Tipperary might be champions of effing Ireland, at senior and minor, but the family that did most to put them there won’t be shouting about it. Noel and John McGrath won All-Ireland senior medals with Michael Ryan’s men, and brother Brian captained the Premier to the minor title. It crowned a tumultuous year for the family. But their feet never left the ground.
When we next hear that Tipperary hurling has lost the run of itself, nobody will be pointing fingers at the McGraths.
When the jug is full, these three walk aisy. Nothing you read today will end up pinned on a Kilkenny dressing room door. Or any dressing room door.
Noel sets the tone. “It’s easy to say you’re going to go on and win a few more. But everyone has to start from scratch in January 2017 again and there’s going to be eight, nine, 10 teams looking to win an All-Ireland and everyone has to work as hard as each other and Tipp will be no different to anyone else.”
It’s quickly clear that, on top of Everest, these lads might just about acknowledge a small bit of a slope.
So, desperate measures: an appeal to brotherly rivalry will surely coax big talk. Who’d win a race between you?
Noel: “It would be a slow one I’d say.”
Brian: “Very slow.”
John: “Could take a while.”
Got to be the goalscorer, surely...
John: “I dunno. I’d never have considered myself terrible fast. I wouldn’t say they’d be much in it.”
Ok, bang a high ball down on top of the three of you, who wins it? Brian’s the centre-back, but you’re getting quite the reputation in the air...
John: “I don’t know where that came out of. I had a few good moments. It’s something I worked on a bit. I never considered myself to be strong underage. But it’s something you need at senior. Lads are very physically strong and you’re not always going to get a perfect ball, so you have to be willing and able to fight for it. And win it in the air when it comes.
“Everyone has different aspects they have to work on and that’s one of the main ones I had to work on.”
We’re going to need to need third-party assistance here. With them at the National Ploughing Championships is Henry Shefflin. If these lads won’t talk themselves up, let a man well-qualified step in.
“I’m glad the three of them weren’t there while I was there. That skill level, movement, hurling brain. They just know when to be in the right position. I think that hurling brain comes from a young age. I can visualise them playing in their back garden as young kids. That’s what you see on All-Ireland final day.
“And when you look at some of the scores they get, it’s all wrist work. Years and years of practice. They’re very humble, just get on with the job.
“I grew up in the tradition of the seven Fennellys in Ballyhale. There’s seven McGraths playing in their club team at the moment. It’s special. The family have obviously instilled that love of the game into them.
“We saw the link-up play in the All- Ireland. It was almost telepathic. I think they’re going to be a backbone of Tipperary hurling for a good while to come.”
THE RIGHT BALL
There hasn’t been much time to take stock. The Sunday after Noel and John won the big one and Brian lifted the Irish Press Cup as Tipp minor captain, all three played for Loughmore-Castleiney in the Mid-Tipperary hurling final win over Drom-Inch.
Wednesday after that, senior football, Éire Óg Annacarty accounted for. Last Sunday, another medal, Mid-Tipp football final win over Upperchurch-Drombane. Tomorrow, Drom again, as the winding county hurling championship finally reaches the dead end stage.
At the ploughing with the National Dairy Council, they chat to Ryan Tubridy, Matt Cooper, Alan Hughes for TV3. Everyone wants to know about Noel’s health. His extraordinary recovery.
Chuck in a new job for Noel and a return to UL for John, where he studies Construction Management and Engineering. Not much opportunity to hit pause and rewind.
Noel: “I’ve seen highlights and bits and pieces. I’ve yet to see the full match. But hopefully over the next few weeks when things start to settle down.
Brian: “I had a break and watched the minor on the Wednesday after. I was sitting at home. We don’t have Sky+. The old DVD recorder.”
John: “It hasn’t really sunk in for me yet. With all the games and going back to college and that. It’s good to get back to normality. A busy few days.”
Let’s spool a few highlights.
Nine minutes in, Richie Hogan is bottled up, ball squirts loose. Noel gobbles, spins and slots in a trademark flourish of efficiency. Lightning but unhurried. As if you’d jammed slo-mo and fast-forward at the same time.
In RTÉ commentary, Michael Duignan might be blessing himself. “There’s nobody in the game who does that better than Noel McGrath. So economical. Look at that, just a little turn, short grip of the hurl, little flick of the wrists and over the bar.”
Those wrists. That grace. How much is the McGrath genes? How much sweat and tears?
Noel: “You always have to be working on it, whether it’s going to the ball wall or pucking around.
“But quick striking is one of the main things in hurling. When you have the ball to get it away quick and properly. It’s just something I always work on, and I suppose I’d be hoping to keep the standard of my striking high for as long as I can.”
On 27 minutes, you’re drawn not to the wrists, but to the eyes. Gathering out wide, swivelling away from a pair of minders, taking a moment he doesn’t - shouldn’t - have to survey before bouncing one off the ground to Dan McCormack, in acres. A ball with a message and gift tag.
Noel: “You have to have your head up the whole time and just give the ball to the man in the right position. I suppose from playing in the half-back line and midfield when I was younger, you’re always looking to give good ball into the forwards. So I suppose that’s just stayed with me over the last few years.
“But everybody in the Tipp set-up, it’s drilled into you, the man in the right position gets the ball. That’s just one thing that needs to be done.
John: “You don’t want to be trying potshots from the sideline. You have to work the ball to the right man. If you stick to it, you will create the chances. But everyone has to stick to it, because if one lad goes away from it, it takes from the team.”
On the hour, John was the right man and Noel had the ball.
John: “From playing with him for so many years, you kind of know if you get into the right position, he’s going to see you. I just peeled off my man and got that pass and I had the easy job of sticking it away.
“It definitely helps having played with him so long. That bit of an understanding, just a slight bit more than you might have with some of the other guys.”
Lar Corbett tuned in that wavelength once. As he puts it in his book: “As soon as the ball even looked like heading in his (Noel’s) direction, I was off and running.”
Noel: “You have to try and connect with everyone that’s on the pitch with you. Some players connect better. Looking back, myself and Lar clicked from the minute we joined up together on the panel.
“But I think we had a team this year that clicked. A panel of 34 players who all clicked and pulled in the right direction. And that’s what you’re ultimately looking for to win the big prize.”
Would John be quick to let you know if you didn’t give the pass?
Noel: “I’d have to be let know about it by somebody anyway. Because the chance was on and you don’t get too many of them in an All-Ireland final.”
John (smiling): “It probably would have been said to him.”
Brian: “He can see it himself when the pass is on. If he didn’t give it, a few lads would be onto him.”
Noel: “It comes with it. If something needs to be said on the field of play, it needs to be said. There are times when you’ll have arguments and that could be with anyone.”
John: “We’ve matured a bit in the last few years from fighting.”
THE BROTHER AT HOME
It is the age-old GAA truism that trails many a young prospect from good stock: he has a brother at home even better.
The McGraths know the air of that one.
When Noel was under-12, John was on the same team at eight. When John was under-12, Brian was on the team at nine. Between then, they have bags of county medals at all grades.
Noel was winning a Munster senior with the club at 16 and while the county waited for him to come of age, it knew all about the production line behind. Great expectations.
Brian: “You kind of have to block it out.”
John: “People do say it to you. But you can’t be listening to that kind of talk. If you’re putting too much pressure on yourself, you’re not going to enjoy it.
“Lads will always compare the three of us. We might be similar in some ways but we’re different in others. It’s just about fulfilling your own potential.
Noel’s new job takes him into the advice business. A job he’s been training for half his life.
Noel: “It’s an athlete mentor role with Sky Sports Living for Sport programme. Going around to schools giving motivational talks to students. It’s a great free programme for any secondary school in Ireland.”
John: “We wouldn’t be sitting around in the sitting room having big chats about things. But just before a match you might get a few small words. Or you could be on your way and you might get a text with a few small things. Noel has been there and done it all before myself and Brian and it’s nice to have seen the way he carried himself through the ups and downs and just got on with it, being positive.”
SIX NOEL MCGRATHS
It was a trope that gathered momentum ahead of the All-Ireland final: could Tipp afford Noel and John O’Dwyer in the same forward line?
Afford? As if the artistry-donkey work exchange rate was unfavourable.
Even Eoin Kelly lent weight, though he chiefly meant it as a compliment when he said you can’t have six Noel McGraths.
The younger brothers smile. They’ve heard this one too.
Noel leans ever so slightly on the back foot, but takes it in his stride, like everything.
“To be honest, every year you work as hard as you can. If you listen to what people are saying outside… When we’re in the field inside, there’s probably 15 or 16 forwards on the panel and nobody’s given any different instructions. Everyone has to go out and work and fight for the ball and do the right thing when they get the ball.”
John is first man in with back-up: “Wherever the perception came out of, you mentioned himself and Bubbles, I can’t say I did any more work than either of them. It’s one of these things that caught on somewhere. But if you ask any lads on the panel, every last one of them will say that the boys work just as hard if not harder than anyone else.”
What added value, then, did Michael Ryan bring this year, besides this near-mythical intensity? What took them over the line?
Noel: “It’s hard to put a finger on it. We came up against Kilkenny in a few finals who were at the peak of their powers as probably the greatest team who have ever played hurling.
“It could easily have happened other years. In 2015 we were on the wrong side of a one-point match, in 2016 we were on the right side, in the semi-final. Little small things that click one year and mightn’t in another.”
John was one of those things that clicked this year, not quite last.
“I was on the panel for the Limerick game in 2015 but not for the others. It does hurt and it gave me extra motivation the following year to really give it my all.
“I probably looked after myself a lot better and prepared a lot better and thankfully it paid off. Maybe that year in there gave me the experience to just get up to that extra level.
“Lar was still on the panel and he’d have a word with you about a thing or two. You’d pick up great things off lads like that. I think it really stood to me and set me up for this year.”
If his 3-2 against Waterford in the Munster final announced him to a wider audience, within Tipp the rumour mill whirred with tales of how sick he’d been in the dressing room beforehand.
He plays that down, like everything.
“Ah I just felt a bit faint. It was nothing major. I don’t know how many people I’ve had ask me. They throw crazy stories at you. I just wasn’t feeling great. A bit weak. But the doctor sorted me out fine.
“It was kind of my first big game with Tipp and things went really well for me. And we had a great win. And a team performance. Just thankful.”
THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE
In the last few months Brian has finished the Leaving and lifted the cup in the Hogan. Could life get much better than this? His first instinct is for Tipp’s official captain, Gavin Ryan from Clonmel, whose hamstring denied him the honour.
“When you’re growing, everyone’s dream is to walk up those steps and lift the cup on the biggest day in the hurling calendar.
“But I’d be a man of few words. I wouldn’t be a man for talking. I’d leave it to a few other lads. Just try to lead by example on the field.”
The vision, the reading of the game, is all there. Will he gravitate towards the business end of the field, like the brothers?
“I could be a bit different to the two boys. I see myself in the backs.”
Ready to mark them?
“Ah no, I haven’t tried that yet. We’ll see later on in the year at training.”
For Jim Gavin et al, it’s a mantra. The process. Sticking to it.
John: “That game against Galway, I was very disappointed with how things were going but you’d always kind of say to yourself, keep in the game and we’ll get the chances. And when the chances came, thankfully we took them and we just got through by the skin of our teeth.
“I think that patience all year, just to stay in the game and stay calm and just keep doing what we’re doing, paid off.”
A few minutes after Kevin Kelly’s goal put Kilkenny ahead in the final, while half the country were still thinking ‘here we go, again’, Noel swung a long diagonal to John, who threw one out to Jason Forde to sling over.
John: “You’re going to have parts of the game when it goes against you. You just have to keep your head.
“We were never going to be on top for 70 mins. It was just trying to limit their purple patch. And when they got that goal, lads just had to stay calm and keep making the right decisions and not let them get on top.
“Because so many times they’ve done it. They’ve blitzed teams in that period after half-time, And we’d have been well aware of that. We knew we needed to get back in the game and just stay calm and keep to the process.”
What about Henry? When that goal went in, did he think ‘here we go, again’.
“Not really. Kilkenny never got on top in that game for a full five minutes. How often can you say that?”
HEALTH IS WEALTH
Noel might never stop saying ‘thank you’. For the treatment, the support, the outpouring of affection.
But his shocking news affected them all.
John: “It was hard. Knowing there wasn’t much me or Brian could do only give a bit of support and just do a few things for him around home or whatever he needed. Obviously, you’d be worried. And taken aback a bit. But we’re just thankful he’s ok again and very thankful to all the people that helped him out.
“It was well appreciated. There was nobody hassling anyone. It was all well-wishes. It was nice.”
BORN FOR THIS
On the way home to Cork from the ploughing, beyond Templemore, you turn into Loughmore. Where the red and green flies everywhere beside the blue and gold.
The kids are gone home in the national school, but deputy principal Mary O’Brien is there. There’s a grand pitch now, but she points out the window to the small patch of grass to where the McGraths once led the charge the second a bell went.
The place still buzzes from the Friday after Croke Park, when they landed with the two cups, met by Brendan Maher, who teaches in the school.
A mother couldn’t be prouder.
“So unassuming. They got on with everyone. It was a pleasure to know them. They lived for sport. Put their heart and soul into it.”
She remembers clearly Brian coming to school on his very first day with his hurley. She recalls an earlier day too, a county final in Semple Stadium, Loughmore-Castleiney playing. She looked across in the stand and saw Mary McGrath, Brian in her arms, maybe five days old.
And she remembers not being one bit surprised. Where else would he be?
**The McGrath brothers were part of the National Dairy Council’s ‘Cream Team’ at the NPC.
Find out more at www.ndc.ie, on Facebook/NDCIreland or Twitter @NDC_ie.
Noel was particularly thankful to Thurles Fresh Milk for supplying recovery milk to the Tipperary teams every night after training and for supporting the underage academy that all three of them came through.
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