Sport Hurling

Tuesday 12 December 2017

'You ok for Walsh Cup?' -- how Cody said 'well done, Wally'

Walter Walsh gets away from Iarla Tannian to set up a Kilkenny attack
Walter Walsh gets away from Iarla Tannian to set up a Kilkenny attack
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Just Wexford's rotten luck that, when Walter Walsh stands on the riverbank where the Barrow meets the Nore, he's looking across the water at New Ross. Worse, he's not even your typical Kilkenny child. He didn't come into the world with a childhood crush of hurling.

'Wally,' as he's known, was good enough at rugby to make a Leinster U-16 development squad as a kind of goofily tall out-half-come-full-back. He was still playing provincial cup with New Ross last winter.

But what Walter did on the Wexford side of the river always emitted a slightly different temperature to what he got up to where the stripey men roam.

That Leinster business got knocked on the head so he could win an All-Ireland minor medal in '08 and, frankly, it looks as if New Ross have just seen the last of him now too.

Down in the lower intestines of Croke Park last night, when 'Wally' was asked if Brian Cody had paid him any compliments after that startling 1-3 championship debut contribution, his response was quintessential Kilkenny.

"He just said well done and asked me was I ok to play Walsh Cup next year," smiled Walter impassively. "I said I was!"

Cody is not, traditionally, drawn to the gamble in these matters and there were some who wondered if, perhaps, there was a typographical error in the Kilkenny team released to media last Friday night.

Not least Walsh himself. "I had to look at the team-sheet twice," he told us. "It was a big shock to me as I'd never played with the seniors before.

"I was nervous going out, but it's an All-Ireland final, I suppose most of the lads would be nervous. But I had a few lads having a quiet word in my ear, the likes of Henry and David Herity. Larkin was very good. They got me ready."

Maybe Galway's great achievement this summer was to make Kilkenny question themselves, pretty much to send Edison back to the candle store.

All the accepted wisdoms of Cody's stewardship were, suddenly, placed on a slab and marked for incision. The alchemist in the Kilkenny manager has repositioned his team, not so much as a volcanic force in hurling (they were always that), but as almost a summer weather-pattern.

That aura looked in jeopardy. In the Leinster final and the drawn All-Ireland, they surrendered the physical authority that we had come to view almost as their copyright.

Galway bullied and -- largely -- out-strategised them both days, re-drafting the terms of engagement so that strength in the air no longer seemed to matter.

In any orthodox mind, that would probably have ruled out Walter Walsh, an over-sized kid of 6' 4" without a single minute of senior championship hurling on his CV. But maybe Cody's genius is the contrarian within.

Walsh was a mainstay of the U-21 team beaten by Clare in this year's All-Ireland final and, pointedly, had a rollicking semi-final on Johnny Coen.

Yesterday, when he dumped Coen out over the Hogan Stand sideline almost on top of Anthony Cunningham, you had to imagine a few sirens beginning to wail in the west.

infantile

He'd already made a soaring catch to rifle the day's opening score from play and, suddenly, all the talk of gamble seemed a little infantile.

For Cody, this was just part of an organic process.

"It wasn't really big at all to be honest about it" he said of the decision.

"Obviously you could speculate on it and people were bound to say 'My God, what's this about?'

"But you look at a fella and see how he's going. He's fairly imposing physically anyway for starters.

"He has a huge amount going for him and the opportunity didn't really arise for him to start any other match really, even though he was very very much in the running and he was obviously very heavily involved with the U-21s.

"But, if this was the first round of the Leinster Championship, there wouldn't be a huge amount of speculation at all about, ok Walter Walsh is making his debut for Kilkenny. But because it was an All-Ireland final, ok it's a big thing, it seldom happens.

"You know he hurled himself onto the team. You could be afraid and say, 'My God, you couldn't do that!'

"Or you can just go and do what you think is the right thing to do. I think he proved his worth today. I thought he had a terrific game."

So, if it was a story advancing with the quickstep fiction, Walsh himself was encouraged to read it only as a humdrum rite of passage.

You tried to imagine him sitting there beforehand, that big wide-eyed baby face looking up at a God-like Henry and somehow managing not to faint.

What had the senior players said to the Tullougher Rossbercon clubman? "I can't be telling you that" he smiled like a wise old owl. "That's for the dressing-room."

Team-captain, Eoin Larkin, mercifully allowed us eavesdrop. "I just went up to Walter as I'm sure many of the lads did in the dressing-room and just told him to go and play," explained the James Stephens man.

"Because he's well able. We've all seen it in training over the last number of weeks and months. So, I didn't really have any fears and there wasn't any big sighs when he was named on Friday night."

Maybe 10 minutes before half-time, the King became Walsh's private butler, a magical pick-up on the run and low, silver-tray service towards the left wing, from where big Walter pushed home his second score.

He would snipe a third from broken play in the 53rd minute, his day already soaring into the realm of fantasy.

"It was a dream game for me," he would agree later. "I'm still finding it hard to come to terms with it but hopefully it'll kick in during the week.

"The first point definitely settled me down, because I was a bit anxious. A few balls came in and they hopped out of my hand."

He told us he'd gone to bed early on Saturday night, making sure to get good night's sleep. In the 58th minute, he must have figured he hadn't yet woken.

As TJ Reid went tobogganing in along the left end-line, Kilkenny chairman Ned Quinn was walking towards the fourth official's table with a slip of paper. Wally's work was done.

Fergal Flannery batted Reid's shot into the path of an in-rushing steam-train, Walsh's goal putting Kilkenny 11 points clear and, effectively, safely home.

Quinn turned to Cody as if inviting a rethink only to realise he had just second-guessed an ocean.

The manager erupted in an angry surf of arms, Ned quickly wheeling away and handing over the slip like a man whose fingers were now burning.

So, Wally came striding off to a standing ovation, Cody momentarily making as if to intercept him on his way to the stand.

But the great man stopped just short, suddenly re-gathering his old ways.

And it was the kid's hand that reached across, patting Cody in the chest as a gentle signature on his day.

"Toughest match I've ever played" he told us later.

Wouldn't have known it, looking in.

Irish Independent

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