Wednesday 17 January 2018

McGrath proving he has head for dizzy heights

Noel McGrath, one of the shining lights this season for Tipperary, can look forward to Sunday's final with Kilkenny and also the Bord Gais All-Ireland U-21 final against Galway on Saturday week.
Noel McGrath, one of the shining lights this season for Tipperary, can look forward to Sunday's final with Kilkenny and also the Bord Gais All-Ireland U-21 final against Galway on Saturday week.

Here's hurling at its simplified best, from a 19-year-old with a career of such vast potential stretching out in front of him.

"If you have your head right and the hurling ready to go, you'll be the finest," figures Noel McGrath, Tipperary's young tyro who already looks like a championship veteran with 10 appearances in just 13 months behind him.

Can it really be as straightforward as that? Can a man who won't celebrate his 20th birthday for another three and a half months condense everything into such an uncomplicated format?

Roll back to Tipperary's All-Ireland semi-final against Waterford 16 days ago and the importance of McGrath's posting at centre-forward. Facing him was Michael 'Brick' Walsh, the undisputed king of centre-backs and right at the peak of his game.


But the head and the hurling were right and ready to go and sure enough he was the "finest" -- five points from play, two more from placed balls and a channel attacked and conquered that few in Tipperary (or Waterford) could have expected.

McGrath never set out to compete with Walsh that day on an equal physical footing. Instead he went left and right and in behind when the opportunity presented itself. By the end, another 'man of the match' award had been stashed away, his brain rather than brawn carrying the day.

It's that versatility which does more for the glow of optimism permeating through Tipperary hurling than anything else. The kid can play anywhere. Half-back, midfield, half-forward, wherever a problem needs solving.

"He was great the last day," admits Michael Ryan, one of Tipperary's selectors. "It was a breath of fresh air. Anyone who has seen Noel down through the years, he has just been a fabulous hurler and he has developed really well. He has probably developed quicker than we expected, but you don't look a gift horse in the mouth. He's a very mature hurler for such a young hurler.

"Noel is such an adaptable hurler, he played at centre-back for our minor team, he has played a lot in the full-forward line and at half-forward. He comes from a club where you get in and you do what you need to do -- there's no substitute for that."

In many respects McGrath has benefited from tracking Joe Canning's slipstream into the inter-county game. Canning is two years older and came into the inter-county game 12 months earlier. So what McGrath achieved in year one -- an All Star and All-Ireland final appearance -- didn't turn heads as much as it might have. Canning had taken all the heat.

Anyway, prodigies like him aren't uncommon in Tipperary. Eoin Kelly was still eligible for minor when Nicky English gave him his debut in 2000 and before that John Leahy followed a similar path in the late 1980s. Further back there was the great Jimmy Doyle.

To McGrath, working in Thurles post office for the summer, age is irrelevant. He concedes the physical anomaly there may be in mixing with 26 and 27-year-olds but has faith in "the hurling" all the time.

"You're hurling all your life, it's another team you're playing with. You're coming up against bigger, stronger men but it's all about the hurling," he says.

For his school, Our Lady's Templemore, he played everywhere, and the same versatility was utilised in his three years as a Tipperary minor, which yielded two All-Ireland medals and a final defeat to Kilkenny -- denying him a coveted three in a row.

Parallel to that was Loughmore-Castleiney's Tipperary and Munster club success in 2007. "To win a county final and a Munster club -- two serious medals that might never come around again -- was something else. Lucky for me that it happened in my first year, it had been 18 years since the club won a county final," he reflects.

He's open to playing anywhere but you suspect that centre-forward is more accommodating at this level than right corner-forward is ever going to be for him. "Any position you get you take but I've always played out around midfield or half-back. Anywhere at all. Once you're hurling you don't mind."

McGrath, son of former 1980s Tipperary player Pat, can draw comfort from the fact that the Tipperary team is now populated with players who share his youthful exuberance and experience of winning. "We've all settled in, there are so many of us coming together -- players like Brendan and Padraic (Maher), Seamus Hennessy, Michael Heffernan, 'Buggy' (Brian O'Meara), 'Bonner' (Patrick Maher) -- we all know each other's games so it helps."

Pairc Ui Chaoimh in May forced them to take another giant leap on their developmental curve. Absorbing some of the stinging criticism that came their way was part of that.

"There are always one or two teams that are going to get it and this year it was us," McGrath reflects. "Kerry football, they got a bit of it too last year. They get it every year. You just have to take it on a chin and stay going."

The Galway game rebooted them more than any other and now he is determined to enjoy the build-up to Sunday, just as he did 12 months ago. "I feel the experience of playing an All-Ireland final will stand to us this year."

But harking back to last September is not something he draws any comfort from. "The team that wins is always the better team on the day. Kilkenny won the All-Ireland, the better team always wins."

Once the head and the hurling is the finest.

Irish Independent

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