Tipperary’s Noel McGrath: ‘It was never a burden to talk about it, the least I could do was give back’

In a career bookended by facing off against two of the greatest teams of all time, McGrath’s consistency has been remarkable

Fifteen years on, the Noel McGrath you know is the Noel McGrath you always knew. The physique hasn’t changed appreciably since his debut for Tipperary in February 2009. The best he can remember, he was 81kg then compared to 88kg now. Across a decade-and-a-half when everyone has got bigger and stronger and Hulkier, he does not look a whole lot different from the lad who came on against Cork just six weeks after his 18th birthday.

His game is still his game. The wrists don’t lie. They never did. McGrath won’t play against Dublin this weekend in Parnell Park and might not be ready for next week against Galway in Semple either. But at some stage in the coming weeks, he will get back on grass for Tipp and set about knitting together any threads he sees dangling around the place. Their constant gardener.

That first league game in 2009, he came off the bench to replace James Woodlock with 12 minutes to go. It was a historic night in Thurles – it was the first intercounty match to be played under the new Semple Stadium lights. Cork were mired in one of their strikes at the time and so it was one of those nights that pleased nobody. Tipp made heavy weather of it and Liam Sheedy reckoned they looked tired after it. He couldn’t have been looking in McGrath’s direction when he said it.

“I was just a young chap who wanted to play hurling,” McGrath says. “That’s all I am now, with 15 more years under the belt. I absolutely loved hurling from a young age, that’s all I wanted to do. I had no worries, not a care in life.


“I was just out of school, I was in college, I had no real pressures. I was getting to play with people I looked up to for years and I was getting to know them and learn a lot from them. I just really enjoyed it. And even now, 15 years later, I’m enjoying it as much. Even more, maybe.”

Any way you flip it, his has been an extraordinary career. With a fair wind this summer, McGrath will pass Brendan Cummins and become the Tipperary hurler with the most championship appearances. Only three teams in the history of the sport have won four All-Irelands in a row – McGrath has faced off against two of them and still gathered in three Celtic Crosses of his own. You can say that Tipp should have won more. You cannot say that he could have given more.

McGrath has been nominated for an All Star in 10 of his 15 seasons, including 2009 and 2023 – the first and the most recent. He has been both Young Hurler of the Year and, a full decade later, Man of the Match in an All-Ireland final. Of the current players, only Clare’s Tony Kelly has scored more than him from play in the championship. And yet when he had to fill in at a pinch and take the frees for Tipp last summer against Waterford after Gearóid O’Connor went off injured, he finished the day with seven points.

Hurling is a different animal now. Scoring levels are through the roof, possession stats are off the charts, handpass numbers long ago breached the stratosphere. Yet there is still a place for McGrath, in among the hugger-mugger of it all, finding an angle or a stick pass that nobody else saw.

“You’re always trying to get faster and stronger,” he says. “But one thing I always tried to do over the years is keep my hurling levels high. The game has evolved so much but the fundamentals are still the same.

“You still have to perfect the skills. You need to be on top of them. You can be as fit as you want, as fast as you want, as strong as you want but if you can’t catch the ball or strike the ball or put the ball into the position that you want it in, the rest of those things aren’t going to be much use to you. The skill level will always trump everything else in hurling.

“People tend to over complicate hurling. But it’s quite a simple game. Even as everything has become so possession-based, the most important thing is to be able to do what you want to do with the ball and make it go where you want it to go. The possession game has made the skills even more important.”

McGrath looks at young hurlers now and he sees players who arrive on the senior scene as physical specimens, with years of strength and conditioning already invested in them. By contrast, McGrath had never been in a gym before he joined the Tipperary panel in late 2008.

Yet he survived mainly because he had already spent two years playing senior hurling for his club Loughmore-Castleiney. When they won the Tipperary championship in 2007 and went on to convert it to a Munster club title, he was still only 16.

“By the time I went in with the Tipp seniors, I had spent two years playing against men, learning how to look after yourself and to protect yourself in the best way possible,” McGrath says.

“I was never going to be as strong as them at that age but I was used to doing it at club level and [that] was a big help. That was definitely something that prepared me massively for the step up.

“It’s probably why it’s harder to do it at that age now. Lads are older now by the time they establish themselves. But I learn so much from them when they come in. They have their own way of playing, their own way of preparing.

“That’s what I find so enjoyable about this time of year. You’re just trying to get yourself up to speed, to prepare as best you can. I think that’s the thing I really love about it. You’re going in, you’re putting everything you can into it.”

For 15 seasons, that is what McGrath has done. All he is, all he has. In 2015, it was all thrown into flux when he found a lump on his testicle and had to have it removed. He has told his cancer story countless times – being famous as a hurler means you end up ceding your medical life and times to the masses. For the majority of us, something like that would be a private, personal road to travel. Though McGrath never had that choice, being a public figure in that way didn’t bother him.

It was never a burden to talk about it,” McGrath says. “I realised that I was in a position where it would be known because obviously I was going to be out of training, I was going to miss matches.

“It was never a burden because I knew that so much of the support I got at the time was because of the position I was in. I was lucky in that the support that helped me through it, a lot of it came from the fact that I was doing what I was doing.

“So many people reached out to me. So many people helped me. I was living at home with my parents but they obviously had jobs and had to go to work. There was a few months where I couldn’t drive so I couldn’t get around the place and I had no real independence. And so many people helped me, be they friends, family, the GAA community, team-mates from the Tipp panel, whoever else it was.

“So when I got myself back on my feet and got myself back playing, I had no problem at all talking about it or giving interviews about it or anything like that. I was happy to do it because I knew that the position I was in as a sportsperson had led to the support I got to get through it. So the least I could do was to give back. I had nothing new to say other than what was said before but if it helped people, I was happy to do it.”

Nine years on, McGrath is fresh and well and eyeing up the season. He turned 33 the week before Christmas. He isn’t the oldest player in the Tipp squad – Bonner Maher was 34 in October – but he knows the clock is ticking. He doesn’t feel it or hear it but he knows it’s there. And that’s fine too.

“I understand the stage I’m at,” McGrath says. “I get it every so often, someone asks me if this will be it or whatever. But I don’t think of it like that. I know I obviously have more years played than I’ve left. But while I’m enjoying it and while I’m contributing to the team, I’ll keep at it.

“I feel I have worth. The body feels good, the mind feels good, I’m loving the challenge of getting up to speed with everyone for the year ahead. It’s exciting. I’m as hungry as I ever was.”

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