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'It was obvious from that night he was gifted at that role' - Waterford's defensive star

After tearing his cruciate in September 2019, Tadhg De Búrca has come back stronger for the Waterford hurlers.

Tadhg De Búrca in action for Waterford against Cork.
Tadhg De Búrca in action for Waterford against Cork.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THE SEVERITY OF it did not hit Tadhg De Búrca immediately.

Or anyone else who was there on that late August Saturday night at the Fraher Field when he headed to the sideline, his involvement in the match interrupted.

Clashmore-Kinsalebeg were en route to a comfortable win over Cappoquin that would bag a last four spot in the Western intermediate hurling championship.

It was over two months since Waterford’s inter-county season had ground to a premature halt but their local campaign was starting to gather momentum with so much of their hopes revolving around their defensive lynchpin.

And then came the injury that brought his 2019 input to a close.

“It was weird, he didn’t actually know whether it was his hamstring or his knee gone at the time,” recalls Brian O’Halloran, who between club and county is better placed to appraise De Búrca than anyone.

“He thought he was coming back on and then they didn’t know. It wasn’t at the time that we were thinking, ‘Oh he’s definitely after doing his cruciate’. It was very up in the air what had happened. As the day went by, he fully realised it was definitely his knee.

“That was the killer, we lost to Ardmore in the semi-final by a point. After losing someone like him, it deflated the whole thing. I don’t know did we ever think we could win it again without him.”

He got the operation to repair his knee done in October. It was another test of his resolve after a broken collarbone in Waterford’s Munster opener in Ennis in 2018 left him watching on that summer.

So this cruciate setback also looked set to wreck any plans he held for 2020 as well.

For De Búrca to be back flying fit and an essential component of a Waterford team on the cusp of a Munster final opposed to Limerick seemed outlandish at the time.

tadgh-de-burca An injured Tadhg De Búrca before Waterford's 2018 game against Cork.

But then a shift from a traditional June date to a November occasion in Thurles on Sunday was not on anyone’s radar.

In this weird GAA season of 2020, De Búrca has been one of the beneficiaries. A fortnight ago he was orchestrating Waterford’s win over Cork from the heart of their defence.

His recovery was aided by the fixtures programme being flipped, club games in the summer to help get into his stride and then that sharpness was restored for the winter county tests.

“I don’t think he’d mind me saying it, if he was playing inter-county in July, I don’t think he’d have been at the level,” says O’Halloran.

“It was a blessing for him Waterford that he was able to have the club games, confidence wise.

“He didn’t hit the ground running at all, he’d be the first to say it. The first few games back, he was as nervous as you’d expect after such a big injury. I think we played eight weeks in a row, three challenge games and five championship, every week he just got better and better.”

2018 saw Clashmore-Kinsalebeg make their breakthrough in landing a maiden divisional intermediate hurling crown. If De Búrca’s injury scuppered their hopes of retaining that title, his availability once more helped propel them towards this year’s final. They lost in a blaze of drama after a penalty shootout, their county man scoring 1-3 during the marathon battle with Ballyduff Upper.

“Playing that day last year, it was like there was a hole back there in our defence that people could just run through,” recalls O’Halloran.

“He just knits the whole backline together. At intermediate level it’s hard to keep the ball away from him. Most clubs go out with the tactic, ‘Don’t hit it down on Tadhg’. But he’s able to adapt to that and still pull the strings for us.”

That’s his influence on one scale and the impact for Waterford is also pronounced. But was he always destined for hurling stardom?

It wasn’t that straightforward. Waterford hurling is split into two sectors, the east where the traditional city superpowers lie and the west where football would command plenty attention. Any established barriers are long since broken down.

O’Halloran, a teacher in Killeagh in East Cork, was a trail blazer for his club. He was pitched in as a teenager by Davy Fitzgerald for the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary and still involved until he retired last summer.

brian-ohalloran Brian O'Halloran in action in the 2017 All-Ireland senior hurling final.

“Your club was no barrier around the time that I started. The standard of junior and intermediate in Waterford, and I’d say across the country, in the space of 15-20 years, has just really blossomed.

“We’re probably luckier than some counties. It’s a small county and if you are good enough, you should be known and you should get spotted. I’ve often maybe seen decent players in Cork and if you fall off a Rebel Óg panel at 15 or 16, you can get forgotten about.

“In Waterford you’d never have a fella coming in and people saying, ‘Oh only from a junior club.’ You’ll always be noticed playing well with your club or your school.”

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It was that second-level arena where De Búrca thrived. He was noted as Tadhg Bourke then on Coláiste na Déise teamsheets. The Irish translation came later, his mother is a Kerry Gaeilgeoir.

With the Dungarvan Colleges combination he won two Dr Harty Cup medals and added an All-Ireland in 2013. That put him in the shop window, critical for a player who was a few months overage to be part of the golden Waterford crop that swept to minor glory that year and subsequently at U21 level.

“In the club he wouldn’t have been one that you’d have picked out that he’s definitely going to play for Waterford,” says O’Halloran.

“He did a ferocious amount on the wall at home, he’s the biggest ad for a ball and a wall that I’ve ever seen. He could make a ball sing and dance. They’ve a gable end wall at the house and I’d say he just spent hours and hours belting off it.

“We knew he was a very good club minor and stuff but he first came to prominence with us all with Coláiste na Déise. You could see against good teams he was up a level, a really classy wing-back. He was brought into the Waterford panel in 2014 and he really never looked back after that.”

The transition to operating in such elevated ranks was seamless.

“I remember one of the first things we did that year with Waterford was a skills assessment,” recalls O’Halloran.

“I think Frank Flannery did it. It was a cool thing, hit a ball off a wall and how many times in 30 seconds, then maybe no hand for another one. Tadhg was one of the best at it.

“As the years went by then, his physicality became a big asset. He really embraced the gym thing quickly and he became a monster as the years went by.”

2014 was Derek McGrath’s inaugural year at the helm. Waterford exited in July against Wexford. De Búrca played in some defensive roles, was midfield for that qualifier loss but by the following season he had nailed down his place.

“We played Laois in ’14 and I think they might have played a sweeper and Tadhg ended up being free down in Walsh Park,” says O’Halloran.

“Maybe Derek had a bit of eureka moment or he always had a plan, it was obvious from that night he was gifted at that role. From ’15 on, Derek made a plan to make sure that Tadhg was going to be there. We had unreal centre-backs, Philip could have played there and Darragh. But Tadhg, it probably suited him the most out of all the lads.”

That was the springboard. He was an All-Star in 2015 and the best young hurler in the country. His role also came under immense scrutiny, a stick to beat McGrath’s tactical philosophy with as that tenure progressed.

The downplaying of what’s required in the position irritates his club-mate.

conor-whelan-and-jonathan-glynn-with-barry-coughlan-and-tadhg-de-burca Tadhg De Búrca (right) in action for Waterford against Galway in the 2017 final. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“I just think it’s lazy analysis, like the last day when people say, ‘Cork hit the ball down on top of him the last day.’

“Cork were trying to hit their full-forward line like every team is. If it’s that easy why isn’t every centre-back doing it?

“His ability to read the ball where it’s going is as good as I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t bat it away stupidly, I think he makes the right decision 99% of the time, to go up and catch it or knock it down to himself. I thought what he did with the ball against Cork was unreal. He was always brilliant with distribution but he looked to have been instructed to run it out more.”

He’ll be central to Waterford aspirations of stifling Limerick on Sunday. De Búrca’s responsibility has grown in significance. From the team that challenged for the Liam MacCarthy Cup on 2017 final day, the defence has seen the removal of Barry Coughlan, Noel Connors, Philip Mahony and Darragh Fives.

De Búrca is not a hurler with the highest of profiles or one regularly in the public spotlight but on the pitch his work will be instrumental to Waterford’s hopes.

“He’d be loud compared to his brothers now,” laughs O’Halloran.

“No, he’d be quiet natured. But still in the club he leads, he’d talk us through games. In football actually around the middle of the field, he can really dominate and you’d notice him more. With Waterford he can guide the new lads like Callum (Lyons) through that.

“When he talks you listen, most of it is done in organising. I’d back him to the hilt. If he told me stand over five yards from the sideline, I’d do it because I just think he has that game intelligence that most people don’t have.

“He’s playing inter-county now with six or seven years and watching forwards and different team systems, he’s taking all that in. That’s huge experience and that’s massive for Waterford now.”


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Fintan O'Toole

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