Tipperary’s Noel McGrath pictured in action.
In association with Tipperary Water
By 5:00pm next Sunday evening, Noel McGrath will have played in his seventh All-Ireland senior hurling final.
That's some record to boast for any player in the modern game, and while he is not alone in this, what will make it even more remarkable is the fact that all seven will have been against Tipperary's keenest rivals, Kilkenny.
It's telling too that were Tipperary to win on Sunday, it would be three All-Ireland's apiece and one draw from those seven clashes since 2009. And, perhaps it's his advancing years in hurling terms, or his changing attitude to life, but Noel is as sanguine and carefree about this final, than any other he has featured in.
A pretty traumatic healthscare a few seasons ago saw him treated for testicular cancer and when he came on against Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final later than year, the whole of Croke Park rose in unison to applaud and cheer one of the nicest, soundest and most popular hurlers Tipperary has ever produced. He also happens to be one of the best hurlers Tipperary has ever produced and the sight of Galway Manager Anthony Cunningham greeting the Loughmore Castleiney man in the aftermath, remains one of the most iconic, hair raising moments witnessed in Croke Park in recent times. Hurling, didn't matter so much then – Noel McGrath had won a massive battle.
So, Noel's attitude is a bit different then this time round as he prepares for Kilkenny. He is also roaming a different patch having been reinvented – well sort of – as a midfielder.
“I played a lot of my hurling back through the years in midfield or at half back, so the move to midfield with Tipp happened more naturally than a lot of people might have thought -it was only later on with Tipp than I moved into the forwards. At midfield, you have to work at it every day because it is an area of the field where you can see a lot of action. You have to be ready and tuned in all the time,”he says.
Noel really grasped the All-Ireland semi-final by the throat in the closing twenty minutes and put in a Man-of-the-Match winning shift to helped the Premier County over the line. He had watched his brother John pick up a second yellow card, but didn't have the time to process the implications of the numerical disadvantage. “It's so hectic during a game than you don't have time to think. You just work off instinct,” he says.
Instinct and raw application got Tipperary over the line against Wexford and back into the biggest day of them all – the day when every young hurler wants to be parading behind the Artane Boys Band. Few get the privilege, and Noel is conscious of that.
“It is the biggest game of them all and it is why you do all the training and what you dream of. We all want to play on the biggest possible stage and we are lucky to play for Tipperary. But, we want to make the most of it because you never know what will happen – you might not ever get another chance,” he says.
That illness mentioned early, rocked Noel for six. But, it also steeled him and made him appreciate a lot. He appreciates being able to get out of bed and hurl. He appreciates his great friends in Loughmore Castleiney and further afield. The appreciates his wonderful family, all of whom are steeped in the lore and love of gaelic games. And, he appreciates the fact that he is getting another All-Ireland Final to experience and enjoy.
“I always loved playing hurling, be it for my club Loughmore Castleiney, or for Tipperary. After the illness it probably changed a bit for me. You are probably a bit more carefree about winning and losing, but the desire and ambition is still there and is still the same. We have been knocking on the door since I came on the scene and we have had great days, but a lot of disappointments too. You try to enjoy the good days as best you can and my best advice to the younger lads on the squad going into a big game, would be to enjoy these days. You might like to treat these days like any other, but it is not any other – it is an All-Ireland Final and it is nothing like any other day,” he says.
Noel speaks of the bond he shares with the players – especially those with whom he has soldiered since he burst into the scene in 2009, under Liam Sheedy. He speaks in reverent tones about the Bainisteoir too – a man he describes as being an unbelievable motivator.
“He brings a massive energy to the whole thing and he is a man who really knows his hurling. He is great to motivate players and he has a really good way with people, which is very important in the context of having a big panel,” he says.
As for Kilkenny? Well, Noel has hurted at their hands more than any other opposition, but he carries huge respect for the Cats, Brian Cody and what they have stood for and achieved. He is relishing the chance of taking them on again in the final and can't wait for Sunday to come round.
“You will play anyone for the chance to win an All-Ireland Final, but in my case it has always been Kilkenny. They have caused every other team in the country to raise the bar over the last fifteen years and All-Ireland Final day just seems to bring out the best in them and in us. We bring out the best in each other and you always want to play against the best teams – next Sunday will be no different and we are just so looking forward to it now,” Noel says.