It’s hard to think of Tommy Walsh as a veteran, one of hurling’s old-stagers, yet as the Allianz Hurling League kicks off this weekend, a veteran he is.
He’s gone past the 30 mark, has six league medals to his name already, seven senior All-Ireland titles, eight Leinsters and nine All Star awards to become one of the most decorated players the sport has ever seen.
And yet again, you look at him and the freshness is still there, not just his features but his eagerness for another season. He has a friskiness you’d expect more from the kids on the Clare team Kilkenny meet in Cusack Park tomorrow than from a guy who has done it all over and over and over again.
“It’s brilliant, we can’t wait. We’re going down to play the All-Ireland champions in their own backyard. They have been part of two great All-Ireland finals against Cork and there was a lot of talk about it over the winter,” he said.
“I thought they were outstanding games. The skill level was unbelievable, great points scored from all angles, different tricks and that as well. It was a fantastic spectacle. It’s exciting for us now going in from a different angle. Usually we were the guys going in as All-Ireland champions and people loved coming to play us. Now we can’t wait to go down and play Clare, testing ourselves against the best team in Ireland.”
And the best team in Ireland Clare undoubtedly are, Kilkenny’s haul of titles over the last 13 years notwithstanding.
“They’re used to winning, won two Munster minor titles, three of the last five All-Ireland U21s. As any hurling folk out there will tell you you can’t beat winning. It’s a great habit to get into. Even if you’re only winning be a point that will bring you along further down the line.
“They’re in that mode now. The challenge is to beat them, make them start doubting themselves again. But they’re definitely a great team.”
It’s stretching things to say that Kilkenny are now playing catch-up but, says the Tullaroan tiger, things are definitely evolving in hurling, for all teams.
“It’s a matter of adapting. We all do the same training but it’s so scientific at the moment. Everyone watches their diets so everyone’s the fittest and the fastest that they can be. You’ll never really see anyone overweight hurling anymore.
“I think we’re all at the one level. Obviously there’ll be some players that are faster than others, some teams faster than other teams, but you have to play to your own strengths.
“When we were on top everyone was saying that you have to have a big strong physical team to win an All-Ireland against Kilkenny. Now everyone is saying you need a small fast team to keep up with Clare. People summarise their opinions based on the All-Ireland champions.
“If we’re having the same conversation next year we’ll be talking about the skills of the All-Ireland champions of 2014. I just think you have to adapt to the strengths of your own team and everyone has their chance. There’s more than one skill, it’s not just speed.”
There’ll be new faces on the line for Kilkenny this year, new to inter-county management at any rate but both Derek Lyng and James McGarry are both very familiar to Tommy.
“The number one thing with management is respect and if you have respect for them then you’re there already. As players Derek Lyng and James McGarry would have led by example and we as young fellas coming in would have looked up to them fierce.
“They have the same respect now going forward as management, we’ll look up to them and hopefully they’ll steer us in the right direction.”
Another familiar figure is Henry Shefflin, now 35 but like Tommy, as hungry and as eager as ever. Ominously too, after enduring four different serious career-threatening injuries, Henry is fitter now than he’s been at this stage of any season in nearly a decade.
“An iron man, definitely. Henry is after putting in a lot of hard winters on his own in the gym, doing a lot of lonely work which no player really enjoys.
“He’s back where he wants to be now, out on the field with everyone else, enjoying the hurling, enjoying the craic as well. I wouldn’t have liked to see him going out [the way it ended in 2013, sent off against Cork] as he did very little hurling last summer. He had no chance to prove whether he was still at the top of his game or not. This is a great year for him now.
“He has a full pre-season done and he’s getting all the hurling in which is more important. Last year is gone, we’re going to focus on Sunday and we’ll hope to get off to a winning start.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved