Saturday Interview: Donal O'Grady
Limerick's veteran leader keen to ensure there is no repeat of 2007 nerves that stifled Treaty
HE'LL be prepared for that guttural roar – this time. Donal O'Grady will play the game, not the occasion. Because he remembers the 2007 All-Ireland final and that cacophony of noise that greeted the Limerick hurlers when they emerged from the tunnel to face Kilkenny.
It was unlike anything O'Grady had ever experienced. He recalls how Croke Park shook. Trouble was, he did too. A laugh, almost six years on, as he wonders if he should have worn earplugs under his helmet.
"I will never forget the noise at Croke Park," O'Grady says. "The stadium shook that day when Limerick ran out and I think it definitely did affect us."
Kilkenny sensed fear, went for the jugular and got the job done quickly. Limerick received another chastening lesson in the big house. But following the dictionary definition of experience – the knowledge of some thing or some event gained through involvement in or exposure to that thing or event – O'Grady knows what to expect tomorrow.
As team captain, he can help insulate the Munster final first-timers against the hype. It might not be an All-Ireland but, with over 45,000 fans packed into the Gaelic Grounds for a provincial final, it won't be far off in terms of atmosphere.
O'Grady and Seamus Hickey are the only two survivors from the team that lined out against Kilkenny in 2007 who will start against Cork. Niall Moran came off the bench, as he's likely to do again tomorrow.
It's a high rate of attrition when you consider that two-thirds of the Kilkenny defence is still present, along with Eoin Larkin, Henry Shefflin and Aidan Fogarty, who also started. Michael Fennelly and Richie Power were sprung from the bench, Michael Rice had number 23 on his back and TJ Reid wore 29.
"My concern is that we have a lot of young players so it is important they are really nurtured," O'Grady says.
"It just got out of control (2007) and it was impossible to stop. And sure, Kilkenny had us lined up. From that point of view I keep driving it home that lads, the reality is that it is a match and what goes with it, goes with it. And we just have to distance ourselves from that."
But Limerick got in some practice after beating Tipp in the provincial semi-final last month. O'Grady admits: "It was great for a few days but I was kind of getting worried a few days afterwards."
The post-match mood was akin to a provincial title success but there was no silverware on the table.
But manager John Allen played it well, releasing players back to their clubs for a week. They were still on a high when they got back to training with Limerick but Allen "soon nailed it," O'Grady confirms. Using the classic psychological ploy, Allen brought his men back down before building them back up again.
"We were in Cork for a training camp and it was down to earth with a bang," O'Grady reveals.
That getaway served two purposes. First of all, it served to refocus minds but it was also the ideal chance to get the hell out of Dodge, which incidentally, is O'Grady's nickname.
It's hard to get away from the build-up. Especially when O'Grady runs a Spar shop in Ballingarry.
"Everyone that comes into the shop, whether they have an interest in hurling or not, asks me about Sunday, but that is part and parcel of it," he accepts.
"I just deal with it and get on with it. God knows what Kilkenny feel like, they are getting it all the time and we are getting just a taste of it."
It's a bubble Limerick could get used to and O'Grady is determined to enjoy it while he can. He's 33 now and fully aware he might not have much time left to win silverware. That inner realisation was reflected in his hurling against Tipp.
O'Grady was on fire at midfield, picking off three points from play on a sweltering afternoon. You wouldn't have known that he missed the vast majority of the National League after breaking his collarbone against Carlow in March.
"I actually was not worried about the (Tipp) match itself in terms of playing, I was worried as to whether my fitness would be okay," O'Grady says. "I didn't play in any league game bar the first one.
"No matter what you do in training, match fitness in championship is a shock to anyone even if they are fit or not. The way the game turned out I felt fine.
"I spoke with John and I would say he had it in his mind not to play me the full 70, but the way it turned out we were holding our own in midfield and things were going reasonably well so I managed to make it through."
It's typical of O'Grady that even when he was out injured, he didn't miss a training session.
"I just felt that as captain, I needed to be around to see what was going on," he explains. "I was able to run after two weeks but there was definitely a concern it would be too late for me and I just made it in time."
But he did and now he views the Munster final as a "big opportunity" for Limerick – "one we have to take".
Provincial glory beckons for the first time since 1996 and O'Grady's seen enough bad days along the way to realise how rare this chance is.
"At times there was a desperately bad vibe and it wasn't good, to be honest," he reflects. "But I think now everybody seems to be pulling in the right direction. Whether that is good enough to beat Cork, time will tell."
But as the man that could be hoisting silverware aloft, O'Grady has dared to dream. He's allowed his mind to wander and wonder what it would be like to end the famine.
"I've thought about this," he concedes. "I'm more interested in the relief of Limerick getting the monkey off the back and winning a Munster title. Genuinely, when I look back in years to come and I won a Munster medal with Limerick, oh my God I'd be absolutely delighted.
"We've contested Munster and All-Ireland finals but we're not winning them and this is a big step for us."
If it does finally come to pass, Donal O'Grady will let it all sink in. Game played, not the occasion.