwyer, however, is philosophical about it all.

"I'll tell you Sunday evening whether the League was a success," he says. "We're doing fine but in four weeks Offaly will be waiting for us in the long grass and a good year could quickly sour. But we are a very young team who fear no one. I came up from Tipp with maybe a 'fear' of Kilkenny but the lads have none of that. I'm actually learning off them. We got criticism for hitting 35 wides in two games and yet the Galway stats showed that out of all those efforts on goal, only two shots shouldn't have been attempted. On another day we could have won by six points."

They should also have beaten Kilkenny but in the end came from three points down to clinch a draw. O'Dwyer says there was relief in the dressing room afterwards. "Personally, I was brassed off for an hour but was ultimately happy that we came back -- not many teams keep Kilkenny scoreless in the last 10 minutes."

To seal their final berth they pulled off another coup by beating Cork in their own backyard. "That just shows we have heart and a strong mindset," he reckons. "We're not beaten until the final whistle blows. Cork actually won the stats battle that day and they are so cute but we hung on. Donal óg Cusack could put a letter box anywhere on the field and he'd drill the ball into it. In the first half, I split Ronan Curran and John Gardiner to prevent a short puck-out but he still hit Gardiner in the hand and me only five yards away looking like an eejit."

Ultimately, though, it's still Kilkenny who leave him purring in appreciation. "You judge yourself against those lads with four All-Irelands in the last five seasons. They won't want to lose today, (Brian) Cody will want to knock us off our perch and his players won't want to be the ones that Dublin made their breakthrough against. They'll go hell for leather. It will depend on how we react."

Last Sunday, they watched the Dublin footballers implode and O'Dwyer hopes the hurlers can enjoy a different fate. "Their final was a reminder to us that you can't slip up. 'Attack the lead' has been our saying all year. You're playing against the lead -- not the opponents."

Paddy Ryan would surely approve.

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