THERE have been so many occasions at crucial times in crucial games when Padraic Maher has stepped forward to take charge of affairs in the Tipperary defence, that you tend to forget he is still just 22.
An outstanding central player, last year he won an All Star at full-back, a position normally filled by a gnarled and grizzly veteran, while he led his club, Thurles Sars, to a second county title in a row from centre-back, and captained Tipperary to an All-Ireland U21 title from the same position.
A commanding figure then with club and county.
This year, and as they head almost inexorably to a third All-Ireland final meeting with Kilkenny, Maher has played a different role with Tipperary.
He’s moved out from the edge of the square (Paul Curran doing a fine job back there now) and is plying his considerable wares at left-half-back where he can exert far more of an influence on the game. For all his tender years, he’s a superb reader of the game, a big, powerful hurler and a man who would have slotted easily into any Tipp team of any era.
Tomorrow, however, against Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park, he could find himself up against a guy built very much in his own image and likeness, one Liam Rushe.
In the absence of the injured Conal Keaney, Dublin’s own young powerhouse started at wing-forward in their quarter-final win over Limerick, albeit on the opposite wing, but if Anthony Daly chooses to attack Tipperary head-on tomorrow, where better to start? Take on the champions physically, and — says Maher — Dublin are well equipped to do so, especially in front of their home supporters.
“There’s going to be more (at it) than has been at any All-Ireland semi-final for the last couple of years. Dublin are going to be in your face, they’re going to fight you. They’re kind of like Kilkenny, they’re going to stand up and see who comes out on top of the 50/50 battles. That’s real Championship-style hurling. They’re so physically fit and their hurling is after improving no end. In my opinion they’re one of the top three or four teams in the country and capable of beating anyone on their day. The last few times we’ve played Dublin in League hurling they’ve beaten us and beaten us well enough at times. We’ve no illusions about what Dublin are capable of.”
Dublin are missing a few players of course, not least the aforementioned Keaney, and all very well documented this week, but they still have a plethora of forwards capable of doing real damage, not least Ryan O’Dwyer who scored 3-2 in the win over Limerick. Big as Keaney has been for the Dubs this year, O’Dwyer has been a real spark-plug, a guy Maher knows well from having played alongside him before the Cashel native transferred to the capital.
“He’s a changed player. His hurling is after improving and the freedom in his play is unreal. He was sent off in one of the games (Dublin’s Leinster semi-final win over Galway) but he made up for that the last day so definitely he is a changed player and one we have to be aware of. But all the Dublin forwards are top-class players — even with Conal Keaney missing they’re able to bring in the player to fill the gap. Dublin are a different outfit to what they were a couple of years ago and everybody knows that.”
O’Dwyer is one of those fearless forwards who likes to attack a defence, to run at them, and as such instantly endeared himself to the Dublin supporters. He has exactly the sort of gung-ho attitude the underdogs need, sets the example for all to follow — he’s going to take minding. “Definitely. Their half-forward line are big strong men well able to take on players as they’ve shown in the last couple of games. All over the field, even their backs are taking on who they’re marking as well and they’re attacking the ball, getting there first. They’re tenacious players, the Dublin players, and very fit. It’s their first All-Ireland semi-final in years, they’re not going to go down without a fight. But we’re not going to go down without a fight either. We’re not going to relinquish what we won last year so easily.”
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