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Tipp's slow burner finally catches fire

FROM the wreckage of their harrowing defeat to Waterford in last year's All-Ireland semi-final, Tipperary supporters took comfort in the knowledge that a fresh crop of talent was filtering through.

Seamus Callinan was already a star in the making. Other All-Ireland winning minors from 2006 and 2007 were following in his wake: Padraic Maher, Seamus Hennessy, Pa Bourke, Brendan Maher, Noel McGrath. They studied the names and concluded that winter could not pass quickly enough.

Almost as an afterthought they lumped Pat Kerwick in amongst them. Kerwick had been on the fringes of the senior panel since 2006 and, by last summer, had become a bit-part player on the team. His arrival coincided with so many of Tipperary's starlets that it was easy to assume he was among their vintage. He shared several of their qualities too; he was quick and skilful, raw but with time to learn.

Except that he didn't have that much time at all. Not compared to the likes of Callinan and McGrath anyway. When he made his championship debut against Cork in last year's Munster championship, Kerwick was already 26, only four months younger than Eoin Kelly, older than nearly half of Tipp's starting 15. Today he starts his fourth successive game in the half-forward line, yet to experience the satisfying feeling of completing a full 70 minutes.

In a sense he is an intriguing anomaly. A landmark All-Ireland final brings together two of the game's big three, a gathering of hurling thoroughbreds who have been groomed for such occasions almost from the time they could walk. It's hardly much of a coincidence that the two teams who have dominated underage hurling this decade, winning five of the last eight All-Ireland minor titles between them, should meet in today's senior decider and not that shocking to learn that of Kilkenny's starting 15 only PJ Ryan cannot boast of holding at least one underage All-Ireland medal.

Unlike any of the 29 players he will accompany in the parade, Kerwick has no inter-county underage career to speak of. Nothing. Not a trial or even a sniff of one. It is true that Paul Curran never won even a provincial medal at underage but Curran had won a county title with Mullinahone by the time he was 20. It is true too that Lar Corbett didn't make the minor grade for Tipp, but Corbett was a senior even before he was an U21. They were prodigies at a time when Kerwick wasn't even on the map.

Why, at 27, his face should suddenly fit is an interesting question. Though Babs Keating introduced him to the panel at the beginning of 2006, Kerwick didn't flourish under Keating's stewardship. During a radio interview after the semi-final, Keating offered his considered view that the Tipp attack lacked the balance traditionally associated with All-Ireland winning teams and, in that assessment, you could understand why Kerwick fell short. Tipp, Keating would have felt, already had enough Pat Kerwicks to be going on with.

Keating would be far from alone in that assessment. For many, the void left by Declan Ryan in 2001 has never been properly filled. Jack Bergin, a selector under Ken Hogan and Michael Doyle, recalls that Kerwick was always on their radar -- a nice hurler with unreal pace -- but mentions too that he was a little bit light. He had qualities, but they weren't compelling ones.

In Killenaule, where they know him as Festy, there is pride and relief that Kerwick, through a combination of patience and persistence, is finally getting his due reward. They didn't seethe at the injustice of his omission, but the feeling in south Tipperary that they get a raw deal when it comes to the county team has always persisted. It's no accident, they imagine, that the hurlers they have produced over the past 20 years have tended to be great ones: John Leahy, Paul Shelly, Eoin Kelly. Coming from the south, you had to stand out. And for all his talent, Kerwick simply never stood out.

That's the way it is, says Tadhg O'Connell, Killenaule club secretary. If you're from the south you have to be very good to get on. That would be the perception down here. If you look at it over the years not too many from south Tipperary get on.

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Frank Kearney's earliest memory of Kerwick is of watching him produce a man-of-the-match performance in a Munster final for Scoil Ruain's first-years in the mid-1990s. Kerwick was small and light and agile and played in goal. Two years later, he completed his Junior Cert and left school to qualify as a bricklayer. Kearney can't say with certainty that leaving school early hindered his hurling development. But it couldn't have helped.

In Scoil Ruain, it's a huge source of pride that the Tipp panel contains six former pupils: Kerwick, Eoin and Paul Kelly, Declan Fanning, Paul Curran and Brendan Cummins. "We'd be a bit resentful down here at times," says Kearney. "We don't get much credit for what we do. If we were a big school like St Flannan's or Thurles CBS, we'd be mentioned everywhere. We've had serious players on the Tipperary team over the years but because we're not St Kieran's we tend to get overlooked."

For Kerwick, it has been much the same story. He was a star at all grades for Killenaule but the club lacked the kind of quality to bring him to wider attention in the county. He might have been promising but he was no Eoin Kelly. Unlike Tipp's most famous prodigy, he couldn't carry mediocre teams on his own.

Over the years, though, the local hurling landscape changed. Killenaule started punching above their weight at underage level and now they have a serious team at senior level. Two weeks ago, Mullinahone narrowly pipped them in the south final, a defeat that was as grievous as it was unexpected. Kerwick ran the show for Killenaule, amassing five points from play and, had Kelly not run amok at the other end, they figured it would have been a match-winning contribution.

Still, they remain among the favourites to claim a first county title and the increased exposure has stood to Kerwick. "You see the likes of Declan Fanning coming through in the past few years and that's helped Pat enormously," says O'Connell.

"His club form has propelled him to the county team. There's no question about it. You can see how much he has matured. He's much more relaxed and confident these days."

It came as no surprise to O'Connell that Kerwick's best game for Tipperary came in the All-Ireland semi-final on his first start in Croke Park. The big field was tailor-made for his relentless running game. Given a dry sod, O'Connell can easily see Tipp's forwards disrupting the rhythm of Kilkenny's backs upon which the three-in-a-row champions so thoroughly rely. The weather gods need to be kind, though. A wet, blustery day will only suit the battle-hardened team.

Nor can he see Kerwick or Tipp changing their style now they are confronted with the power and brawn of the All-Ireland champions. Keating once told the story of how Paddy Leahy approached him before the 1964 All-Ireland final and told him his job was to ensure Seamus Cleere, Kilkenny's imperious half-back, didn't clear any ball. To imagine Liam Sheedy issuing such a dictat to Kerwick or Callinan or John O'Brien is difficult. There is little evidence to suggest such a task is within their compass.

For Kerwick, as much as Noel McGrath or the other kids he has been unwittingly associated with, today represents a serious leap into the unknown. Tipperary know that. Again O'Connell wasn't surprised when Kerwick was withdrawn 10 minutes from the end of the semi-final: He'd run himself into the ground. His legs gave way. Maintaining that level of energy and commitment for 70 minutes has proven so difficult against other teams that logic dictates it should be near impossible against Kilkenny.

It was also noticeable in earlier games that when Tipp built up big leads and then faded it was in their half-forward line that their problems were most pronounced and where most of the question marks remain. When Kerwick was brought on in the Munster quarter-final against Cork he faced Sean Og O hAilpin who had recovered from a shaky start and, against the elemental force of the Na Piarsaigh defender, Kerwick struggled to impose himself.

Today he is likely to face the commanding presence of John Tennyson and he will need to be better even than he was against Limerick to cope. Kerwick missed the war of attrition between the teams that was the league final in April through injury and if today's contest turns the same way, as is eminently possible, how do we imagine he will fare? O'Connell has few fears.

He's surprisingly tough and wiry, he says. "He tends to get knocked about a fair bit but he's always been able to withstand tough challenges. He'll bounce off the ground and get straight back up. He's as honest and genuine as they come. He gets the ball, puts the head down and takes the direct route for goal. He appeals to people. He's a positive player."

Truthfully, they can't say how the day will unfold. It could devour him or it could be the making of him. The magnitude of the task facing them is as huge as any facing a Tipp team for generations and yet they'll remember Mark O'Leary's two goals in the 2001 final and remind themselves that big occasions often throw up the unlikeliest of heroes. And, given where he has come from, there would be no hero more unlikely than Pat Kerwick.

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