Versatility vital at heart of Kilkenny's defence
The Cats' All-Ireland full-backs came in all shapes and sizes, writes Dermot Crowe
Jack Rochford was the first of a proud line of men who won All-Ireland medals playing at full-back for Kilkenny, 14 in total from Rochford in 1904 to the most recent resident JJ Delaney only last month. Each one is the subject of an appraisal in a book, No 3: The Story of a Kilkenny Jersey, from the pen of Dermot Kavanagh. The author is a keen black-and-amber disciple who was part of an historic Rower-Inistioge team that won the club's only senior championship in 1968.
His focus here is an interesting one with a universal appeal and curiosity. Full back in hurling and Gaelic football has a unique charisma and notoriety, even if in both codes the nature of the role has changed substantially over the period covered in Kavanagh's book.
Of the 14 men featured, seven are dead, and some of the names resonate well beyond the county boundary -- Link Walsh, Diamond Hayden, Paddy Larkin, Pa Dillon. More recently, JJ Delaney and Noel Hickey have modelled the number three jersey with distinction and, of course, the heirloom was also for a time Brian Cody's, a stylist of the genre who like many of the other occupants had a facility to hurl in different positions.
Aside from offering a biog of each full-back privileged to win a medal in that position, Kavanagh's work also presents a concise history of Kilkenny hurling. As the generations change so did the job specification. It has long stopped being a straightforward policing of the square. The end of the third-man tackle also had a major influence on full-back play, reducing the emphasis on brute force. The famous 50-year-old photograph of an airborne Ned Power fielding spectacularly for Waterford, with Christy Ring and Waterford full-back Tom Cunningham wrestling furiously on the ground, is redolent of a wild and bygone age. Protecting the goalkeeper by hook or by crook was paramount.
There is still scope for dynamic full-back play but it is less traditional and great leaps and driving clearances are not as evident as they once were. When they do occur is there a more visceral thrill than seeing a full-back outfield his opponents and make a sweeping clearance? As Kavanagh attests, there is no "template" for the successful full-back -- they come in "all shapes and sizes".
He notes how Rochford was "lithe and sinewy" and Larkin, the first of three generations of All-Ireland medal winners, stood at a relatively unprepossessing 5' 7". Pa Dillon stood at 6' 2". Link Walsh -- an inspiration for Noel Hickey who came from the same parish -- is depicted as "burly" and Cody "tall and languid". Hickey, at 5' 10", is "granite-like" and Delaney is described as "fleet-footed".
More broadly we learn that they have come from diverse backgrounds. It is not a surprise to find that the greatest proportion were farmers, six; the group also included a tailor, a baker, a plasterer, a driver, a teacher, an industrial employee, a road surface contractor, and a college graduate. Johnstown, one of 36 Kilkenny parishes, laid claim to three -- John Holohan, Nicky Orr and Delaney. Eight other parishes are represented.
There's some irony in the fact that the full-back chosen on the hurling team of the century, Kilkenny native Nick O'Donnell, doesn't make Kavangh's book as he hurled his best years for Wexford. O'Donnell -- who won All-Irelands in 1955, '56 and '60 -- earned a place on the team of the millennium as well. In 2000, a Kilkenny hurling team of the century was named with Pa Dillon listed at full-back.
Wexford's dominance was stalled spectacularly in 1957 in the Leinster final by Kilkenny, helped by Link Walsh's smothering of Nicky Rackard, even if Rackard was on the downward slope. Walsh differed, the author informs, from his contemporaries, "those players mixed the close exchanges, which characterised full-back play, with high catches and long clearances. Jim, on the other hand, limited his duties to providing Ollie Walsh with as much cover as was possible, and permissible, in the belief that such an approach best suited the situation. Over time, he developed a style of play that was marked with an excellent positional sense, employing deft flicks and neat touches out of the danger area."
Two years later, he inadvertently diverted a shot from Waterford's Seamus Power past Ollie Walsh into his own goal and the score sent the All-Ireland final to a replay. Kilkenny lost the next day but Walsh's status was not undermined. Said the iconic Ollie Walsh in 1957 when asked to name the best full-back then playing: "They are all good, but give me 'The Link' any time."
As for Rackard, he had a soft spot for Diamond Hayden who won an All-Ireland in 1947. They went on to become good friends. "I have met some good full-backs, tough full-backs and friendly full-backs," stated Rackard, "but in all my years I have met only one Diamond Hayden. For about eight years Diamond and I used to clash regularly. I always enjoyed playing on the brave Diamond for he was a great piece of stuff. He was no parlour hurler but he never did me a mean stroke."
The briefest serving full-back of the 14 was Cha Whelan who spent only for a few months there in 1963 but long enough to win Leinster and All-Ireland medals. The 1960s is more associated with Pa Dillon who starred in '67 when they overturned their huge rivals and nemesis Tipperary. Dillon is the oldest surviving All-Ireland winning full-back and he is linked to the first, Rochford, whom he recalls meeting when only 12. Dillon played in six All-Ireland finals, five at full-back.
Among the full-forwards who Dillon faced were Tony Doran, Mackey McKenna, Ray Cummins, Seán McLoughlin, Roger Ryan and Jack Berry. "Life was never carefree on the edge of Pa's square," the author states. "He would not have wished it otherwise."
Others who served in this critical position include Nicky Orr -- a winner in 1974 and '75 -- and Paddy Prendergast, who won an All-Ireland in '79. John Holohan was there when Kilkenny won the 1922 final against Tipperary and he was succeeded by Peter O'Reilly, who won three medals in the 1930s.
One of the more unsung, a player who made a telling impact but little noise, is Pat Dwyer. In the words of Kavanagh, Dwyer was "tall, agile and deceptively strong and possessing an abundance of hurling skills, allied to an ice-cool temperament."
Which is pretty much what it should say on the tin.
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