Hurling veterans 30-July 2009

September 25, 2009

Hurling’s veterans growing old gracefully

TONY BROWNE plays for Waterford against Kilkenny this Sunday in the All-Ireland SHC semi-final. He’s 36.

Mark Foley plays for Limerick against Tipperary in the other semi-final on Sunday week. He’s 34.

In itself that’s not unusual. Many players last well into their 30s, but they tend to be goalkeepers, who don’t have the same running to do as outfield players.

But Browne and Foley aren’t just outfield players. They’re wing-backs, wearing jerseys that are synonymous with dashing players tearing up and down the wing. Aren’t the aerobic demands bigger, the further out the field you go? Shouldn’t they be sheltering in the corner-back slot?

Not quite. There’s a school of thought that holds you should go out the field rather than backward, as Irish Examiner columnist Donal O’Grady explains.

“Look at someone like Páidí Ó Sé in football,” he says. “He played midfield for Kerry, then wing-back, but as his career went on and on he ended up at corner-back coming towards the end.

“But that was over 20 years ago. Now the corner-back must be much faster, in football or hurling, because the speedy player is put in corner-forward. You can’t shove a guy back there and hope he’ll do okay if he doesn’t have pace; if you have a player like that you need to put him somewhere he won’t need huge speed off the mark, and certainly the half-back line is somewhere a player with good skills and reading can survive.”

Liam Dunne, who played centre- and wing-back himself with Wexford until he was 35, agrees wholeheartedly with that proposition.

“Definitely — you’ll survive in the half-back line longer. From my point of view, I remember when I was finishing up lads were saying to me ‘you’ll come back into the full-back line now’, and I was saying ‘when I’m gone out of this line I’m gone’.

“I knew if I went back to the full-back line I’d be taken to the cleaners altogether.”

Dunne goes one step further, suggesting that a more central role would be that much safer for a player who’s getting on in years than a station out on the wing. He sees Foley and Browne as prime candidates for the number six jersey.

“As you get older, even centre-back would suit you a bit more than wing-back. If you’re able to read the game — and the likes of Mark (Foley) and Tony (Browne) would be well able to do that — then you could drop them in there and they’d be able to do a job.

“But the difference is that Limerick have Brian Geary there, so they don’t have a problem filling the centre-back slot. However, Waterford are playing Michael Brick Walsh there, who’s a terrific hurler, but they’re missing him from the middle of the field. Tony Browne could drop in there and do the job for them.”

The fact that Browne and Foley aren’t the prototype big, brawny centre-backs doesn’t matter, argues Dunne, though he sees protecting the centre-back against a speedy opponent as vital if a smaller player is to thrive there.

“Well, when it comes to size, I’m five foot seven and a half, I’d give Tony five foot nine or so and maybe Mark is around the five ten mark!

“But the game is changing the whole time, and the challenges are different for every game. I remember ringing Liam Griffin before we played Cork in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final, for instance, and asking him what he thought I should do with a bullet like Ben O’Connor. He told me to watch the videos and prepare for him.

“I did that, but there’s no doubt that if a guy like that gets his chance and gets past you, he’s gone. That’s the bottom line — you’re not going to catch him if he gets past you, because his pace is so good.”

Even though Davy Fitzgerald is hardly likely to move Browne to centre-back now, Dunne points out that the ageless wonder did well there in Waterford’s darkest hour last year.

“I’d be worrying about the likes of those players as the year goes on, getting to Croke Park and facing the likes of Kilkenny.

“In last year’s All-Ireland final, Tony and the other Waterford defenders were under severe pressure, particularly in the first half, but he hit a lot of ball when he went into centre-back in the second half.”

Irrespective of where they line out, their old adversary is quick to pay tribute to their longevity.

“In fairness to them both, it takes huge commitment off the field to continue so long,” says Dunne, “There’s great credit due to them for having such long careers.”

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