THE KILKENNY media night was drawing to a close but Michael Rice was still there, answering questions, doing his bit. What followed next was more like an informal chat, but one which offered an insight into the rigours of being an inter-county hurler.
The first question wasn’t too tough, just a query about how Rice prepares for games.
“I tend to go into my own shell, worry about myself and concentrate on my own game,” he said. “It’s a bit of a selfish time in one way, as you’re thinking about yourself; like every other player you want to get yourself right and then put it together as a team.”
What goes through your mind in the build-up to a final? Is it getting a good first touch? What’s the motivation?
“On the day of the game itself you try to win every ball that comes your way, but that doesn’t always happen,” he said. “If you lose the first ball, fair enough, you don’t worry about it – you move on to the next one. On that side of things you don’t know what’s going to happen; you don’t overly concentrate on things like that. In the lead up to a game you want to work on your first touch and your striking, the basic skills of the game that you want to get right.”
It can be hard to shelter yourself away when you have several thousand people watching you in training. From that point is it a case of getting the head down and doing the work before heading home or do you take it all in?
“For me it’s a case of get in, do the drills and get home,” was the simple response from the Carrickshock man. “That’s really it. We were training back in January, February and March and you had to do the work then. Just because there are a few thousand people watching you doesn’t mean you change what you’re doing – there’s still the same work to be done.
“That’s the reality of it,” he added. “If people want to come in and watch us run around, they can – but we still have to do the running!”
Soak up atmosphere
What about the day of the final? As the players still meet in Kilkenny and travel up by bus that morning, do you stick the headphones on and zone out or do you soak up the atmosphere?
“I always enjoy the bus going up to matches,” he said. “You have a chat with the lads and enjoy a bit of craic. Some of the lads like to listen to music, but there’s a good mixture there – something to suit everyone.”
There must be some terrible tastes in music, the question was shot out.
“You’d be asking one or two of them to turn down the iPods alright!” was the equally as swift reply!
This year’s All-Ireland will be the third meeting of Kilkenny and Tipp in a row. It seemed that within minutes of the final whistle sounding after the 2010 final many people were expecting the sides to meet again in 2011. Was that an added pressure put on the team?
“Talk of the 2011 All-Ireland final didn’t bother me,” he said. “The thing about Kilkenny is that there is huge interest in hurling in the county; lads would be mad for talking about the sport. It happens then that people can get carried away and start talking about September, but it’s a longer road than people think – we’re privileged to be back there again.”
While other players might be working in other parts of the county and able to get away from hurling, Rice can’t. As a teacher at St Kieran’s College, a school renowned as a nursery of Kilkenny hurling, he is as immersed in the sport as any person could be.
“It’s a good spot for hurling talk but nobody in Kieran’s would put you under too much pressure,” he said. “Lads would be interested in their own clubs, so there would be a big focus on that side of the game too.”
Rice also spent a lot of his Winter on the line with the College’s senior team as they successfully defended their Croke Cup title. It was a nice distraction from playing, he admitted, but he played down his role with the side.
“I was waterboy – I wasn’t doing anything else!” he laughed. “It’s nice to get involved in a small way with the team, just to help out in any way you can. The selectors, Tom Hogan and Philip Walsh, were putting in a massive effort along with Ken Archibold, and it’s nice to think that if they need help on the day that you can do your bit. As well as that it’s great to see some of the young talent that’s coming through. There are some great young hurlers there; if I wasn’t teaching in Kieran’s I wouldn’t see those guys until they were hopping off me in club games, which a lot of them will be doing very soon. The reality is that once they are 17 or 18 they are playing club hurling; within a year or two some of them will be playing inter-county hurling, either at under-21 or senior level.”
The next level of talent is always ready to come through. Not so long ago Rice was one of the young lads hopping off the older players in training. Now, he is one of the more experienced players in the ranks.
“What really brought it home was when the likes of Martin Comerford, Derek Lyng and James Ryall retired,” he recalled. “Suddenly you realise ‘Jesus, if they’re gone that means I’m getting older too!’. There are great young lads in there, guys like Conor Fogarty and Richie Doyle who are so talented. You can see that they are going to be the future.”
It was a difficult Winter in Kilkenny terms, as Dublin took both the Walsh Cup and National Hurling League titles. However, Rice looked at it a different way.
“It was probably was a good kick in the arse as it got us going again” he said. “I would have loved to have won the Walsh Cup and the League, but at the same time I’m delighted to be in an All-Ireland final. Maybe that’s what we needed to turn us around this year.”
And what about the final?
“It will be high intensity, but that’s the way the finals have been over the last number of years,” he said. “Both teams are so mad to win it that they give everything they have.”