NOBODY knows how the season will play out for Kilkenny, but Michael Rice has already experienced the sweetest 43 minutes of his year.
The Carrickshock man was a welcome sight for Kilkenny fans as he played his first game of 2013 for the Cats in Sunday’s National Hurling League win over Clare in Ennis.
“It’s good to be back,” was the simple, no-fuss response from Rice in the aftermath of Sunday’s win. “I’m happy enough to be back hurling.”
Rice’s return to the starting team was greeted well by Kilkenny and Clare fans alike - he was given warm applause when he left the fray in the 43rd minute to be replaced by Walter Walsh, another hurler making his debut this season.
Ennis was a different cry to the last time Rice walked off a field. The Carrickshock man picked up his sixth All-Ireland medal in September, but didn’t get to play in the game after his season was ended by a hand injury suffered in the semi-final win over Tipperary at Croke Park in August.
Since then Rice has played the waiting game, something which he found tough to deal with.
“The first few months were tough enough as there was still an All-Ireland to be played and the club was involved in the championships.
“It was very frustrating missing the All-Ireland final while missing the club games was another tough one to take,” he said.
“But,” he added with a smile, “sure November, December and January were grand - there was no hurling going on! I was on the right road by that stage anyway, so it wasn’t too bad. I was able to go to the gym and work away on other parts of training. I didn’t just sit back and do nothing - you could, but that gets boring too.”
Once he was back into the thick of things, Rice had no issue of playing it cautiously.
“Once I got going I wasn’t worried about the hand at all,” he said. “I got the idea of taking a hit out of my head and quickly, so I was happy with that.”
Speaking after the game, manager Brian Cody revealed that Rice could have come into the game as a sub, but was selected as a starter to see how he would fare. It was a decision Rice welcomed for more than one reason.
“I was delighted to get the start as it meant I could get rid of that question ‘how’s the hand?’,” he said smiling. “The hand is fine - now it’s time to move on, to go play hurling.”
And Sunday’s win over Clare offered a suitably challenging game to make that comeback.
“It was a serious game to come back into,” he said after coming through Sunday’s test with no ill-effects. “I would have liked to stay out there a little longer but with the squad we have everyone deserves a run.
“Clare are flying at present and have a different style of play you have to try and deal with as best you can. We dealt with it well enough to get the win, so we’re happy with that.”
The first step for Rice, getting back on to the field of play, has been taken. Now, he’s back in the same boat as the rest of the panel when it comes to achieving their goals.
“The personal target is the same as it is for everyone else - to try and make the team,” he said. “That’s the way it is for everyone each season. That never changes, but it’s great to finally be back doing a bit of hurling.”
And the timing of the comeback couldn’t be better, as two back-to-back wins in the League have left Kilkenny with a good chance of successfully defending their title.
“It’s great to be going into the last game against Cork with something to play for,” he agreed. “That was the big thing we took from the Clare result; we’re happy enough with that.
“Winning is a good habit to be in,” he added. “It was one we weren’t in at the start of the League, now that we are we’ll be mad to keep it going and to try and qualify for the semi-final.