Maher’s Minors are fit and raring to go on the big stage

Eamonn Wynne

Eamonn Wynne

Whether his team win, lose or draw Sunday’s All-Ireland Minor Hurling Final, manager William Maher is a good advertisement for Tipperary hurling.

In his first year in charge the Ballingarry man has led the team to a Munster title and a place in the All-Ireland Final, 16 years after he captained the county U-18s to All-Ireland success.

As well as his successful first term as Minor manager, he articulates his passion for and knowledge of the game so impressively that it would be no surprise to one day see him occupy the top job in Tipperary hurling, as manager of the senior team.

However for someone whose own playing career was ended by an eye injury in 2001, what may or may not happen in years to come is of no concern to him at the moment.

“Everything in life is the now. It’s about looking very much forward. These youngfellows we have in Tipperary now are in a very fortunate position to be playing in an All-Ireland Minor Final, they all realise that.

They realise where they are and it’s a fantastic opportunity . The mantra we’ve been drilling in all year is that it’s about the next game, it’s not about what has gone before because our team has changed a little bit from the start of the year to the All-Ireland Final. It’s about the now and winning matches, not what you did last year and the year before”.

William’s work with Amgen Ireland (a company that provides drug therapies for patients with cancer and renal disease in hospital and in the community) takes him over half the country. A new car which he has since the start of the year already has 114,000 kilometres on the clock.

Yer he still has the energy for and interest in devoting his time to the development of the county’s young hurlers. “If you enjoy doing something you always find time to do it. We have a fantastic backroom team, a fantastic County Board and a fantastic group around us. The common thread is that everyone is very happy working for Tipperary; when you love doing something it makes a big difference.

If you love it you’ll do it. It’s important to have an understanding wife and family to facilitate what we’re doing because there are massive time constraints, hopefully we’ll get the reward on Sunday.

I love hurling and I love Tipperary hurling, that’s why I do this. I love going to Croke Park and Thurles and the places where it’s played.

If my wife would let me I’d go to the field every night and watch a hurling match, even if it was under 6s, that’s the way I was brought up”.

His wife, Linda Caulfield from Wexford, was one of Ireland’s most capped hockey players, retiring in 2007 after earning her 151st cap.“Luckily we’re both into sport. We’re having a baby at the end of this year so that could change!”

The sporting connections are all around him, as his sister Sarah is married to Eoin Kelly.

All-Ireland Final Day is a huge occasion, one capable of overwhelming the most experienced player of any age. So how does he think his players will cope with the pressure?

“It’s just another day, the only difference is that there’s a name or a tag on the game. These guys are playing hurling since they were 5, 6 or 7 years of age, that’s something we’ve been drilling into them at all times, to express themselves and enjoy the game.

It’s always a worry to know how they’ll handle the occasion but there are experienced players there, guys that have won All-Ireland Colleges and have won All-Ireland and back-to-back Munster Minor Football titles. It’s about the next day and our lads will be ready for it.

There will always be well drilled and fit hurlers in Tipperary so it’s a case of getting them together, getting a few breaks and see where that takes us.

We’re delighted with the players coming through and the biggest thing is that their attitude is unbelievable, they’re very humble young men and raring to go to represent Tipperary on Sunday. That’s all we can ask.

We’re very fortunate, we gave trials to 150 players, over 6 Saturdays in a row, lads got a fierce good crack of the whip. We’re delighted with the guys that we’ve picked, we had 31 guys there for the summer and they’ve done very well and it has got us so far. The next step is the big one”.

He told the players in Cashel in January that “you want to be on this bus because this bus is going to Croke Park, and we’re there now”.

A meeting with Dublin in the final renews his contact with current manager Shay Boland, with whom he served as a selector with Dublin in 2008 and who he describes as an excellent manager. William lived in Dublin for 8 years and his first link with hurling in the capital was established with the help of an old school friend, Michael Connolly from Fourmilewater in Co. Waterford, who was the Dublin development manager.

He says it doesn’t matter who Tipp are playing because they’re just glad to be in the final. “We were delighted to beat Galway because they were the aristocrats of Minor Hurling for the last 20 years, it was massive to beat them in the semi-final”.

He realises the scale of the task facing his team as the county tries to win its first Minor All-Ireland in five years.

“The best team we played this year are Dublin, by a mile. We played them 3 times – in Dublin earlier in the year, in Templetuohy and Holycross, I think it’s 2-1 to them. In the first game in Dublin they beat us by 15 or 16 points. We made inroads into that in the two challenges afterwards, but Dublin are an exceptional team, they are very skilful.

There’s a perception out there that Dublin hurlers are bigger and more physical but they’re also very skilful and have some really good players. They’ve a very quick full back line, their half back line is very strong with (Sean) McClelland at no. 5,their best player; Cormac Costello scored 4 goals in an All-Ireland semi-final last year; Oisin O’Rourke scored 3-10 from play in one of the challenges against Tipp, so we know as much about Dublin as they know about us.

Dublin have everything, and their combined colleges teams have been very successful in the last 10 years and gives them an opportunity to play at a very high level. They’re used to playing St. Kieran’s, Castlecomer, Good Counsel and the other Leinster schools.

In last year’s final they were beaten by a superstar Galway team. They scored 6 goals against Waterford in the semi-final last year, so it’s a myth that’s out there that there guys aren’t natural hurlers. Four or five Dublin teams have won U-14 Feiles in the last 10 years”.

Since his own playing days as a Minor he says that the whole strength and conditioning aspect of the game is different.

“Guys are a lot fitter, a lot better conditioned, a lot faster, the standard of hurling now is phenomenal, it’s a real skill-based thing. There’s a better standard of hurleys too”.

And on the overall state of the game he has this to say - “The big thing that Kilkenny have done for the last few years, yes, they’ve added physicality and they’re big guys. But fundamentally they’re all wicked skilful hurlers, Any of their forwards can play anywhere in the forwards, any of their backs can play anywhere in the backs. Years ago you had a guy playing centre forward and he wouldn’t move. Now it’s probably the Mickey Harte philosophy of the last 10 years, you’re not a wing-forward you’re a footballer and vice-versa.

I think the game is in a fairly healthy state and the bar continues to rise and it’s the teams that can rise with the bar who will be successful”.