Learning you’re about to make your inter-county debut is a big moment in any player’s life.
How about learning that debut will be in an All-Ireland final?
Walter Walsh was at a Kilkenny team meeting before the 2012 All-Ireland replay, hoping for a sub’s jersey. He found out how he was starting the game along with everybody else.
“That was it, there was a flip back sheet said and there it was.
“I was in shock, I was actually embarrassed, I probably went red. I looked at the thing and I looked twice and didn’t know where to look, actually.
“I was 21 at the time, so definitely went home. They (parents) were probably as shocked as I was. You get on with it, the next day is like just on the farm at home, you would be tipping away at that. Nothing too strenuous, you try to take it like another game, that is what people are telling you.
“I probably convinced myself that is what it was, just take it as another game. I was lucky I had my role models around me, Henry Shefflin, Tommy Walsh, they were the leaders of the team. Henry was brilliant. Again, I was playing corner forward, so the task wasn’t that onerous, having lads like that around makes it so much easier.”
It didn’t always run so smoothly. Walsh missed the league in 2013 with tendonitis in the knees, for instance.
“But I soon learnt in 2013 that it isn’t that easy. I was fighting for my place for the rest of that year. In 2014, not that there was too much expectation, but it’s hard to get your place in a Kilkenny team.
“And it has been like that. The competition has been serious since then, and continues to be.”
There were suggestions Walsh was close to a professional rugby career as a kid... “I liked playing all sports, like any young lad. There was a time when rugby was probably my number one, but then they were seasonal.
“Rugby was during the winter and you could manage the two of them. There was a time when rugby was my first sport and if I was training, I would go — rugby or hurling, would probably have went to rugby training.
“I played with New Ross in Wexford. I played 10 a lot, I wasn’t overly tall when I was younger. A lot of people must have thought I must have been a second row. But I played in the backs, a bit at 15 but mostly played at 10. Used to be a kicker as well.
“We had a pretty good team in New Ross — I played with Tadhg Furlong there.”
Walsh acknowledges Kilkenny weren’t among the favourites at the start of the year: “Definitely, I suppose a lot of people would have written us off at the start of the year and even throughout the year, so it definitely was a motivating factor and we used it as a positive.
“When I came onto the panel it was the norm to be in an All-Ireland final, it was expected, not that we took it for granted. We really appreciate it and relish the opportunity to win the All-Ireland.
“Even around Kilkenny you can see there’s a bit more hype than when we were in it more frequently.
“It might work for some lads and not others, but all players like to play, they’re seriously driven to win for themselves.”
The reaction to the semi-final win underlined that drive. “Yeah, I suppose it was a close game as well, and those always bring out that bit more emotion.
“Definitely after the final whistle it was massive, beating the All-Ireland champions. A lot of people would’ve thought they’d beat us — not at their ease, but that they’d definitely beat u,s so it was great to beat Limerick.
“People in Kilkenny might have just saved themselves for the final (in the past) but definitely this year the support has been great.
“Against Limerick and Cork in the quarter-finals and semi-finals it was more than in previous years, definitely. I suppose when you’re not there as much, people start to kind of relish it more.”
That Limerick game, by the way, was one of the toughest Walsh has played.
“I remember, after 20 minutes, being there and looking up and I said ‘how was there only 21 minutes gone’ — but you just find another gear, you get your breath back and you go again. It’s what you have to do if you want to beat the All-Ireland champions.”
It doesn’t get any easier this weekend, of course. Walsh and his teammates face a Tipperary side they know well.
“I was in college with Noel (McGrath), but it’s the same for both of us. You don’t say ‘that’s someone I know’, you want to win the ball no matter who it is.”
By the way, it worked out well for Walsh back in 2012, don’t forget. “Man of the match, yeah it was great but I suppose winning the All-Ireland is what it is all about. It’s not about personal accolades or anything like that.
“If you get man of the match and lose a match, you aren’t pleased. It’s all about winning the match, winning the All-Ireland.” It always is.
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