Reaping the rewards: sports stars at the Ploughing

Henry Shefflin among the multitude in Tullamore for this year’s event


Had fate ordained otherwise, Henry Shefflin and the McGrath brothers would have been the fiercest of rivals in the recent All-Ireland senior hurling final.

However, the most successful hurler of all time – with 10 All-Ireland medals and 11 All-Stars – is now retired after a glorious career.

At the National Dairy Council tent on Wednesday, Shefflin and Tipperary senior stars John and Noel McGrath – along with youngest brother, Brian, captain of the successful minor team – draw a huge crowd.

There was a lot of good-natured banter as they took on each other in a “strength” challenge and a penalty shoot-out.

Shefflin’s public profile makes him a magnet for sponsors. He considers himself one of the lucky ones. His former teammate Tommy Walsh, who has nine All-Ireland medals, does not have anything like the same recognition factor.

“You’d swear he was just one of the lads walking in from the stand there,” he remarks. “That’s the way Tommy wanted it.”

Shefflin says those GAA players who get corporate support are there because they get the greatest adulation on the pitch, but also the greatest flak when things go wrong.

“It is a pity that not everybody can get it (corporate sponsorship), but Ireland is too small. I think players understand that as well.”

Shefflin is still playing club hurling for Ballyhale Shamrocks and remains as lean as a whippet.

It has been a gilded life, but not without its ups and downs. His son Henry Jr had an accident with a ride-on lawnmower earlier this year and spent time in Crumlin Children’s Hospital.

“It was a traumatic time, it still probably is,” says Shefflin. “He’s been amazing. We all have mortgages and jobs and sporting concerns, but what matters most is your family. It has definitely brought us closer together.”

The McGraths are still coming to terms with that glorious September Sunday recently when Noel (25) won his second All-Ireland medal, John (22) his first and Brian (18) a minor medal.

“We had a few good days celebrating and then it was back to the clubs, training hard,” says Noel. “It didn’t last too long but I’m sure we’ll get to celebrate it over the next few weeks and months.”

The National Ploughing Championships is a chance for sports people, both active and retired, to meet the public and for their corporate sponsors to bask in their reflected glory.

It is also a chance for sports stars, who are poorly rewarded or, in the case of GAA players, not at all, to get some financial return for their years of excellence. Over the three days a constant procession of sports people will be at the Ploughing.

From the GAA, it includes Bernard Brogan, Séamus Callanan and Ronan Maher; from rugby Jamie Heaslip, Cian Healy, Paul O’Connor, the Kearney brothers, Rob and Dave, and Gordon D’Arcy; and boxer Andy Lee.

Also making the trip to Tullamore this week are ex-Olympic athlete Derval O’Rourke; current Olympians Scott Evans and Natalya Coyle, and even all three of Ireland’s medal winners at the Rio Olympics.

Silver medalist Annalise Murphy says she is not as unfamiliar with rural Ireland as one might expect from a girl brought up in south Dublin. “I spent quite a lot of time in the countryside,” she says, “I did horse riding when I was younger.”

Stopping to talk outside the Eir tent, she is quickly enveloped with schoolgirls looking for photographs and selfies with her.

On Thursday, it will be the turn of the O’Donovan brothers, Gary and Paul. The brothers are nearly as proficient at the one-liners and the gags as they are at the rowing.

The will be appearing in the Electric Ireland tent on Thursday at 11am.

Expect a big crowd.