Shane McGrath (centre) pictured with Pádraic Maher and Patrick Maher.
This week Ballinahinch's Shane McGrath chatted to the Tipperary Star about the significance of the 2008 Allianz National League success - that campaign worked to change how a group of players thought about themselves.
Tipperary last won the Allianz National Hurling League in 2008, but the context of that success is often neglected. Following a distressing 2007 championship campaign the panel emerged from the winter months under a cloud. Then could not contrast more starkly with now - nine years ago Tipperary hurling was as far removed from All-Ireland champions as you could get. The collective gut of the Premier players was questioned and they needed respond.
Ballinahinch’s Shane McGrath had suffered through 2006 and 2007. It was a difficult time, but under newly-installed manager Liam Sheedy the Tipperary players decided to tell a different story about themselves. Indeed, during a torturous pre-season training schedule in November-December 2007 Tipperary laid the foundation for the 2010 All-Ireland success. Initially, however, the panel targeted the 2008 National Hurling League and poured themselves into the campaign, absolutely.
“Yeah, we did,” Shane McGrath told the Tipperary Star.
“After 2007 we were not in a good place after losing to Wexford in the All-Ireland quarter-final. When Liam (Sheedy) came in and took over the push was to try and do well in the league. We probably put in the best pre-season as a group than we ever did in the winter of ’07. The training that we did was hard slogging and we really needed it.
“We had the hurling and we knew that we had the hurling, but, maybe, physically and fitness wise, it had to go up another step. And, we did. We put in the hard work in November and December. We were ready for the league and for a lot of us it was our first national medal. For me, personally, it was my first time to win a national medal, an All-Ireland as such, with the win over Galway that day inside in the Gaelic Grounds. So, it was definitely something that we strived for.”
Tipperary launched the group phase of the competition with a 2-25 to 0-8 win over Offaly. Liam Sheedy’s men followed that result up with a composed performance against Limerick (2-20 to 2-9) before recovering brilliantly to earn a draw against Galway in Salthill (0-16 apiece).
Tipp then drew with Clare (1-14 to 0-17) before victories over Laois (4-17 to 1-12) and Waterford (1-16 to 0-14) propelled the squad into a league semi-final against Kilkenny at Nowlan Park (1-15 to 1-10). Tipperary beat Galway to the tune of 3-18 to 3-16 in the final, but the semi-final win over the defending All-Ireland champions, of course, has been long noted as a significant turning point for the group.
“A massive turning point for us was going down to Kilkenny and having a big win over Kilkenny,” Shane McGrath explained.
“They had it over us for the few years before that. So, to go down there and beat them in Nowlan Park in the league semi-final was a massive, massive thing for us. I think that gave us real confidence going forward as a group that we could push on and actually start doing things. We felt then that we could be realistic about winning Munster finals and getting to All-Ireland finals.
“Obviously, it did not work out that year against Waterford in the (All-Ireland) semi-final, but we knew that we were good enough, really, really good enough after we beat Kilkenny down in Nowlan Park. We really, really believed after it that we could go on and really do things. It was worth a lot to us because of the hammerings Kilkenny were after giving us in 2007. I mean it was embarrassing really. We were in a bad place. So, that was a massive game for us when you look back on it now.”
During the 2008 campaign Tipperary played Galway twice. And, although the final is often referenced Tipperary recovered a significant deficit in the earlier encounter at Pearse Stadium, a venue which represented an absolute fortress for the Tribesmen at that time.
And, for Tipperary to emerge out of Salthill with something to show for their work marked another milestone on the road to becoming a real team - slowly, but surely Tipperary were digging deep into themselves and started to warm to what they found.
“We got a big result up in Pearse Stadium that year. That was a big test of our character. We showed that we had a bit of bottle and we were not going to just cave in like maybe we did in previous games,” Shane McGrath said before reflecting on the final contest against Galway; a game which presented the players with a very different problem.
Having seen off Kilkenny in the league semi-final so impressively Tipperary became the focus of attention - Liam Sheedy’s men were made favourites and now they had a different kind of scenario to contend with. Could Tipperary now deal with the pressure? Could the players take responsibility for the winning of the contest?
“A lot of people were really tipping us to win the game and we did feel that pressure a small bit maybe,” Shane McGrath admitted.
“We were expected to win it and that was a new thing for us. People were expecting us to win things now because of the group (of players) that we had and because we had the right set-up. We had the players at the time and our backs were ferocious. And, I suppose one thing that does stick out in my own mind would be Joe Canning’s goal from that day - it was such a good finish off his left-hand side,” Shane McGrath explained as his thoughts turned to a three-pointer from the Portumna man which may have, if it had been allowed to do so, wrenched that league title away from Tipperary.
“That brought them back to within a point or two, but we had that bit of steel and we the experience from those hard, tough games earlier in the year. That stood to us and we went down the field and got the next score. The good thing was that we stood up and we were counted when it mattered. It was a massive, massive thing to win that league.”
The 2008 league campaign served its purpose. It was used as a tool to develop how the players thought about themselves and what they were capable of. The players were asked to think bigger and apply themselves to an ambitious vision of what they could become.
Working under manager Liam Sheedy, coach Eamon O’Shea, selector Michael Ryan and trainer Cian O’Neill the players transformed themselves into a unit of men who paid a visit to Páirc Uí Chaoimh and beat Cork at the Rebel venue for the first time in 83 years later that summer. Indeed, Tipperary would progress to win the Munster title before coming undone against Waterford in an All-Ireland semi-final.
And, while the 2008 league campaign proved valuable to Tipperary it was also hugely significant to Shane McGrath. The Ballinahinch man would progress to play 46 championship matches for Tipperary, collect five Munster titles (2008, 2009, 2011, 2012 & 2015), an All-Ireland and two All Stars, but you have got to remember too where McGrath had come from. Indeed, the 2008 league campaign represented the culmination of a personal journey for McGrath.
Shane did not make the Tipperary minor panel nor the St Flannan’s Harty Cup squad. He later emerged as a noteworthy talent while hurling for the Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT) when winning Fitzgibbon Cups in 2005 and 2007, but he still had to battle his way through three years with the Tipperary intermediate team before being rewarded with a senior nod just shy of his 22nd birthday.
McGrath, however, was far from finished. In 2007 Shane recognised that his body needed work and he settled down to that chore. Indeed, by the time the 2008 league final came along Shane McGrath was a man, and a player, transformed.
“It was my first big final on the county stage,” Shane McGrath said.
“I had played in a Fitzgibbon Cup final with LIT, but there was only a scattering of people at it. To be there on a national final day in the league final in ’08 was brilliant. I did really enjoy the game. I worked fierce hard to get myself stronger because a lot of people were looking at me and asking if this guy was physically strong enough to play for Tipp. And, I probably wasn’t, really,” McGrath admitted.
“But I worked really hard to get ready for ’08 - I worked on my strength and on fitness to get myself to the level that I was at and things worked out for me. I got a few breaks in games and I got myself into it. In most of the games that I played I was nearly scoring two or nearly three points a game and that really, really helped with my own personal confidence.
“So, it was a massive thing for me to break through, to get onto the team and then to get yourself into the scenario where you are a guaranteed starter. People were saying that you were one of the first names on the team sheet and that was a nice feeling.”
A GOOD FRIEND
Shane McGrath finished the 2008 season as the Munster hurler of the year and also collected an All Star (his first of two - 2014). And, he recognises now what a good friend to him that the league campaign proved to be. Indeed, McGrath now argues that players on the fringes of Michael Ryan’s current panel need to recognise the significance of the league as a tool that they can use.
“The confidence I got from playing in the bigger games was massive for me. It helped me to believe that I was good enough to be there and that I could mix it with the best of them,” Shane McGrath said.
“The more experienced guys will play the league for what it is, but if you are a new guy coming in you have to play every league match as if it is a championship game. You want to break onto the team and the only way you really are going to make that breakthrough is if the management team can see you performing at the top level. And, the top level for the next three months is national league hurling.
“I would love to see the newer guys getting a go,” Shane McGrath added - Shane now regards himself as an eager fan of Tipperary hurling and is looking forward to the up-coming league campaign.
“I would love to see Barry Heffernan and Jason Forde getting a run of games; I would love to see Niall O’Meara playing further out the field and to see those things tried out on the big games. I would love to see newer guys making that break through like Mikey Breen did last year - he shot the lights out.
“I want to see someone put their hand up and say I want to be on this team this year. There are ten or 12 guys there on the panel that I would like to see getting a go and put themselves in the picture for the year,” McGrath added before arguing that despite facing into the league campaign as All-Ireland champions the Tipperary players will be eager to make a big impression on the competition.
“To be honest, bar Darren Gleeson, I don’t think anybody in there has a league medal. For the last few years that would have been a talking point with us. Only a handful of us had national league medals. I would think that Tipp will be seriously pushing hard this year to win that league because it’s one medal that has eluded the group, really. It’s nine years now this year since we won the national league,” Shane McGrath said.
“It’s very hard to pin-point one particular reason why we didn’t win more league titles, but we were very unlucky,” the Ballinahinch man said as his thoughts turned to losing the 2009, 2013 and 2014 league finals to Kilkenny.
“I played three national league finals against Kilkenny and two of them went to extra-time. One of them was decided by a last minute point that TJ Reid scored a few years ago. I feel that we met Kilkenny at their absolute best. They were going just unreal at the time - we were so, so close to beating them in All-Irelands, but in league finals they were just unbelievable as well.
“There is not just one factor that I can pin-point and say why Tipperary did not win more leagues. We always went out to win the league - there was never a league campaign that we said we were not going to push for or that we were not going to put our best 15 for. That was not the case - it was always the case that we really, really wanted to win the league.”
In 2016 Shane McGrath inspired a Ballinahinch team, which featured three of this brothers, to win a first-ever North Tipperary intermediate hurling championship. McGrath, of course, intends to hurl for Ballinahinch this year under coach Leo O’Connor (Limerick), but he has also taken on another project.
Ahead of the 2017 senior hurling championship McGrath has been appointed coach to the Kilruane MacDonagh’s team under manager Liam O’Shea.
“It was something that I always wanted to get into, definitely,” Shane McGrath said with a distinct sense of enthusiasm.
“It’s the next step, I suppose, for a lot of guys. Some guys love doing it and some guys are allergic to it - they just have no interest in coaching. I think it’s a good thing and it’s nice to see it from the other side. You are focusing on a group of guys rather than just your own individual performance. It will be a learning curve. You are not going to learn it all in one year. It’s good and I am enjoying it so far.”
2008 LEAGUE FINAL
Sunday, April 20th 2008
National Hurling League Final
Tipperary 3-18 Galway 3-16
A crowd of 16,315 turned out in Páirc an nGael, Limerick for an Allianz National League final which Tipperary led 1-9 to 1-8. A Lar Corbett goal in the 59th-minute proved the game’s turning point. Galway rallied thanks a marvellous Joe Canning strike late in the game, but there was no denying a Tipperary team led by manager Liam Sheedy.
Tipperary: Brendan Cummins (Ballybacon-Grange), Eamonn Buckley (Drom & Inch), Paul Curran (Mullinahone), Conor O’Brien (Éire Óg Annacarty), Eamonn Corcoran (JK Bracken's), Conor O’Mahony (Newport), Shane Maher (Burgess), Benny Dunne (Toomevara, 1-0), Shane McGrath (Ballinahinch, 0-1), Séamus Butler (Drom & Inch, 0-6), Ryan O’Dwyer (Cashel King Cormacs), James Woodlock (Drom & Inch), Eoin Kelly (Mullinahone, 0-7, 0-5 frees), Lar Corbett (Thurles Sarsfields, 1-3), Willie Ryan (Toomevara, 1-1). Subs: Séamus Callanan (Drom & Inch) for Ryan O’Dwyer, John O’Brien (Toomevara) for Benny Dunne, Alan Byrne (Shannon Rovers) for Eamonn Corcoran, Darragh Hickey (Boherlahan-Dualla) for Willie Ryan.
Referee: Barry Kelly (Westmeath).
2008 LEAGUE CAMPAIGN
Tipperary 2-25 Offaly 2-8
Tipperary 2-20 Limerick 2-9
Galway 0-16 Tipperary 0-16
Clare 0-17 Tipperary 1-14
Tipperary 4-17 Laois 1-12
Tipperary 1-16 Waterford 0-14
Kilkenny 1-10 Tipperary 1-15
Tipperary 3-18 Galway 3-16