Tipperary Supporters Club

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Co. Tipperary

Colm Keys: Noel McGrath has the air of The Shawshank Redemption’s Andy Dufresne about him

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In his 15th season, the Tipperary hero continues to defy more modern conventions as he possesses gifts you just can’t coach

Source: Independent.ie

Watching Noel McGrath unfurl his array of weighted and angled passes across Páirc Uí Chaoimh on the night they played Cork in their Munster SHC round-robin game brought to mind the genius of Phil Mickelson with a wedge in hand 150 metres or so from a green.

As it happens, Mickelson is known to carry three wedges in his bag, at the expense of other clubs, giving him options with loft and spin to pull off short-game shots no one else can.

McGrath has just his hurley with no ridges to tailor height or kickback, but the relative impact is often the same.

There was his 21st-minute lift with the softest of hands to set up an Alan Tynan point, a spinning 39th-minute cross-field pass to Séamus Kennedy to open up for a Conor Stakelum point, his trademark direction-changing handpass – remember the 2010 All-Ireland final against Kilkenny and Lar Corbett’s third goal – into Gearóid O’Connor’s path for the second Tipp goal. And then his low-tracking slicer into Mark Kehoe for another point. And on and on it went.

Like Mickelson, McGrath has defied expectation that the game, with all its athletic and physical advances, would eventually consume him, that glorious wrists and vision would not be enough to negotiate the ever-increasing congestion of the roads he routinely travels.

​But he was their best player, along with Dillon Quirke, in a forgettable 2022 Munster Championship, and as captain this season, he has thrived. Stealth clearly trumps the traffic.

Put it to David Kennedy, his former Loughmore-Castleiney colleague and Tipperary’s 2001 All-Ireland-winning centre-back, that McGrath is enjoying an ‘Indian Summer’ to an illustrious career, and he laughs: “It’s been one long summer then.”

“You can have all the clichés, that he’s a well-ageing wine, but Noel has always turned in a standard and it very rarely dips. He might have an odd quiet day. But how many times has he been taken off in a game, a handful?” he reflects.

In an era now defined so much by measurements, McGrath can still rely more on his senses. Shane McGrath, his 2010 All-Ireland-winning colleague and regular RTÉ analyst, draws a comparison with his namesake’s unique ability to scan a hurling field like Ronnie O’Sullivan sizing up a snooker table.

“Ronnie O’Sullivan is looking at the shot in three shots’ time, not the shot we’re looking at. Same with Noel,” says McGrath. “What we’re watching on TV, Noel has already seen and is weighing up something that is going to happen in 15 or 20 seconds, which is a long time in hurling.”

For assists, Kennedy namechecks Kevin De Bruyne. “Noel could be in a game on one side of the pitch, but a few moments later, he’s on the other. He can open up a team with one or two strikes of a ball. He’s like De Bruyne, the only other player I see in sport you can compare.”

Most agree that McGrath, theoretically, shouldn’t be cut out for the game where it is now with its most recent evolutions. That middle third, where he displays all his majesty, is populated with hard runners and big hitters. Think Will O’Donoghue for one category, Jamie Barron for another and the replicas of them that are being shaped. In Tipp, Alan Tynan, just two championship games in, already looks like a hybrid of the two.

When Liam Cahill took over, Shane McGrath felt people, not just in Tipp but around the country, genuinely wondered would Noel McGrath, ‘Bonner’ Maher and Séamie Callanan, that surviving trio off the 2010 team that Liam Sheedy has elevated in the years previous to that, be kept.

“But you can’t just go in and clear out whole guys who have All-Stars, won All-Irelands, done it when the need was most,” he says.

“Noel is only 32. If you looked at all the hurling he has done, you’d say this fella must be nearly 40!” added Shane McGrath, who points to the presence of brothers John and Brian on the squad – they started a championship game for the first time together against Clare last month – as an added impetus for his old colleague.

“But remember, he was hitting the frees for Loughmore in the 2007 Munster club hurling final at 16. He goes against everything. Even when he came in with us as a 19-year-old, he was never a top performer with a GPS on his back. His game is down to possessions and assists. What Noel has, no coach could put into him.

“People are looking at him and thinking he’s not covering much ground, but look at the amount of ball he is getting on. Look what is coming off him.

“Is Noel benching 140kg? No. But he’d still be one of the top guys I’d like to have with ball in hand in the 73rd minute.”

What has stood to him, Kennedy feels, is avoidance of major injury. That’s part genetic, he says, pointing to the longevity of his father Pat and uncles playing with the club into their 40s, but also his innate capacity to avoid trouble.

McGrath can carry that Andy Dufresne air about him, strolling ‘like a man in a park, without a care or worry in the world, like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place,’ as ‘Red’ observed in the film The Shawshank Redemption when they first met in the prison yard.

“I mean this in the best possible way, but Noel isn’t one of these speed merchants who pick up muscle injuries. Because he is moving at his own pace,” observes Kennedy. “Maybe the way he is built, he doesn’t pick up those injuries.

“He’s not a guy who is going to get you huge big tackle counts or go on these lung-bursting runs or take or giving these massive hits. He’s staying out of a lot of that contact. That’s part of it, too. He’s not getting those big impact collisions.

“When he gets a ball, he very rarely goes forward with it. Very often, he will turn away to avoid contact; he turns out and away from what he sees in front of him, scans the field then. With a lot of the Cork possessions, he was doing that, getting the ball and taking a step backwards,” says Kennedy.

“Hurling now is very attritional, ‘boom boom,’ contact. You see Cian Lynch or Kyle Hayes, they take on the guy, put the arm over the shoulder and try and draw a free or draw someone into them, so they can release the ball for a handpass. Noel does none of that. If he gets 10 balls in a game, no one lays a hand on him for nine.”

It’s those Teflon features that have still kept him so relevant in the game. Cahill is building a new team in the image and likeness of so many of their contemporaries. But some gifts are just too hard to dispense with. And Tipp’s architect keeps on giving.

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