A true master under the high ball

Tommy Walsh with Tipperary's Lar Corbett and Pa Bourke during the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

Tommy Walsh built his legend in a variety of positions for Kilkenny.

He burst on the scene in 2003 as a wing forward. He played some games at corner back in 2004 but was at home at right-half back and he made his name there over the intervening years. Hurling fans on Leeside got a preview of Walsh’s inter-county promise when the blonde helmetless defender gave terrier-like displays with UCC in the early years of this millennium.

Later, in his distinctive red helmet, he captured the imagination of hurling supporters with his all-action displays, full of skill and determination. He will be remembered for his trademark long left-handed regular deliveries launched from the half-back line as another attack was repelled. He was a master under the high ball and his timing was impeccable, catching his opponent unawares and then soaring into the sky to field another puckout or attacking delivery from the opposition defence.

Walsh’s utter determination and will to win was present in every game and against every opponent. Kilkenny went to war in all matches and Tommy Walsh was a gladiator, winning the crowd with feats of bravery and eye-catching skill. Walsh was a thorn in the side of every opposition as he never knew when he was beaten and he was blessed with the required pace necessary for a modern day wing back.

Followers of American football will often hear commentators use the term “quickness” in relation to a running back who can dance his way through tackles with good balance and quick feet. He possessed this “quickness” of hand and feet enabling him to win ball in rucks and to create space and avoid collisions by dancing smartly away from would be tacklers.

In his armoury were gifts that are the hallmark of great defenders, anticipation and the ability to read the game perfectly.

If the ball was to finish up at point B, Walsh was invariably there as if he possessed a magnet that drew the ball towards him akin to a giant tree in the middle of a golf course attracting the focus of a high handicapper. This was a problem for opposing team managers and coaches.

Bypassing the Kilkenny half-back line always loomed large in the game plan. Playing zonal defence rather than adopting a man marking role suited Walsh’s talents to a tee as he hovered on his own 45m line covering across and funnelling back as the occasion demanded dealing comfortably with any inaccurate deliveries. The only hope a direct opponent had was to break off quickly towards the half way line, receive short ball from his defence or midfield and to run directly at his opponent or to hit long range points.

This tactic may have been part of many game plans to overcome the Tullaroan terrier but they depended on good synchronisation of various components which foundered in the red heat of the championship.

I remember particularly the first half of the All-Ireland final of 2009. The various forwards, operating on the left flank of attack and being directly opposed by Walsh, moved smartly towards their defence offering themselves as outlets whenever Tipp won possession in their half back line. They were ignored. Ball after ball sailed over their heads being continuously fielded by the lionhearted Kilkenny number five.

It was if Walsh was so much in the Tipp defenders subconscious, that they were hypnotised into striking the ball continually to him.

That day as in other days he made it look so easy.

It’s futile to compare players of different eras but he is up there with the very best. He tops the list of the great Kilkenny right half backs — and that’s some list.

He was no angel but what full blooded highly competitive players are?

Inter-county hurling is all the poorer for his exit.


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