Thursday 22 March 2018

Rabbitte's bad breaks

THE farmyard is shiny with rain and pounding to the clank and whine of a heavy loader.

It is Wednesday in Tysaxon and the Rabbittes are pinning down a bank of sileage. Paddy Joe navigates the canary-yellow loader, lifting used tractor tyres to the top of the pile where his son, Joe, gathers and throws them like over-sized frisbees. The tyres must be distributed evenly across the black, plastic skin.

Joe's strength is palpable. He works at speed, mumbling a lament about how this is work he should have done "long ago". And he's had abundant time this summer. For Joe is 33 now and, it seems, finished as a county hurler.

It's the first time in 13 years he's not been part of Galway's Championship ambitions. So a life of easy ritual has abated and released him back to the farm. And it feels an odd conflict. Sometimes good, sometimes empty, sometimes wrapped in the coarsest of frustration.

He can find himself down the fields immersed in the hectic flow of it when he feels a tingle of relief that he doesn't have to hurriedly abscond to training. Other days, he has to fend off an ache of regret that he's still not in the midst of it. Juggling all that energy and banter. Inhaling the fun, feeding the chat of possibility.

There was no row, no formal separation. Conor Hayes phoned him shortly after Athenry's heavy-legged collapse to Birr in the All-Ireland Club semi-final and said he thought Joe looked tired. And Rabbitte agreed. He felt a few weeks rest would replenish his lost energy.

A generation was lost, orphaned to the curse of promise unfulfilled
And that was the end of it. Hayes said they would monitor Joe's form with Athenry. And, if they have, it seems to have left them unimpressed. Within the club, there is a consensus that Joe is hurling as well as he's ever done. But no matter. A second phone-call never came.

So we retire to the kitchen of his parents' home and Joe Rabbitte betrays neither preciousness nor anger. "It is strange" he concedes. "You miss it." But, on Tuesday evening, he trained down in the town-field with Athenry. With old friends like Brian Feeney and the twin Donohues. It was sun-lit and lovely.

And, out on that field, he couldn't help but think of his younger days and how, in Athenry dressing-rooms, they would squint back at PJ Molloy when his final benediction would be to "enjoy the day". Back then, it was hard to reconcile hurling with enjoyment.

"We'd be looking at PJ thinking 'Jesus I don't know how you're supposed to enjoy this, lads flakin you all day long.' Everything was s**t or bust. But, as you get older, you realise what he was saying."

So Joe Rabbitte is finished with Galway, right?

Maybe so, maybe not. He sees little point in making announcements or closing doors. In four weeks time, Mary is due to give birth to their first child. People joke with Joe that the impending loss of sleep will hit him harder than any centre-back's shoulder. And he looks at them with genuine incredulity.

"You wouldn't want to sleep anyway, would you?" he says. "I mean these are the things that are important in life."

He never did get to win a Celtic Cross but, as Paddy Joe reminds him, collecting three All-Ireland Clubs is still "a fair oul return".

But so much of Rabbitte's adult life has been energised by the chase for Liam McCarthy, it is hard to escape the feeling here of an uncompleted journey. The last Championship game Joe started for Galway was the 2001 All-Ireland final against Tipperary. And bad memories crowd his recall.

All day he just found himself bottled up. Suffocated. Galway lost the game by three points and one little cameo epitomised the pulse. It was late on and they had pushed him into service at full-forward. Galway trailed by two when a low ball came skittering towards him.

He went for it, his shoulder grafted to Philly Maher's, their arms entangled. The sliotar settled in Rabbitte's palm and, as he turned, he threw Maher aside. Philly went down with a thespian flourish, yelling like he'd been hit by a sniper's bullet.

And Joe found himself one-on-one with Brendan Cummins. Better still, hitting off his favoured left side. A "great chance" of getting a goal. Then he heard the whistle. Free out to Tipp. And, soon after, Rabbitte was called ashore.

He had lost a final in '93 but it was nothing to this anguish. In '93, defeat felt like a postponement. Eight years on, it had a different weight. "No words" could explain the feeling.

So Tipp may well have book-ended his career with Galway. Championship debut in the All-Ireland semi-final of '91. Last Championship start in the final of 2001? Two defeats. Sure looks like the blue and gold will forever be singed across his memory.

There is, though, an untold story to Joe Rabbitte's time with Galway. And one he himself is not much interested in telling. We come upon it almost absent-mindedly.

You see Joe embodies the strangeness of the GAA. The selflessness of its heroes. The routine self-sacrifice that becomes a kind of deadpan subplot to these great, heaving summer Sundays.

You are drawn to it by the fingers on his left hand. Every one of them bent and mis-shapen, like the spears on a forgotten garden fork. Joe itemises them, impassively. They are all slightly ruined, piano keys that will never again quite hit the perfect tone.

"That was broken, that was broken, that was mashed and mangled," he sighs. "That knuckle is gone. Both thumbs, the top joints were broken."

You must understand we are doing the leading here. For splintered bones have never preoccupied Rabbitte. You ask him how many he has accumulated and he hoots with laughter at the absurdity of even attempting a count. But we insist on grappling with an inventory.

You see, for the first six years of his inter-county life, Galway's Championship campaign would die at the hands of the eventual All-Ireland champions. They were habitually close. But a generation was lost, orphaned to the curse of promise unfulfilled.

And Rabbitte almost became a symbol.

Put it this way, we are laughing by the time his injury audit ceases. Laughing at the absurdity. Paddy Joe is talking about the day a hay bale tumbled from the top of the barn, striking Joe flush on the head. He was two and a half then.

And Joe remembers another day, vaulting over the handlebars of his Raleigh Chopper bike and snapping his collar-bone. "Wasn't it a right misfortune," says Paddy Joe of the hay bale.

"Jesus I was in misfortune always," cackles Joe. "Always in the wrong place at the wrong time."

This, then, is his inter-county story.

'91: No great drama to recount. Nervous on a day when Tipp just hurled at another level. Marked by Paul Delaney and thankful it wasn't Mike Ryan. All his under-age career, Rabbitte seemed to be barging for space with Ryan. Never got anything soft off him. Delaney proved rattier, but less powerful. No matter. Galway played Pete Finnerty at full-back and were badly burned.

'92: Pretty uneventful. Broke two ribs against Cork in a League game. Got over it. Lost All-Ireland semi-final to Kilkenny by four points. Got over that too.

'93: League game in Ballinasloe, took a belt against Clare. Didn't know it, but a finger was broken. Then, at training in Pearse Stadium, broke another one. Spent the next three months strapping the fingers together. Four weeks before the All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary, broke his hand in training.

Asked them to X-ray a finger as well. Found it to be broken in two places. They cut a corner off a plastic lunch box and strapped it to the hand for protection. Worked a treat. Galway beat a complacent Tipp. But Kilkenny had their measure in the final.

'94: The farce of the Connacht final. Beat Roscommon by 15 points but not before a defender floored Joe and another slammed his cogs into Rabbitte's calf muscle. Burst a muscle. Jarlath Cloonan was apoplectic on the line. Threatened to pull Galway from the field.

They kept the injury quiet for their All-Ireland semi-final against Offaly. But Galway lost, Joe again in agony. No worries. "That's the thing about being young," he says now. "Another year had passed, but it didn't bother me. Because next year was always coming."

'95: Where to start? A League game against Cork at Pairc Ui Roinn. "Some lad pulled." Made pulp of an index finger. They put in a plate and, today, the finger is nearly an inch shorter than its twin. "Sorest thing I ever had," says Joe.

But he wouldn't take pain-killers and hurled away, the index finger permanently erect. Fooling himself. A hot summer left the water in Tysaxon contaminated. Every morning, Paddy Joe boiled the kettle twice so Joe wouldn't run the risk of sickness. Little did they know.

The finger was still poorly so Joe bowed to a need for medication. He reacted badly to the tablets. "Lost a power of weight." Kept on losing it too and went into the All-Ireland semi-final against Clare weighing 13 stone eight. His normal fighting weight was 16 stone. Galway lost. And Joe? "Had nothing" in him.

'96: Another costly Connacht final. Broke his elbow without realising. Should have known. His Mazda 626 had a central arm-rest and each time his arm made contact, it was like an electric shock. "Nearly crashed the car a few times with the pain."

Still, he hurled away. Four weeks later, the All-Ireland semi-final with Wexford was 10 minutes old when a collision with George O'Connor broke his ankle. "Could feel the bones grating." Yep, hurled away still. Mid-way through the second-half, he rose to catch a ball on the edge of the Wexford 'square', was fouled and "felt everything mashing" as he landed.

Joe Cooney's penalty was saved by Liam Dunne and Rabbitte soon hobbled off disconsolate. Drowned his sorrows in French's of Monivea on the Monday night, his foot too swollen for his shoe. Took off the ever-tightening bandage too. "T'was like the ring on a calf's tail." Then went for X-ray. "Do my elbow as well as the ankle" he told the doctor.

"Want the good news or the bad news?" smiled the doctor, later. "I doubt there's any good news," said Joe. "You're right" said the doc. "We're going to have to operate on the elbow too."

'97: A short year and not so sweet. Another Connacht final nightmare. Roscommon beaten by 37 points and Joe Rabbitte hospitalised with a fractured skull. Had to stop hurling for three months. "Give it up altogether," advised the specialist.

Didn't you even contemplate that?

"Aw no. Never had a notion. Like, even if I never hurled with Galway again, I had a good club side to play for. I mean we've won three All-Ireland Clubs since that."

But weren't you concerned about your long-term health?

"Aah long-term health" he shrugs (laughing). "Sure who knows about their health? You take one day at a time. Whether you break an elbow or a leg, the old saying still applies.

'If you were to get killed in the road, you could go to America in a tub!'"

'98: Time to divulge a secret here. You see, to this day, Cyril Farrell doesn't know it. "I'll show you the wall I fell off," says Joe, standing at the kitchen window. And he points to the back of a shed. It is at least 18 feet high and backing onto a public road.

On the Thursday before they played Waterford in the All-Ireland quarter-final, Joe and a friend were building the same shed. And a slipping girder knocked him from the highest point onto the road below. He could, maybe should, have been killed there and then. But he escaped intact, except for a few cuts and bursting the sack in his heel.

So - without telling Farrell - he got someone to freeze the heel and hurled away, no feeling behind his toes. Hurled well too. But Waterford won by 10.

'99: No personal dramas, he can immediately recollect. No consolations either. Lost a replayed All-Ireland quarter-final to Clare.

'00: Beat Tipp in the quarter-final. Doing nicely against Kilkenny in the semi, until DJ knifed a goal. Then the heads dropped. Injuries? Nothing much to tell. Em, except he broke his foot in the county final when hit by a team-mate's hurl.

"Why'd you hit me?" he asked in, admittedly, more colourful language. "I saw a white sock" said the culprit.

'01: Most of it you already know. Except maybe the thumb he broke two weeks before the All-Ireland final. They told him not to say anything for fear of giving Tipp a target. So they strapped it up. And Rabbitte hurled away. Sore again and beaten again.

'02: He didn't start a Championship game for the first time in 12 summers. And that needled. "I was the blood-sub last year," he chuckles, with a thin smile. Injuries? Just a thumb broken during a challenge against Waterford in May. Otherwise fit. But seemingly unwanted.

So that's the county audit. Or at least what he can remember. You ask about his nose? Broken "at least" five times. And stitches needed? "Never too bad with stitches," he says, though remembering those responsible for scars on his forehead and above the left eye.

Funny thing, he never lost a tooth to the game. Not that he would have minded, though. "Some lads would say they'd rather break a finger than a tooth," he smiles. "But you could hurl with a tooth missing. That's the way I would look at it.

"With me, breaking a tooth wouldn't have made anything any better or any worse."

He is unsure whether he'll travel to Salthill tomorrow. After 12 unbroken summers of involvement, it might be easier to keep a distance. And Galway-Tipp will be hard enough on the nerve-ends, without having to answer peoples' questions.

It's been quiet in Tysaxon these past days and, right now, that quietness suits him. He feels privileged to have hurled with men like Finnerty, McInerney, Keady, Lynskey, Treacy and the peerless Cooney. Better still, he feels energised by the chase for another "county cup" with Athenry.

Rabbitte looks trim and sounds genuinely contented.

"I'll stay hurling for as long as I'm physically able," he smiles. "I got a lot of breaks in my time, but I got no breaks from referees (laughing). Look, I'm just getting on with my life."

An old soldier with the marks of history in his bones.

Match preview - Pg 18

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