From Jamaican sun to Clonmel winter for Tipp hurlers this week

We still bask in the warm glow from 2010, but a New Year prompts a different focus. For once we're reluctant to leave the old year but January brings a new dawn and with it renewed anticipation of future events. The hurlers return this week from Jamaica and the action resumes immediately with the Waterford Crystal this Sunday. A day earlier that belated U21 business is set to resume. It's hurling time once again folks.

We still bask in the warm glow from 2010, but a New Year prompts a different focus. For once we're reluctant to leave the old year but January brings a new dawn and with it renewed anticipation of future events. The hurlers return this week from Jamaica and the action resumes immediately with the Waterford Crystal this Sunday. A day earlier that belated U21 business is set to resume. It's hurling time once again folks.

Out with the old and in with the new as another hurling season dawns. It's one we approach in high spirits following the intoxicating successes of 2010. A clash with WIT is our opener on Sunday at Clonmel in a preliminary round of the Crystal tournament. A win there will send us forward to a semi-final the following week against either Cork or UCC. It's all part of the pre-season warm-up ahead of the league start on February 12.

This Waterford Crystal competition has now become established as an official pre-season event, Munster's equivalent of Leinster's Walsh Cup. Initially it started off as a South-East competition, one barely tolerated by Croke Park, incidentally, who saw it as a rival to the old Oireachtas tournament. It was then modified to become a purely Munster event. The inclusion of college sides was a further adjustment, giving the third level teams priority call on inter-county players.

Not everyone regards the Crystal competition as a worthwhile venture. Interestingly Donal O'Grady has opted out with his Limerick team preferring to work on training and, presumably challenge games ahead of their division two league campaign. Others, like Tipp, regard it as a useful way to open the season and give players the feel for the 'caman' again after winter hibernation.

We made a quick exit last year going under to Clare in sub-zero conditions at Borrisoleigh. The previous year Clare again had our measure, taking the crystal in a final played at Ogonnelloe.

This time our involvement has the added interest of being the first outing for Declan Ryan and his new cabinet. January is going to be an important month for the new management as they put their initial imprint on the panel. There's pruning to be done ahead of the league and I assume Sunday's game will be used to cast a cold eye over some of the peripheral players, including those who were invited to embark on training schedules over the 'closed season' of November and December.

The management will be without college players, including such as Timmy Hammersley and Brian O'Meara who may be assisting the Waterford College. Others like Padraic Maher and Michael Cahill play U21 at the weekend and surely others still will be rested. I suspect you'll end up with a mixed cocktail of players featuring a heavy emphasis on trialists. Actually with the league coming up so fast the management will have very little opportunity to give play-time to panellists in the weeks ahead.

In the overall scheme of things it's not an important competition though I'm sure Declan and the lads would like to restart 2011 the way 2010 finished – with a win. It will be a headline item on Sunday evening if a college side beats the All Ireland champions. WIT this year hosts the Fitzgibbon Cup and I'm sure have a lot of winter training behind them.

A victory for Tipperary would set up a semi-final the following Sabbath, presumably against Cork, unless the Leeside students can top their county counterparts. Cork was the only team we lost both league and championship games to last year and a clash with Denis Walsh's men would be interesting even at this stage of the year. Anyway it's great to be back watching hurling and let's hope the weather doesn't play spoilsport once more.

Golden is also the favoured venue for the long-delayed U21 semi-final between Sarsfields and Arravale Rvs. on Saturday. It's a quick turnaround for the likes of Padraic Maher and Michael Cahill to return from the sunshine of Jamaica on Tuesday and be ready for a county semi on Saturday. Kilruane continue to wait for the winners in the final, which presumably is set for the following week.

During my absence over the Christmas period a giant of the game, John Doyle, was laid to rest. His passing prompted tributes from many sources, national and local, all testifying to the greatness of one who really was a legend of the game. That word legend tends to be over-used, even abused, nowadays but Doyle fitted the description in its true, original meaning.

Straight up I must admit a certain disadvantage when commenting on John Doyle and his hurling exploits. I'm of an age where I only have childhood memories of the latter stages of his long and decorated career. I do recall the '67 All Ireland and that failed attempt to win the ninth Celtic Cross but I have no recollection of Doyle in his prime.

Yet you hardly need to have been a live witness to attest the greatness of the man. His trophy cabinet leaves no room for doubt, ranging from the All Ireland haul to the league collection, Munster medals, Texaco award, centenary team, team of the millennium and many, many more. It all adds up to an undisputed status in the game.

I always regard longevity as a key element in assessing greatness in any sport. Many reach the top but only the greats stay there for a prolonged period. Doyle stayed at the very top from his emergence in '49 to his retirement in '67 in a career that was one sustained peak without valleys. To deliver so consistently through three decades marks him apart as a unique personality in the ancient game.

It was of course a different style of game to the modern brand. We have become accustomed to rule changes in recent times but probably the most revolutionary alteration in the past fifty years was the removal of the third-man tackle. Younger players nowadays probably find it difficult to visualise a game where you could legitimately take out an opponent off-the-ball in order to protect a colleague who was in possession. It created a rough-and-tumble aspect which was at its fiercest between the 'full' lines. There was no protection for the goalie so an essential job for the full back line was to guard their net-minder.

In this environment Doyle was a colossus, revelling in the close skirmishing and fast-pulling many a clearance. He seems to have had that rare combination of physical strength and artistic hands. He wasn't just a stopper and indeed many have pointed out that he very successfully played in the forwards for Holycross, even against the likes of Tony Wall. He won three county senior medals with his parish.

He was probably fortunate in that his career coincided with a great era in Tipperary hurling. He was part of the three-in-a-row from '49 to '51 and again the four-out-of-five from the early sixties. His eighth All Ireland came in 1958. In one of his most generous assessments of his own career he credited Tipperary for winning his eight All Irelands whereas Christy Ring, he suggested, won the eight for Cork.

The Tipperary defence from that era certainly earned a fearsome reputation though whether or not hindsight has skewed the reality is a debated point nowadays. Somewhere along the line this phrase 'hell's kitchen' emerged though I'm not sure who first used the term. It annoys some who interpret it as a slur on Doyle and his colleagues suggesting that it was all brute force and bullying. The irony is that I suspect Doyle himself, privately at least, would not have been averse to the term.

When the inter-county playing career was over Doyle briefly flirted with national politics, standing unsuccessfully for Fianna Fail in a general election and then spending a term in the Seanad. Somehow the personality seemed unsuited to national politics and subsequently he drifted towards GAA politic,s representing Tipperary on Central Council for several years. He went through a phase when a yearly battle with Mick Maguire was played out at County Convention – it became one of the focus items on the agenda in those days of intense canvassing.

His views on GAA matters could be strong, even blunt. I recall a Board meeting in the early eighties where he pronounced that nobody should be selector at a level above which they played themselves. Around that time we had a panel of county selectors who had enjoyed huge success at U21 level and then been promoted to the senior job where they ultimately failed to bring us out of the famine. It was a dig at that group and a very undeserved one.

Mind you that view, or versions of it, seems to have had some standing with Doyle's generation of hurlers. Didn't 'Babs' as late as last summer suggest that Liam Sheedy wouldn't lead Tipperary to an All Ireland success because he hadn't won as a player. By now the view should be well discredited but don't be surprised if it surfaces again, though Declan Ryan at least is safe from the charge.

Anyway those are really side issues because Doyle's reputation is soundly anchored on an extraordinary hurling career. He came to epitomise a glorious era of Tipperary hurling and symbolised the stout-hearted nature of the county's hurling. His place among the legends of the sport is unchallenged and will surely stand the test of time. For many Tipperary people he is forever linked with glorious days when the hurling world was blue and gold. We are proud that he was a Tipperary man. May he rest in peace and our sympathies to the bereaved.