Keeping up appearances
Tipp's Brendan Cummins stands on the cusp of a historic record but as the 'keeper tells Jackie Cahill winning another title is paramount
AT some point this summer, Brendan Cummins will break the all-time record for the number of appearances in senior championship hurling.
The All Star goalkeeper has 62 games under his belt to date -- two behind the legendary Christy Ring -- and, if Tipp get that far, Cummins will be out on his own on 65 on Munster final day, July 10.
But that's not why the ever humble Cummins grabbed the key to the Ballybacon-Grange GAA field on November 1 last year and began pre-season training, on his own, on a freezing cold night.
Clocking up appearances is for others. All that concerns Cummins is whether or not he can continue to compete at the top level.
And that's why he resumed heavy cardio work two months before the rest of his team-mates. As he acknowledges that when you're 35 years of age (he turns 36 on Wednesday), it's important to get the jump on a 19-year-old.
While he's far too modest to say it himself, there's not many in the Tipp squad, if any, who will outstrip Cummins in a training sprint.
And that's where he finds the real enjoyment, knowing that he can still cut it alongside a guy who might be a decade and a half his junior.
"When you go into training, it's not an age thing, it's an ability thing," he says. "Nobody really cares how old you are as long as you can still do your job and they can rely on you.
"So while I can still do that and I can still keep up with them in the runs and hit them an odd pat on the backside when I'm passing them, I get my kicks out of that!
"They don't see me as the dinosaur in the corner and it's not a case that they're coming to me needing loads of advice.
"I don't want to cloud them either, telling them loads of things that might be just imparting my baggage on them. If people want me, they know where I am."
Two years ago, Cummins overtook John Doyle's previous record of 54 championship appearances for Tipperary. But on a championship Sunday, there were far more pressing matters to concern himself with.
He reflects: "You'd be aware of it, you wouldn't be stupid, but you don't think about these things.
"I was more worried about the Limerick forward line that day than any records. It's not about clocking up appearances -- it's about winning the games.
"I think I have only 15 clean sheets in those 62 games -- that's a statistic that worries me even more than 62 games.
"These little things within it are the statistics that I look at -- clean sheets, how many of this, how many of that.
"I'd be maybe over-critical of myself but you have to be if you want to stay at the top. You have to evolve all the time with the game. If I played today like I did in my 10th championship game, I wouldn't survive."
That he has survived is testament to his strength of character, sheer dedication and above all, the hunger to keep going.
When the call arrived from Declan Ryan, he was relieved. Others might have viewed his return as a matter of course but Cummins, who analyses his own game meticulously, was delighted with the reassurance.
Ryan had taken over from Liam Sheedy and "the bucket was empty, the slate was clean."
And while Ring's record is in sight, it's the prospect of a third Celtic Cross that's driving Cummins forward.
But surely he's thought about it, the appearances record that is?
"No, I genuinely haven't. People have said it to me alright that it's this year that I could be breaking the record, but it's about winning a third All-Ireland medal.
"If I take my eye off the ball and sit back and think about what's gone on in the past, that's going to get me nowhere. It's fine on a park bench in 20 years' time.
"I want to set a record -- I want to win my third All-Ireland medal. That's the only record that I'm focused on at this point in time. Having played since 1993 in the league and 1995 in championship, to only have two All-Ireland medals in a county like Tipp, you need more."
Cummins believes that Tipp are in a better position to launch a successful defence of the Liam MacCarthy Cup than they were in 2002.
He explains: "That time, we had what we thought was a competitive enough panel but this time, we have All-Ireland U-21 champions coming in, lads who won All-Ireland medals on the panel. We have that competitiveness in training that we didn't have after '01.
"Plus, Kilkenny are the template for all of us. They were able to do four-in-a-row. When we won one back in 2001, it was a great thing. No one even mentioned really putting back-to-back All-Irelands together -- we hadn't really seen it being done.
"Now we've seen Kilkenny do it -- they've raised the bar in the way you play and now they've raised the bar in what success is gauged on. It appears greedy but you have to be greedy. I wanted an All-Ireland medal every year I played the damned thing. Now I want to hold onto the buzz we had last year."
And what a buzz it was -- a stark contrast to the final of 2009 when Tipp saw glory snatched away in the dying moments of a classic final.
"Yer man (Kilkenny's Richie Power) falling in front of me for the penalty," is the first image that flashes through Cummins' mind when we ask for a snapshot of the '09 decider.
His mind wanders back: "Yeah, looking through the crowd, seeing the ref putting his hands out and saying it's a penalty. We probably felt at the time, naively, that 'Jesus we can nearly do this'. That's the most fatal mistake you can make in any game. We learned a very harsh lesson. Then they got their second goal.
"Whether it was a penalty or not is immaterial. That's when it was taken away."
Fast-forward 12 months to a myriad of glorious memories. Again, we ask Cummins for the first one that springs to mind. His long-range free that sailed over the Kilkenny crossbar? Watching Eoin Kelly lift the MacCarthy Cup? The final whistle? None of the above.
"Lar's first goal. Because Kilkenny don't concede goals. They've been like a machine and it was a huge psychological boost for us for Larry to hit the back of the net like that. It was a signal that something can happen. It gave you the belief that it could be our day. You think ... maybe.
"I looked at the big screen after and saw Noel Hickey slipping. There was nothing he could have done about it. It was the bit of luck we needed and of course, Larry on the spot, the man who roofed it.
"And the roar that came from the crowd -- they sensed it -- this doesn't normally happen, this could be the day."
And it was, with Kilkenny denied the five-in-a-row that would have created history. Stopped, in Cummins' eyes, by the "perfect storm."
To beat Kilkenny, they had to be matched, and bettered, in every facet of the game. DJ Carey has recently commented on Tipperary's ability "in the skies." It proved crucial in the win.
Cummins says: "We were lucky -- we had the perfect storm. You had Liam Sheedy, exceptional manager. Eamon O'Shea, without doubt the best coach I've ever seen in the game. The experience of Mick Ryan. So your management team was spot on.
"Then you had players coming who won minor All-Irelands and heading for an U-21 All-Ireland. You had big men like Noel McGrath, Seamie Callanan, who was only a sub, well able to win his own ball. There was a bit done in training but this time we had the players who had massive ability and strength to go up and actually win it.
"The way it was coached, the brains of the players we had and the ability they had, it just all seemed the right thing to happen -- that a fella would catch a puck-out rather than losing it. All of those things contributed to us winning more of our own ball than we would normally do."
Catching the Cats
BRENDAN Cummins admits that he had massive respect for Kilkenny's achievement in winning four successive All-Ireland senior hurling titles from 2006-09.
This year, Tipperary are the team with targets on their backs, with the hunters now the hunted in the race for the Liam MacCarthy Cup in September.
And Cummins reveals that when Kilkenny were relentlessly chasing success after success, he was more than an interested spectator.
"You'd look with great respect at what they were doing and you'd want to have what they had. You'd be watching to see how they were doing it, how they were keeping the drive and maybe listening to them in interviews, to see what they're saying," he says.
"That was the key thing with them -- they never said an awful lot, only that we have competitive nights in training and things are going well. So they really knew, under superb management, how to cultivate the talent they had and to keep the hunger all the time.
"Great credit to them -- that's why winning last year was so special for Tipperary and maybe even for hurling. It opens up this year's championship -- it's anybody's game."
After Tipperary last claimed glory in 2001, it took them nine years to return to the top of the hurling tree.
But Cummins insists that with the calibre of player at Tipperary's disposal, there will be no such famine this time.
The Tipp squad is full of players who pocketed All-Ireland minor medals in 2006 and '07. Players who were unburdened by baggage when they linked up with the senior team.
Cummins explains: "Their drive is different. They're a different animal, very humble, which is a key thing. They're hungry for success but they're not arrogant. They don't think they're God's greatest gift to anything.
"They love playing the game, the challenge, fighting for their place against their friends and expressing themselves on a big match day. It might not work out for Tipp but more often than not, if these guys are able to perform, we'll be in with a good chance of winning. You're never sure of doing anything in this game but these guys, they just seem to be able to perform at that high level and it comes natural to them. It's a fantastic gift to have. But the real steel test is when we face Cork on the 29th in Thurles.
"Coming in as All-Ireland champions, I don't think it will be a heavy burden on us but you don't know until the first couple of minutes what way your mind is. You can tell yourself, on a quiet evening, 'aw, I think we're fine' but it's only when you go into the heat of a championship match with 50,000 people going off their heads, that you realise: 'Where's my mind now?'"
Getting it right on the big day
IT was the Thursday night before last year's All-Ireland final when Tipp 'keeper Brendan Cummins sensed it.
"The ducks were lined up" and everything was right. Tipperary were ready for battle against Kilkenny.
The mood in the camp was in stark contrast to May 30, when Tipp suffered a 10-point mauling by Cork in their first championship appearance since the classic 2009 final.
Cummins recalls: "Everybody thought we were the bees knees. We were a shoo-in to get to the final again. After 15 or 20 minutes they (Cork) were six points up and I was after picking it out of the net twice. We got a sense around the field that day that things weren't right at all."
Through the back door, Tipp regrouped and the renaissance culminated with a spectacular display in the final. The demons had been exorcised and Cummins' gut feeling was right -- Tipp were ready.
"I knew outside in Fontenoy before we went in to the match that it was right. But the real time I knew it was right was the Thursday night before the match," he said. "We'd been a bit jumpy on the Tuesday night but on Thursday, it was unbelievable. It's like walking into a house and you know it's a great house.
"Nobody needs to say anything -- the usual jokes, but you could just see it with fellas.
"The body posture was right, the heads were up, the chests were out. Bit of a crowd up at training but nobody took much notice of it -- we were there to train. The giddiness was out of the way, tickets handed out, suits done and dusted. All the gear was sorted out; everybody knew what they had to do for the weekend. There was nothing else in your mind only the match.
"You never know whether you're going to win or not but I'm happy once I know we're ready. And I sensed on the Thursday that all the ducks were lined up.
"We all wished it was half past three; we would have played the game that night against Kilkenny if we could have."