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'You sometimes have to take a step back and appreciate the position we are in'

2018 and 2020 All-Ireland champion and last year’s Hurler of the Year, Gearóid Hegarty, on all things Limerick as the countdown to their semi-final begins.

GEARÓID HEGARTY IS in a reflective mood as the interview winds down.

Off his own accord, the Limerick hurling star goes off on a bit of a soliloquy.

bord-gais-energy-hurling-to-core-2021 Bord Gáis Energy #HurlingToTheCore ambassador Gearóid Hegarty. Source: Harry Murphy/SPORTSFILE

The 2020 Hurler of the Year is talking about his team-mate, housemate and friend, Sean Finn, and their similar beliefs around the game of hurling when the enjoyment of it all comes to mind.

It’s something he’s worked on quite a lot with team psychologist Caroline Currid and alone, in his spare time.

“I listen to a couple of those podcasts that Brian Carroll does, A Hurler’s Life. He always asks the question, ‘Is there any regrets that you have in your hurling career?’ Some of the greats of hurling have said, ‘I wish I enjoyed it a small bit more’.

“These are the days of our lives. I’m 26, I’m 27 in two weeks time and I won’t be at this forever. For a long, long, long time Limerick haven’t been at the top table in hurling, where they are consistently able to challenge for Munster titles, consistently able to get to Croke Park, consistently able to challenge for All-Ireland titles and it may not last forever. It definitely won’t last forever for me, so you just have to enjoy it.

“It’s a great way to think about things. You can look at things in a negative sense or a positive sense. It’s just a great time and I am just extremely lucky to be in the position I am in, to be injury free at the moment. I had an injury earlier in the year and you have doubts in your head: will this injury keep me out for a long, long time? Will it mean that I won’t get enough training into my legs to be fit or be able to start in championship?

“The weather over the last couple of weeks has just been unreal, to be able to go training in shorts and a vest and putting on sun cream before training, it’s just brilliant.

“Training inside in the Gaelic Grounds in 25-26 degrees heat and going down to Páirc Uí Chaoimh with 7,000 fans back in the stadium and actually being able to give a ticket to your mother and father and brothers and sisters and they are so delighted to be going to games. You sometimes have to take a step back and appreciate the position we are in. To give so much hope and enjoyment to people after a difficult last 18 months is a privilege.”

Speaking of the days of their lives, the recent Munster final victory over Tipperary certainly fits the theme.

A simply remarkable revival, the Treaty came from 10 points down to win by five on Leeside. John Kiely’s charges clinched their third successive Munster crown, a feat the county achieved for the first time since the 1930s.

The comeback was sensational, but Hegarty says Limerick never panicked, confident in the knowledge they had been there — and in worse positions with less time — before.

He waxed lyrical about the victory, one which will live long in the memory.

“It’s absolutely brilliant. That’s why you do all the hard training in Rathkeale in November and December nights in the freezing cold and rain, the hard slog.

“I remember when I came on the panel originally, Wayne McNamara was a very influential figure on the team and I used to travel to training with him. He used to always talk about championship hurling as a drug.

“Once you experience a win in championship or the full heat and battle, it is something you can never forget and something you always want more of. As bad as the first half felt, that second half was something that will live with me forever.

“In the third quarter, it felt like a full Páirc Uí Chaoimh. It was absolutely incredible. Especially the two goals that we got, the roof nearly came off the stadium. I don’t know if it’s because we spent a full year without fans at the ground but it felt really, really special.”

gearoid-hegarty-celebrates-with-the-mick-mackey-cup-after-the-game Hegarty celebrates with the Mick Mackey Cup. Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

The St Patrick’s man firmly believes the reigning All-Ireland champions are improving game on game, like last year, though “It’s a completely different year, whatever happened in 2020 pretty much means absolutely nothing in 2021″.

He’s setting his sights firmly on the All-Ireland semi-final on Saturday week, which will be against either Waterford, Dublin, or Cork.

Limerick are chasing back-to-back Liam MacCarthy crowns for the first time ever, though that piece of history or the weight of expectation within the county doesn’t exactly come on the radar.

“It’s not really something we have talked about because there is no point talking about it when you are in an All-Ireland semi-final.

“I know it’s the boring answer but when you start thinking about winning back-to-back Liam MacCarthys when you are not even in an All-Ireland final, that’s when you can get caught.

“We are going to be playing a team on Saturday week that has possibly come through a couple of qualifier rounds and a tough quarter-final and will be ready for us and willing to beat us.”

It’s fair to say that they have a target on their back, no longer the hunters but the hunted.

That’s something that brings a smile to Hegarty’s face.

“No matter who the All Ireland champions are every year, they are the team that everyone wants to beat. It was the exact same for us going down to Páirc Uí Chaoimh last year to play Tipperary, they were the All-Ireland champions and we knew if we could beat Tipperary, we would set ourselves up to get to the Munster final and for potentially a very good year.

“It’s the same for every single All-Ireland champion that’s ever been, there’s always a target on their back. You can look at it in a negative sense and say that there is pressure associated, but why?

“I always look at it in a positive sense and what a compliment to be the team that everyone is hunting, or the team with the target on their back. It’s a mantle that everybody would want at the start of the year because everyone wants to be the All-Ireland champions every single year.”

Despite having that target on their back, they’re always looking to learn and improve.

Five years on the road under the watchful eye of Kiely and his right-hand man, Paul Kinnerk, nothing changes in that sense.

“I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, I always believe that no matter where you are in life and no matter what you are doing; sport or in your own professional working career; you can always get better,” the secondary school teacher nods.

“I’m a big soccer fan, you look at Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo and they’re still improving well into their 30s. Look at all top sportspeople around the world and they are constantly striving to improve.

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“If you are standing still, you will be passed out. Its as simple as that. You have to be always improving. You can never be a standing target because you will just get passed out. It’s just the way sport is across the whole world. Look at any team that’s at the pinnacle of their sport – they never ever will come out and say that they don’t need to improve to be successful again. It’s just the way it is. It’s the exact same for us.

“As John said a while ago, we’ve been very inconsistent in matches so far. In the first halves against Cork and Tipp, and we can’t let that happen again the next day because we won’t get away with it a third time. You have to be constantly striving for improvement in a personal sense and a team sense.”

bord-gais-energy-hurling-to-core-2021 #HurlingToTheCore ambassador Gearóid Hegarty, pictured alongside the Twomey Family from Ahane GAA, who star in this year’s second series of Bord Gáis Energy’s GAAGAABox. Source: Harry Murphy/SPORTSFILE

He does that in every facet of life, often taking nuggets from his love of golf to the hurling field. A real mental battle, he draws inspiration from Tiger Woods in particular, and the fact that he never let a poor shot affect his overall game.

Hegarty has learned to do the same, and it’s something he will undoubtedly use in the All-Ireland semi-final.

With their opponents up in the air until after the weekend’s action, the one thing we do know is it will be in Croke Park. After many a year where GAA HQ felt like a distant journey to those in Limerick hurling circles, they feel at home there now.

“Thankfully,” Hegarty grins. “As a young fella for years I was going to Croke Park and not just to watch Limerick games because Limerick weren’t there as much as I would have liked. I am a massive GAA fan and have cousins in Dublin so went to Dublin football games and used to love going to the All-Ireland hurling final and All-Ireland football final, regardless of who was in it.

“I came on the panel in 2016 after the U21 victory in 2015 and didn’t get to play in Croke Park until 2018. In the lead-up to the All-Ireland semi-final in 2018 against Cork I had to do a bit of work with Caroline [Currid] because I had never played there.

“Thankfully, we have been there every year since. All-Irelands are won in Croke Park so that’s where you want to be. If you want to win an All-Ireland, you have to be able to perform in Croke Park. If you can’t perform in Croke Park then… it’s the best hurling field in the whole country and one of the best stadiums in the world in my opinion. 82,000 people inside in Croke Park back in the good days.”

He stops and draws, breath before adding:

“I actually believe All-Ireland semi-final day is arguably just as special as All-Ireland final day. All-Ireland final day there can be a lot of neutral supporters because every county gets a certain amount of tickets, whereas All-Ireland semi-final can be real 50-50.

“The 2018 and 2019 games up there were unbelievable in terms of atmosphere because realistically, the vast majority of people there are either Limerick or Cork in 2018 or Kilkenny in 2019 and so forth.

“Any day you get to Croke Park is a special day, hopefully we can get there for many more years.”

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Gearóid Hegarty was speaking as a #HurlingToTheCore ambassador. You can watch GAAGAABox on Bord Gáis Energy’s #HurlingToTheCore YouTube channel throughout the Senior Hurling Championship.

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Emma Duffy

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