The worth of Richie Hogan in his current patched-up incarnation? Former Kilkenny goalkeeper Michael Walsh offers a succinct appraisal.
“Whatever he is or he isn’t, he brings so much experience and cleverness to the whole thing and it gives everyone in the dressing room a lift to see a fit Richie Hogan playing,” said the two-time All-Ireland - winning goalkeeper on local radio there recently.
“Whatever he is or he isn’t” — a remark that provides the perfect starting point from which to asses the Richie Hogan of now, the Richie Hogan from the first half of this decade, the injuries and obstacles he’s had to overcome in the intervening period, and what impact he can bring to Sunday’s final.
Richie Hogan, as we all know, hasn’t been Richie Hogan for well over three years now. The magic is more sporadic now, minutes spent inside the whitewash significantly less than when he was putting away All-Stars at near-breakneck speed.
Cast an eye back to Kilkenny’s All-Ireland quarter and semi-final victories — one offering a reminder of the damage the 2014 hurler of the year remains capable of inflicting, the other highlighting how injury has blunted, ever so slightly, the tip of his spear.
Against Cork, which was his first championship start since the previous year’s All-Ireland quarter-final, he’d wrap over two first-half points before poaching the killer goal a minute after the restart to shove Brian Cody’s charges in front. 1-2 in the pocket, there was a slight shake of the head from the Danesfort man when withdrawn after 50 minutes. Frustration, perhaps, at being called ashore during a game where he had conjured up the form of old.
“It’s huge what Richie contributed to that game and a huge ask for him to do it for 70 minutes,” said Brian Cody afterwards, mindful not to overstrain a player who’s spent more time than most on treatment tables and adhering to rehab programmes.
The semi-final was a different story.
From the first 10 plays he was involved in, Hogan was twice off-target and blocked down on the third occasion he took aim at the Limerick posts, while three times he miscontrolled the sliotar.
It came as no surprise so when he was shown the curly finger just after the three-quarter hour mark.
Former Kilkenny centre-back Brian Hogan spent seven seasons sharing the same dressing room as his namesake and doesn’t believe the corner-forward’s confidence, going into the Tipp clash, will have been affected by a poor semi-final showing.
“Richie is mentally very strong. He’ll have forgotten about the semi-final going into Sunday. Maybe young lads might carry it with them going into the final, but I wouldn’t have any fears about Richie,” said the 2011 All-Ireland winning captain.
The general consensus in Kilkenny would have been that if we were going to make a drive for the final and to win it, ultimately, we were going to need him back.
“TJ has been doing what TJ does, shooting the lights out and all-round dominating games. But as the season moves on, you need support around him and you can see the impact Richie has made, just even his presence on the field. As a defender, if you see Richie drifting around, you are a bit more conscious because it is Richie and that in itself will create that half a yard more space for the likes of TJ, Colin [Fennelly], and Walter [Walsh].
“Potentially, he might only play 50 minutes of the final, as was the case in the last two games, but Richie on his day could do more in 50 minutes than most lads would do in 70 or 80 minutes.”
That we are even discussing the possibility of him lining up behind the Artane Band on All-Ireland final day is testament to the resolve of the 31-year old in negotiating the litany of hurdles put in front of him during his time in black and amber. Among the blows, he endured during the early years of his inter-county career was a broken finger, torn ankle ligaments, damaged ribs, and a collapsed lung.
He was unable to walk on the Friday before the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final because of a prolapsed disc in his back. Painkilling injections were required to get him through the game.
The September morning after that year’s final win, he revealed he had not trained with the rest of the panel since the beginning of August.
Three bulging discs in the base of his back and the damage being done by the countless round-trips from Dublin to Kilkenny — he was teaching at Belgrove NS in Clontarf at the time — led to Hogan putting the day-job on hold in Easter of 2016 in a bid to prolong his inter-county existence. Hurling was, is his life.
No immediate turnaround did it bring, however, as a broken bone in his hand in May of that year meant he missed their Leinster semi-final against Dublin. He’d clip five points when introduced at half-time in the provincial
decider and while he finished that year by collecting a third consecutive All-Star, injury pushed him to the periphery thereafter.
In the 17 championship matches Kilkenny have played over the past three summers, Hogan did not feature in six, starting seven of the remaining 11. In only one — the 2018 quarter-final, a game where he hit 1-3 — did he last the 70-plus minutes.
Calculator out, he’s averaged just over 36 minutes of game-time per championship fixture since 2017.
Where the league is concerned, he spent the sum total of an hour and a half inside the whitewash across 2018 and 2019.
To have worked himself back onto the starting team from that position is, in the words of Brian Hogan, “phenomenal”.
“I can relate to Richie to a small extent because in my final year with Kilkenny (2014), I had back problems,” Hogan continues.
“It was the first time I ever had issues with my back. It is the most frustrating injury because if you get a hand or foot injury, you can manage it and in some cases play through it. Your back, you need it for every facet of the game, twisting, turning, collisions, everything. There is no protection for your back. If your back is not right, you are not right.
Mentally, it can take a toll because you are doing all the right things and yet it is still lingering and can come back at you at any time. That is the most frustrating part of having back problems.
“No one really knows the full extent of his back problems only himself and the medical team. But we know enough to know that they have been pretty debilitating. Himself and TJ were the talismen and for him to be knocked to the extent he was because of a series of injuries, it has to take its toll. It speaks volumes of the guy, of his mental strength and resilience, that he is back.”
In June of 2017, Richie said: “I’ll sweep streets for 50 years if I can hurl ‘til 35.”
Whether he can squeeze another four seasons out of himself, at the top level, is questionable, but if he can leave his mark on a 12th All-Ireland final win during the Cody era, you’d imagine he’d sweep happily thereafter.