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Shane McGrath: ‘It’s an honour to captain Tipperary’

Tipperary skipper Shane McGrath.

SHANE McGrath has won four Munster Championships, a National League and an All-Ireland title. Yet, as far as he is concerned, it isn’t enough.

McGrath, remember, is from Tipperary, where failure isn’t easily accepted, even if the county has had plenty of practice in it since 1971 when their heyday unofficially ended.

Since then, comets have risen from nowhere but disappeared just as quick.

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Is it three years since Tipp defeated Kilkenny in a classic All-Ireland final, thereby denying Brian Cody an historic five-in-a-row and suggesting that this young, Tipperary team was ready to usurp the Cats and dominate the new decade?

Yet instead of moving on, Tipp fell away. Declan Ryan’s reign was spoiled with misadventure and ended in utter humiliation in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final — the worst defeat McGrath has suffered in his career, the worst Tipp have known since 1897.

As the inquest followed, and the name-calling worsened, McGrath took the wise option and travelled abroad. Hurling — thus far — isn’t terribly popular in Peru or Chile, and with the locals disinterested in Lar Corbett’s man-marking skills, a chance to clear the head was taken.

“I’d be a happy-go-lucky lad anyway,” he says. “The time away was good. You need something like that every now and then.”

What he needs now, though, is another taste of glory. It’s five years since he and Tipp last won the League — and while the competition has never defined any player or team, it has frequently acted as a launching pad for brighter summers. “It sure didn’t do Kilkenny much harm over the last decade, did it?”

It certainly didn’t, with five of Kilkenny’s nine All-Irelands under Cody coming in the same season as a League success. “We want this trophy big time,” says McGrath.

“A League would be massive for us. A lot of lads in the panel weren’t here in ’08 and don’t have a medal. We set out to win it in February and, in an overall context, I want more than what I’ve got. The few medals I’ve won have been good, and all that, but it could have been a whole lot better.

“I’m 28 now and as your career goes on, you do get a bit more mature and realise this career is coming to an end. That’s why I’m continuing to dream, why I’m hoping to add to what I’ve won.”

It isn’t the only reason. There’s a tribal element to McGrath’s personality that stems from the small village, Ballinahinch, where he was brought up.

Located in north Tipperary, and for ever and a day associated with junior or intermediate ranks, it had never produced a player of McGrath’s quality. Yet Babs Keating saw something in him and offered him a chance in 2006. Then Liam Sheedy promoted him to officer class. The reward was that 2010 All-Ireland.

“When I pull on the Tipperary jersey, it’s for my family, my neighbours, my coaches at club level. It is for people who never made it, for players from similarly small clubs that were overlooked.

“It’s an honour to captain the side, especially because of where I’m from.”

Where he is from is just down the road from where we meet. We’re in a quiet corner of a café in Killaloe. He is easy company, quietly spoken but far from shy. Come match days, in the Tipp dressing room, he has a reputation for being loud — and on the pitch, his passion is evident.

“Maybe too much so,” he admits. “But look it, I love big games, big weeks. Come the summer, nine times out of 10, when you are playing Championship, it is a lovely day even if the week leading up to it has been full of rain. I just love the buzz of it.

You put a lot into it and when you run out onto the pitch, and hear the roar, you can feel the buzz. Nothing beats that. Everything you do is worth it — knowing everyone is there because of you and your team. That’s a great feeling and you have to appreciate it.

“But I think the enjoyment has gone out of the game for a lot of the lads because they put too much pressure on themselves. You have to step back a bit and accept that the more you enjoy it, the better you will be at it. We all have to relax a bit more.”

Relaxing isn’t easy, though, when Kilkenny are involved. Cody may not be around this weekend but the manner in which they trimmed Galway has served as a reminder of where they are at, right now, and where everyone else, is.

Tipp — after that opening day calamity against Cork — appear their closest challengers, having emerged from a tough division with credible wins over Clare, Kilkenny and Galway prior to their semi-final destruction of Dublin.

“The truth is Galway and Kilkenny are miles ahead,” McGrath says. “We’re in a group of about half-a-dozen hoping to bridge the gap.

“With Galway and Kilkenny, you know they will have a good year whereas we are hoping to build momentum and mount a challenge from under the radar. If we do well, then it’ll be upsetting the odds because realistically we have to play catch-up.”

Win on Sunday, though, and the radar will read their Championship signals. Try as they might to stay quiet, results speak louder than words and beating Kilkenny in a League final is a noisy statement of intent.



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