Sports Editor Conall Devlin speaks to the man of the match in this year’s All Ireland Senior Hurling Championship final, UCD and Kilkenny forward Walter ‘Wally’ Walsh.
When inter county managers place their faith in a young player by handing him their debut, it tends to be on a shrill winter’s evening or damp spring afternoon. The secondary competitions in respective provinces or the National League is often the appropriate setting for such an experiment. In this way, or in theory at least, a player can be bedded into the setup away from much of the media spotlight and can fearlessly express themselves on the field.
Not so for Wally Walsh. Kilkenny manager Brian Cody threw out the textbook on conventional wisdom by handing the six foot four 21 year old from the Tullogher Rosbercon club his debut at full forward on the biggest stage of them all, the All Ireland final replay against Galway. It was one of the boldest managerial moves in recent years. To throw in a rookie like Walsh, a completely unknown quantity to punters and Galway coaches alike, and to ask him to spearhead what has been without doubt the most potent forward line in the modern era, took sheer audacity.
But Walsh was more than up to the task. His man of the match performance saw him score 1-3 from play and completely outperform Galway’s star defender Kevin Hynes. As he recalls the day a few weeks on, the astonishment of his achievement is only sinking in: “It still feels surreal. I had no idea that I would be starting, I was just hoping to feature in the game at some stage but to get the start was a great shock for me. We had a meeting on the Friday night and the team was named, I couldn’t believe it when I was down on the sheet to start full forward.”
Many questioned Galway’s experience coming into the replay and favoured Kilkenny due to their seasoned veterans’ ability to rise to the occasion once more. As it transpired, it was the raw quality and the free abandonment with which Walsh dominated the full forward line that was the ultimate thorn in Galway’s side, but Walsh acknowledges that the advice received from older heads was indispensable in his own success on the day- “David Herity told me during the week not to be surprised if I might be starting. The likes of Henry (Shefflin), Larks (Eoin Larkin) and the injured Michael Rice were very helpful also.”
There are no pretences with Walsh. Even now, having turned in the performance he did, he is still humbled by the huge gamble Brian Cody took. “Brian is the best manager ever in the game so it was just a privilege for me to play on a great team under him. I am very grateful that he gave me a chance to play especially in an all Ireland final when other managers wouldn’t, just goes to show what guts he has as a manager.”
Going forward, having gradually settled back into college life after the “blur” of the past few weeks, the Ag Science student wants success with UCD this year as it may be his last shot to do so with placements on the horizon, remarking, “I hope to win a Fitzgibbon Cup because it may be my final year. I feel it would be great for Dave Billings and all involved because of the work they put in.”
Regarding Kilkenny? Walsh is typically callow on the matter. “I just hope to be asked back in and get ready to prepare for the league and hopefully win another All Ireland in 2013.”
It is clear to see that Wally Walsh is a young man who personifies the Brian Cody blueprint on Kilkenny Hurlling. The men who Walsh currently looks up to in the Kilkenny dressing room, the likes of Henry Shefflin and Eoin Larkin, haven’t won the Liam McCarthy Cup seven out of the last ten years due to a sense of entitlement. It is rather the enduring hunger of self-effacing superb hurlers who have quietly gone about their business to become some of the greatest players of all time that has merited their position. And with a bit of luck, Wally Walsh could similarly dominate for years to come.