Walsh upstages King Henry

YESTERDAY morning, if you were of a gambling bent, you could have had 9/4 that Kilkenny’s Henry Shefflin would outscore Wexford on his own in this All-Ireland semi-final.

Henry finished with 14 points one more than Wexford’s combined 1-10.

What odds then, those 14 points in the bag, that Henry would also have picked up the man-of-the-match award? Several times already this season those who make those decisions have taken just such a lazy and obvious option, gone for the guy who put the scores on the board regardless of how those scores had come (frees, soft scores at the end of big moves), regardless of how that player had been performing generally, regardless of how well someone in a less exalted position has been playing. In fairness to Shefflin yesterday wasn’t one such occasion.

The King was close to his regal best yet he didn’t get the award. Instead, it went to a defender.

Then again, this wasn’t any old defender; this was Tommy Walsh, and boy, did he deserve that honour.

It’s easy to recount the outstanding deeds of the likes of Henry, a blow-by-blow score-by-score account; the derring-do of the swashbuckling Tommy is a little more difficult to detail.

In the first-half he was on David O’Connor, conceding several inches in height and a few stone in weight. Doc, as O’Connor is known among his peers, had come in as second-half sub for Wexford in their quarter-final win over Tipp last week and scored two fine points from wing-forward. Wexford were looking for him to do damage yesterday and Damien Fitzhenry spent much of the first-half raining ball down on this perceived mismatch. It was a mismatch alright – poor Doc did his best, but in the air and on the ground Tommy was supreme.

Into the second half, Wexford persevered with Doc and Doc persevered in his efforts against Tommy while Tommy just persevered. In the 50th minute he produced a magnificent catch of yet another deliberately-aimed Fitzhenry puckout. Two minutes later he was sweeping behind the full-back line to avert a potentially dangerous situation while half a minute he was battling in another quarter of the pitch, alert before anyone else to yet another piece of danger. By the 56th minute that particular contest was over. O’Connor was replaced and young Stephen Nolan introduced.

Stephen is bigger than DOC, and a whole lot bolder. There’s a bit of history between himself and Tommy, recent history. Leinster final, Stephen was one of the few Wexford forwards who made an impression. Most of his 1-5 that day came from placed balls, just one point from play, but himself and Tommy were hard at it from first whistle to last, no quarter asked, given or taken, from either one of them. Seconds after his introduction to this game Stephen took the opportunity to re-introduce himself to Tommy, off the ball, and the resultant shenanigans saw both yellow-carded.

Afterwards, in the bowels of Cusack Park, outside the Kilkenny dressing-room, we waited for a word. We had a feeling it might be difficult – he’s a quiet lad, is Tommy, shy, most unassuming, a reluctant interviewee at the best of times. But surely, we thought, isn’t this just one of those times?

He passed us on his way to collect his RTÉ gong, head down, looking the personification of embarrassment. On his way back the throng had increased with the managers having had their say.

“A word Tommy?” we pleaded, “Half a minute will do us.”

The head stayed down: “Ah no lads – after the final maybe, but not now.”

And so it was left to another young tyro, another who had played a starring role, to speak for Tommy. Cha Fitzpatrick, last year’s young hurler-of-the-year – knows Tommy well and he wasn’t holding back.

“He’s unbelievable. Even in the win over Galway he was a real powerhouse for us. He is probably the most consistent player in Ireland. It’s fantastic to have the opportunity to play alongside him.”

What of Tommy’s ability to contest the dropping ball with the likes of Doc, of Stephen Nolan? “Tommy is just not afraid, not of anyone. He is fearless. It could be a giant. It doesn’t matter – he’s fearless. And he has the skill then, to back that up. He’s a formidable hurler – hopefully he’ll produce the goods again in the All-Ireland final.”

Were they surprised, however, that Henry hadn’t been named man-of-the-match and that it had gone to Tommy?

“We don’t think of things like that, as a team we just try to win every match and things like that are just a bonus for individuals. It’s great for the lads, they deserve all the awards they can get but we’re just delighted to be in another All-Ireland final.”

It does make things much easier, however, when you have the likes of Tommy Walsh on your team. And Henry, and Cha, and Comerford, and Brennan, and, and, and…

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