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Anthony Nash: Do you really want to know what a soft hurler is?

Cork want to beat Limerick more than any team in Ireland.

Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

AN OPINION IS just an opinion. It doesn’t mean it is gospel. Often it is not about someone’s opinion, but what their opinions have made of them. Pretty simple really. The lives we live shape how we feel, and how we feel shape the lives we live.

Growing up I always supported Limerick. One day Jack Bootman, the President of the GAA, came into our primary school. He gave a speech and started it by saying, ‘everyone here obviously loves Cork.’

I stuck my hand straight up. ‘Not me!’ The only boy in the class who supported Limerick and I used to get understandably ridiculed for it. That is how I was raised. Both of my parents are from Limerick. My uncles and cousin played for Limerick.

alan-browne-and-declan-nash-3151998 Source: James Meehan/INPHO

I remember one day tiptoeing around my grandmother Lilly’s house because my uncle Declan was still in bed. He played corner-back for Limerick and it was the day of the championship. As soon as I heard the creak of the floorboards, I sprinted up the stairs. There he was getting dressed for D-day. This was the early 1990s remember. There was no backdoor. Limerick versus Cork. Do-or-die. And there was only one thing on my mind.

“Declan can you make sure to beat Cork today, so I don’t get slagged in school tomorrow?” The naivety of children!

This week brings back those memories. You couldn’t pick a better rivalry for Cork. Trust me, they want to beat Limerick more than any team in Ireland. Everyone wants to take down the best. Topple the kingpins. We met them in 2018 and there wasn’t a single dirty belt, but there was an edge. Jealously, if truth be told. The league is the league. Cork won’t put much stock in a February win.

I saw a video on Twitter recently of Antoine Griezmann during France training. He scored a goal and ran away roaring ‘Harry Kane’ in celebration. That is a universal feeling for any sports fan. Growing up imitating your idols in the backyard. I’m sure if you think back now, I bet a name comes to mind. You weren’t dreaming about storming up the field and hitting a winner in the league quarter-final. Even for kids, it is all about championship.

donal-og-cusack-is-consoled-by-replacement-goalkeeper-anthony-nash Source: James Crombie/INPHO

In 2012 Donal Óg got injured during the league. League and challenge games were one thing, but before that championship my nerves really kicked in. Those butterflies aren’t sought and aren’t controllable. They just come. People talk about fitness and upping the percentages for the summer. For me, there was a mental switch too. You felt it to your core. It mattered more. 

If we lost on a Sunday, I didn’t want to see a soul on a Monday or Tuesday. Coming back to the naivety of children, I’d go to school and they’d be slagging you. Deep down you are angry and hurt. But like Declan, you have to nod and smile.

Limerick-obsessed, then I was picked as a Cork minor. I went to college in Cork. I played for Cork. I was solely in that bubble. A one track mind. The primary focus, the only focus, was Cork.

You tap into and feel the history. Wear each success and failure. You know the perception and the reality. Feel all the slights. A few of them grated during my career. Some grate even now.

the-cork-team Source: James Crombie/INPHO

I’ve heard said that Cork’s problem is too many soft hurlers. As I said at the start, an opinion is just an opinion. I’d like to think in this regard mine is an informed one. When people give that particular opinion, what exactly are they saying about Cork? As well as that, what are they saying about themselves?

In my time in an intercounty dressing room, I rarely if ever came across a soft hurler. I’ve met lads with different skillsets. Lads with speed and skill, who are better off avoiding a tackle because they are more likely to succeed running around lads rather than through them.  

Of course, I am not saying we were perfect. We were inconsistent. We got selection and gameplans wrong. We were outbattled. Well beaten. But I know we were not soft.

Is a soft hurler someone who doesn’t tackle hard? Maybe we weren’t the best tacklers technically. That is a technical skill, an aspect of the game to be mastered. Galway were often put in this bracket too. Micheál Donoghue didn’t harden up Galway. Some people might say that, but it says more about their ability to analyse the game. He got them consistent. That team were technically superb.

To me, a soft hurler is a fella who doesn’t do the work. Who takes the easy option. I’ve seen lads keeping going in training to the point of emptying out their guts. Lads out on their feet somehow muster another hard run from the depths of their soul. I’ve seen them go for dirty ball they had no right to win. I’ve seen them put hands where many wouldn’t put their hurl. Their fingers and shins black and blue. I’ve seen the sacrifices they make physically, mentally and financially to represent their county.

Even the implication behind that accusation. If a fella goes out and lets loose with a dirty belt, is he no longer soft? That is more of a cop-out. I want the guy who stays battling. Who is willing to keep swimming against the current. We weren’t the best at tackling. Other teams weren’t as fast as we were. Every team has a different skillset.

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pat-ryan-celebrates-scoring-a-goal Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

In the 2018 semi-final, we were a point behind Limerick going into the second half of extra-time. We didn’t suddenly become soft. We were out on our feet. Even in the league final, I saw a Cork team well-beaten but who stayed trying until the end.

Things have come full circle for me. From Limerick to Cork and now somewhere between in retirement. My cousin plays for Limerick, my friends play for Cork. The mixed emotions from that were some shock to the system. Ronan O’Gara wrote a remarkably honest column a few years ago about watching Ireland on the verge of beating New Zealand a few months after he retired. It left him conflicted, confused. I was thinking of that last year in Croke Park. It was my first year away and Cork were in an All-Ireland final.  

Shane Kingston got that goal and suddenly I got a feeling I never felt before. I thought they were going to do it. I remember asking myself, what is this emotion? It was like a punch in the stomach. I’ve stood in goals during championship and felt utterly clearheaded. Calm. That day in the stand, my head was all over the place. Blind panic.

It’s not jealousy. But a part of you is envious. Sometimes I think of the icons that played in goals for Cork before me and how I was the only one that didn’t win an All-Ireland. Cusack. Cunningham. Coleman. They all have one. Then as the game turned, I realised what was happening. By the time the final whistle came, it was a new world of turmoil. I felt horrendous for old team-mates. It is hard to shield that overpowering sympathy when your celebrating cousin comes over for a hug.

By the time I got home, I was exhausted. Myself and ten different emotions had been rolling around in a washing machine for the guts of two hours. Nobody ever tells you that once you retire, you’ll face the rollercoaster to beat all rollercoasters.

Now I am totally at ease. I know physically I could not be there any longer. My only hope for this weekend is less of that pain all around. I won’t bore you with my prediction. At the end of the day, it’s only one man’s opinion. 

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