A couple of weeks ago, against Cork in Páirc Uí Rinn in the opening round of the Allianz Hurling League, Brendan Cummins began his 19th competitive season in the Tipperary goalkeeper’s jersey, the most onerous position in any sport. It almost didn’t happen.
In the All-Ireland semi-final last August he was beaten four times as Kilkenny romped to a record win over Tipperary, 4-24 to 1-15. On his darkest day in the blue and gold it tempted thoughts of retirement.
“I thought after the game that could be the end of it. I even had a look around the place as I left, said goodbye to the stewards and all the fellas I was good friends with over the years,” he said. “But I had always said I’d like to give the jersey back in better condition than when I got it and that, obviously, wasn’t the case leaving Croke Park that day.
“It really hurt. It really smarted. I’ll never forget it to be honest. This team had won four of the previous five Munster finals and some of those comfortably enough, so we have a good generation of players. To see them go through that, to see the thing just falling asunder on the day.
“I think 11 or 12 minutes into the second half we were level, then the floodgates opened. We were only hanging on, Kilkenny eventually realised ‘These lads aren’t at the pace!’ and they proceeded to take us asunder. We couldn’t stop the rot.”
Several months on and the wounds are as raw as they were in August.
“It shouldn’t have happened to this group of players but on the field we have to take responsibility as well, the guys between the lines, whether it be me letting in Taggie Fogarty’s shot or a player not hooking or blocking. We all have to take our share of responsibility. It’s character-building. Your role as a player is to face up to these things and that’s where we’re at.”
And that was why Brendan is back for another season, looking to extend his record 71 SHC appearances. He’s a goalkeeper that doesn’t turn his back but stands tall, confronts. This Sunday, Tipperary again meet Kilkenny in the league and if anything the problems from that August defeat have been compounded with big losses in their last two outings, against Clare in the Waterford Crystal final and Cork in that league opener. Whatever about the Clare loss, the beating from Cork really hurt.
“It was a long trip back on the bus,” he said.
“[It was] hard to sleep on Saturday night after being beaten by that much [0-26 to 1-11]. But your thoughts are more solution-based than worrying about the hole you’re in. It’s how you’re going to get out of it.
“You’ve got to look at yourself as a player and ask yourself these questions — ‘what can I do different?’, ‘what can I do to influence training?’, ‘what impact can I have on others?’. That’s important as an older player. You have to be that way and this group of players are like that. We will get our heads around this and start building for Limerick in the championship. I believe these guys are still capable of doing something and I want to be part of that.”
New manager Eamon O’Shea, Brendan believes, is exactly the man to help turn things round and his appointment was another major reason why he is back for another season.
“Having worked with Eamonn before [coach 2008-2010] he definitely made me a way, way, way better player than I thought I ever could be.
“I believe in what Eamonn is doing and what he is trying to achieve with the group so obviously the carrot was there to try and give it another go. Like every other player I just put my name in the hat and hopefully I can do enough to keep my place.”
This Sunday then, against the old enemy, Brendan expects a response to all the recent adversity.
“God you would, for the Tipp people going to the game. No better challenge for us. Kilkenny are on the rebound from a defeat. They’ll be smarting as well. This will add an extra bit of spice to the game on Sunday which is what we want, we want tests and challenges. If we learned anything from the Cork game it’s that we need to work harder. Hopefully that’s the way it will be on Sunday.”
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