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sizing up the secret to walsh

THERE IS a running gag among the media about the annual fox-trot that is the Kilkenny hurlers' pre-All-Ireland press night. For 12 of the last 14 years it has been hosted by team sponsors Glanbia in Eamonn Langton's famous hostelry on John Street, where journalists are first treated to a slap-up dinner and then offered a number of carefully selected players who join them after training.

This is the sort of preamble that now accompanies every county involved in an All-Ireland senior final.

Kilkenny, inevitably, wheel out their most experienced and calmest heads.

We try our best to break them down but are about as successful at laying a paw on them as most of their inter-county opponents. We quiz earnestly; they say as little as they can as nicely as possible, and then move on to the next journalist on their dance card.

Kilkenny's 'say nothing' approach to the media is not exceptional but it is particularly disciplined. This is a dressing-room that, despite the explosion of social media in the past decade, appears to have spawned no Twitterati nor even one renegade prone to dropping the occasional verbal incendiary.

Given that, and the regularity of Kilkenny's All-Ireland appearances, their press gig is particularly predictable so everyone jokes that, compared to elsewhere (usually tea and sambos), at least the grub is exceptional.

But there was a surprise this year: the inclusion, among the interviewees, of wing-back Tommy Walsh (29), a man who, while always amenable after big games, tends to let his hurling do his talking beforehand.

Walsh's involvement, completed with an affable grin and a shiner under his right eye, acknowledged that he is now among his team's leaders off the pitch as well as on.

The reaction from some media who had never before got up close and personal with the Tullaroan dervish was noteworthy. "Can't believe he's that small!" a few exclaimed.

By most standards 5ft 10in is not particularly small but, in modern inter-county hurling, and given his exceptional fielding ability, Walsh's stature often surprises strangers.

Powerful

Only one of his team-mates is smaller (Richie Hogan) and one of Walsh's great talents, apart from his immense skill, is his ability to play so much taller and more powerful than he appears.

Like fellow defenders JJ Delaney and Noel Hickey, he proves you do not have to be tall to be a hurling giant.

Like DJ Carey, he was still regarded as small when he first played senior for his school, St Kieran's Kilkenny.

The legendary local nursery lost the 1999 All-Ireland colleges final to a St Flannan's team that included future Clare seniors Tony Griffin, Tony Carmody and Gerry Quinn.

Kieran's featured Tipperary's Eoin Kelly and Offaly's Brian Carroll and, a year later, they reversed that final result with a team improved by the inclusion of Brian Hogan, Jackie Tyrrell and Walsh, with Michael Rice on the bench.

By 2002, Walsh was a Kilkenny senior and has since amassed seven All-Irelands, nine All Stars (uniquely, in four different positions) and Hurler of the Year (2009).

In Tullaroan, home of Lory Meagher and Walsh's famous grandfather Paddy Grace, his prodigious talent was immediately noticed but he didn't lick it off the stones: his father Michael played fullback on the last Tullaroan team to win the county title in 1994.

Walsh's younger brother Murty played U-21 for Kilkenny, Padraig is one of the county's current U-21 stars and younger sister Grace is already starring for the county camogie team. The youngest, Shane (16), is also showing early talent in another sporting endeavour, doing live match analysis and co-commentary for local radio station KCLR.

Tommy has set the bar exceptionally high: a dazzling wing-back whose fielding ability, dogged tackling and inspirational clearances are one of the trademarks of this Cats team.

Trying to get Lar Corbett to stymie him last day was the greatest compliment Tipperary could have paid Walsh, and one of Tipp's own former prodigies is well placed to assess him.

"Jackie (Tyrrell) was at seven, Brian (Hogan) was at six and Tommy was at four," Eoin Kelly recalls of that 2000 Kieran's dream team. "He was small alright but he was already just exceptional.

"I was centre-forward and as soon as he'd get the ball I'd immediately start making a run. Even then he had this ability to turn defence into attack."

People rave about Walsh's skill, bravery and judgment, but his tendency to occasionally pull wildly has attracted some criticism, and he accidentally clipped referee Brian Gavin in last year's All-Ireland final. Yet Kelly notes that Walsh's recklessness usually manifests itself in dogged pursuit of the ball.

"That's the thing about Tommy, he just attacks the ball," he says. "Sometimes if there's a man in the way he will still go for it, because he's just so focused on attacking the ball. He has absolutely no fear of anything.

"I don't think people recognise or praise his skill enough. He's just a pure natural hurler.

"He can hurl left or right, high or low, strike it overhead or on the back-foot. His hurling ability is phenomenal and that tends to be forgotten."

Like most ultra-committed players, Walsh doesn't flinch when he takes hard hits himself, and he gave some insight into his approach at the recent press night.

"If you go back over the last 10 to 20 years, when the hurler gets a belt, 99 times out of 100 he just gets straight back up. That's the way it is at the moment so hopefully it continues," he said.

His comments about getting booked so early in the semi-final also confirmed just how much attacking the ball is his natural instinct.

Loosely

"When you get a yellow so early you have to concentrate that bit harder, you can't throw in the hurl loosely," he said. "You have to really concentrate on not giving away frees. You have to think about defending."

When Galway attacked them with Kilkenny-like ferocity in the Leinster final, the Cats, inexplicably, fell apart.

Injuries did force them to start without first-choice midfielders (Michael Fennelly and Rice) and marquee defender Delaney.

Yet even Walsh looked fallible that day, yielding uncharacteristic turnovers with some fluffed sideline balls.

"You'd think you would learn from the first time but it was just one of those days," he recalled. "The second one went straight to him (Joe Canning), and the third one then I missed it. I wasn't rattled, that's just what happened.

"We just weren't good enough on the day and they just swept us away. We were after coming on the back of a lot of big wins and you have to be focused for every game. We were after beating Dublin two weeks previous by a major score and when we weren't the hungrier team, they just swept us off the park in that first half."

Asked how much he has studied that match, his reply was particularly telling.

"It's very hard to watch videos because you don't see the bigger picture," Walsh stressed. "You don't see much that's going on around, bar what's happening on the ball. Really, you are trying to think back yourself to what happened in the game and trying to learn from it."

Irish Independent