Browne: Often challenged, never mastered

It was four years ago when Tony Browne sat down with this writer for a long chat about his passion.

Browne: Often challenged, never mastered

“There are nights I’d love to get up to the river,” he said.

“But there are also evenings when you’d be able to scoot out to the river just after training and it’s just the right time of the evening, dusk, you get the evening rise...”

Fishing, not hurling. Browne loved escaping the goldfish bowl that GAA stardom resembles by heading out to the places like Knockaderry and having a few casts.

The silence of a country river, the white noise of a Munster hurling final: they were the two ends of his spectrum.

Even at that point, Browne was considerably older than many of his teammates (when I asked if he ever got cheek from a youngster on the panel, he deadpanned: “Well, they’re all youngsters at this stage.”).

Those team-mates were often left stunned, however, by Browne’s physical conditioning. One player went so far as to say he was almost deflated by Browne’s physique when the team reassembled for collective training one springtime — the Mount Sion man had clearly spent the close season working on his fitness.

He reaped the benefits. A wide-ranging midfielder early in his career, Browne reinvented himself as a sweeping wing-back in the latter half of his tenure in the white and blue jersey.

Not that it affected his eye for a goal: not a great goalscorer, maybe, but Browne scored some great goals for a man operating far from the opposition’s red zone.

He laid the foundations for Waterford’s first Munster title in almost 40 years with a long-range, speculative effort against Cork in 2002, and he sparked the Déise surge for glory with a snap of the wrists against Tipperary in that year’s Munster final.

Almost a decade later he was the one who rescued the Munster final against Cork in 2010, a wing-back a long way from his station:

Browne’s injury-time goal earned Waterford a replay, which they won.

Even in that second game he made a vital intervention, blocking a dangerous Cork attack late on by putting his head where a sensible man wouldn’t put his hurley.

Beyond the vital statistics, Browne’s admirers will be left with a freeze frame of his style — and what a stylist he was. Philosophers often challenge students to define what beauty is, suggesting they say they know it when they see it: Browne was like no other player the way he approached the ball, set himself, and unfolded that unmistakable, long, sweeping swing. It was all his own and would have identified him in a crowd of a thousand hurlers. A thing of beauty but not, as last night’s statement proved, a joy forever.

“I’d like to go out winning something,” he said all those years ago, “I wouldn’t have a chip on the shoulder if I don’t, though.”

There was disappointment when Waterford made the All-Ireland final, but there were other compensations. Three All-Stars. Seven county titles with Mount Sion. Great days when the sun shone in Thurles and the bus was applauded going up through Liberty Square.

The beauty of fly fishing is that you learn something new every day, Browne told me all those years ago: it’s something you never master. You always try to outwit your opponent, to read his mind: that’s the challenge, he said.

And that was Tony Browne the hurler.

Often challenged. Never mastered.

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