Pádraic Maher pictured leading Tipperary through the pre-match parade against Cork.
Tipperary captain Pádraic Maher knows that nothing less than a sensational performance will be enough to get the better of Galway in next Sunday’s All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship semi-final at Croke Park. Scoring the scores is one thing, but getting the work rate right is the starting point.
Tipperary were awesome during the 2016 hurling championship when beating Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Galway and Kilkenny en route to a famous All-Ireland title. And, central to that sequence of results was a series of outstanding Pádraic Maher performances. The Thurles Sarsfields man was on the ball one hundred times and intervened at key junctures when Tipperary needed him most. Indeed, with Pádraic Maher around the hurling world seems a simpler and less threatening place.
This season, like last, Pádraic Maher - who expects more of himself than any coach would dare to ask of any player - is, again, making key plays. Last year he hooked Conor Cooney at a key juncture during that dramatic All-Ireland semi-final clash with Galway and then there was the seminal catch over the head of Walter Walsh in the decider against Kilkenny. Against Clare in the recent quarter-final, when Tipperary’s need was greatest and Peter Duggan was making a right nuisance of himself Maher performed his leadership role to perfection. Maher, driven by something no person could capture nor explain, was switched across onto Duggan and won a free which wrenched the trajectory of that contest back into Tipperary’s hands.
The captain of the side is, without doubt, a key player for Tipperary. Indeed, we would argue that the journey travelled by Pádraic in a Tipperary jersey also best reflects the journey travelled by the entire group - no player has travelled further to arrive here. Maher has been through the mill and come out with a high polish.
Pádraic Maher featured at a press event hosted by the Anner Hotel, Thurles last week. The Thurles man was courteous and thoughtful with his answers to questions, but you could tell that he was taking it in his stride, comfortably.
Even when the subject of the criticism that the Tipperary panel shipped following the defeat to Galway (0-14 to 3-21) in the Allianz National Hurling League final was broached Pádraic, or Paudie as he is known to his friends, dealt with the question easily. He has heard it all before.
“We were always going to be criticised after a result like that,” Pádraic Maher admitted.
“The manner of the way we were beaten and we were well beaten. You are going to have to take it on the chin and move on. I think slowly, but surely we are proving that we are not all that bad and are getting back to where we want to be. We are by no means at that (level) at the moment, but we are very close. Once we get the work rate right and we get the tackle count right we feel our hurling will finish the job,” Maher explained in a mater-of-fact manner.
“We want to prove that we are not as poor as we were that day. It’s going to be a massive game for us and the thing about it is that you have to have massive motivation going into game like this because the last two years have shown that there is nothing between Tipp and Galway when it comes to championship. You have to have your head screwed on and everyone has to be mentally right because if you are not you are going to get caught.
“They (Galway) showed in the league final that if we are not on song what they can do to us. They played very well in the league final, but we have to hold our hands up and say we were a no-show on the same day. We know we have plenty to work on ourselves before we can worry about Galway. Definitely they are a way more rounded team this year than they were (during) the last couple of years. They can hurt you in so many areas and seem to be working very hard for one another. So, we will have to match that all day long,” the Thurles man added.
Following the sixteen-point defeat suffered at the hands of Galway in the league final Tipperary then came out the wrong side of the Munster quarter-final clash with Cork at Semple Stadium, Thurles. The lop-sided nature of the defeat in Páirc na nGael, Limerick knocked Tipperary out of their stride and checked the side’s sense of itself before Cork paid a visit to Thurles and won impressively. The league final defeat, especially, was a significant set-back in terms of Tipperary’s confidence.
“It probably did, in ways. It’s bound to - a defeat like that can when you think you are going well and we thought we were going okay in the league,” Pádraic Maher admitted.
“We had the result against Cork down in Páirc Uí Rinn and that was the only real upset we had during the league. We felt we were going well - there was a good buzz and then to get hit with that sucker punch in the league final did take it out of lads.
“In saying that we went a point up against Cork with a couple of minutes to go and could have pushed on, but we didn’t and Cork came straight back,” Pádraic Maher explained.
“The confidence was probably a bit low, but that is the one of the joys of the qualifiers - that game-by-game we are building ourselves up. We are by no means where we want to be performance-wise, but we are getting there slowly - one or two more small things and we will be hard to stop.
“To be honest I was delighted we came out against Galway because it was a week less that we had to wait than if we were playing Cork. So, the faster the games come at the moment the better we feel; that’s just the form we are in and the buzz within the camp.”
“I am thoroughly enjoying the year at the moment. We are after playing so many games in the space of a couple of weeks and every game is knock-out so there is a bite to every game. It’s enjoyable and there is a great buzz in training - lads are mad for action and the lads (management) are pulling us out of training quicker than we would want. That’s the way it is and it is great to have it like that. The more competitive matches the better; we have thoroughly enjoyed it during the last few weeks.”
Pádraic Maher was Tipperary's key player during the 2016 All-Ireland title winning campaign.
BEATING THE BANNER
Since the consecutive defeats suffered at the hands of Galway and Cork Tipperary re-grouped with wins over Westmeath, Dublin and Clare. The Banner, of course, represented a significant step up in terms of opposition quality - Clare were an All-Ireland contender and the Tipperary camp knew it.
“We were delighted with the win first and foremost,” Pádraic Maher explained.
“We knew it was going to be a battle with Clare. We hadn’t played them in a few years - I think it was 2011 since we played them in the championship. So, we didn’t know what to expect in a way - we were happy to get through it. Obviously, there were plenty of learnings there for us. We wouldn’t be totally happy with all aspects of our play, but in terms of work rate and endeavour of the lads we were happy. If we can find another level or two performance-wise we would be happy enough.”
Clare, of course, came at Tipperary hard during the final quarter at the revamped Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Indeed, the Banner hit six consecutive points to reduce the All-Ireland champions’ lead to a manageable one with five minutes to play. Tipperary, however, responded to the challenge posed in emphatic style scoring five points to seal their place in the semi-finals. These Tipperary lads will not back off too handy - a group who were once renowned for their softness are now as cuddly as granite.
“They (Clare) got six in-a-row on us and anyone looking in would think that Clare were going to pull away, but, in fairness to the lads, there is massive belief in the group and that comes from experience over the last number of years and it was great to be able to draw on it,” Pádraic Maher said.
“Maybe there were times when we could have folded a couple of years ago, but I think the belief within the group is massive at the moment. We gave them an opportunity to get back in the game, which they took, but you would have to take the positives out of it in that we finished the game very strongly. There’s massive belief within the group.”
Step by step through the qualifiers the Tipperary players have worked hard, made incremental improvements to their collective performances and slowly, but surely have Michael Ryan’s men have worked to eliminate the doubts surrounding the side.
“Against Westmeath I don’t think it would have mattered what we did - if we won by twenty-five points or by five points we were going to be questioned,” Pádraic Maher explained.
“It was the same way with the Dublin game - we beat them by twenty points and we were still being questioned. So, it was good to come up against a team where people did not know what was going to happen. We came out on the right side of the result. It took a bit of hard work and we made hard work of it for a finish, but I think the belief in the group is unreal and it showed there. But we know that we have to come up a level for the next day.”
PLAYING THE CAPTAIN’S PART
The 28-year-old Pádraic Maher made his championship debut against Cork in 2009 and was appointed vice-captain to Paul Curran in January 2012. Maher was, once more, appointed vice-captain to Brendan Maher in 2015 before succeeding the Borris-Ileigh man as captain in time for the 2017 season.
If you were in any doubt of the ability of Pádraic Maher to captain Tipperary just check out the words of former manager Eamon O’Shea (2011): “If you stood next to Pádraic Maher in a dressing room you would know he’s ready. Pádraic is a leader and that makes him stand apart. When you walk around the dressing-room before a big match and you see this guy ready to play, the vibes he gives out are so strong that they improve the players around him”.
And, Pádraic Maher has learned that as captain his actions on the field of play are of much more significance than anything the Thurles Sarsfields man could ever say.
“When you win the feeling is as normal as any other player,” Pádraic Maher said as he attempted to explain his interpretation of the role.
“When you have experienced a defeat you are kind of looking at yourself and thinking if there anything else I can do for the group or is there anything I am not doing for the group.
“It does hit you a bit more, but at the end of the day I can’t do any more than the other players on the team or on the panel. I can only do what I can do best and that is train as hard as I can and then try to bring my best performance for the team during the championship games and these games, in particular, are very important. That is the best way that I can help the team - to lead by example,” Pádraic added.
“We didn’t really experience too many defeats during the league. It was only after the Galway game when you start thinking was there anything I could have done differently to help the lads or say something different. At the end of the day you can say what you want leading into a game or to the players or at half-time in the match, but it is all about what you do on the field. Players will tell you that themselves - it is about your actions and not necessarily your words.”