Crystal clear why Tadgh de Búrca is the centre of Waterford’s universe

Limerick found a way to avoid him in the Munster final and they’ll need to do it again

Waterford’s Tadhg de Búrca in action against Kyle Hayes of Limerick during the Munster SHC final at Semple stadium. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Waterford’s Tadhg de Búrca in action against Kyle Hayes of Limerick during the Munster SHC final at Semple stadium. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

In the opening 20 minutes of last month’s Munster final, Tadhg de Búrca had the game on a string. It was one of those settling-in periods where Limerick and Waterford mainly took each other’s pulse – between them they shared 14 points before the water break and a level game at that stage was no insult to anyone. Limerick decided to take offence anyway.

Of the seven points Waterford scored in that opening quarter, De Búrca had been the instigator of four. Three of them began with him turning over Limerick possession, either tidying up at the back in the regular way or, once, sprinting 35 metres to intercept a Cian Lynch pass to Aaron Gillane close to the Limerick 65. For another, he was fouled coming out with the ball.

One way or another, Limerick clearly decided he had had his fun. It may well have been a coincidence that they changed their approach after the tactics board session during the water break, or else they spent it talking mostly about the Waterford centre back. One way or the other, they spent the rest of the half playing studiously down the Semple Stadium sidelines.

Each of Limerick’s next four points came down the wings, two for Peter Casey and two for Gillane. De Búrca went almost a full 10 minutes without any involvement in the game, save for some occasional barging and rifling at rucks. He went from being the game’s dominant force to virtual anonymity. Limerick trotted in 0-14 to 0-11 ahead at the break.

Post hoc ergo proptor hoc? For once, inarguably so. Limerick excised De Búrca from the game and the dual effect was that they both upped their own scoring rate and slowed Waterford’s. It’s not a tactic that will always work but on this occasion, it bent the game in their direction. By the end of the afternoon, Limerick had powered home with a powerhouse final quarter to tidy up a four-point victory.

Cruciates are obviously not the injury it once was but people still have a real fear of it. It’s the dreaded injury, it has that reputation

One stat from the game tells its own story – Tadhg de Búrca was the most fouled Waterford player on the day. Limerick fouled him six times across the 70 minutes, for five frees and one advantage played by Paud O’Dwyer. It takes a fair suspension of disbelief to assume that something like that could happen by accident.

“That’s a great compliment to him,” says Brian O’Halloran, his clubmate at Clashmore Kinsalebeg and part of the Waterford panel for a decade up until last year. “Other teams recognise that he has that effect. I would imagine they didn’t all set out to foul him but at the same time there would have been a collective decision not to allow him come out with the ball unimpeded.

“They would have seen how he came out with the ball against Cork and that had to be in their thinking. It might not have been, ‘Make sure and foul him’. But it would have been, ‘Make sure and get in his face and make it hard for him to come out’.”

Tadhg de Búrca runs into a wall of Limerick players during the Munster SHC Final against Limerick. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Tadhg de Búrca runs into a wall of Limerick players during the Munster SHC Final against Limerick. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

If Waterford are lucky to have a player like De Búrca, this year more than ever he would probably admit to feeling lucky to have them. He is one of the few people on whom the ill wind of the pandemic has blown good fortune. In a normal year, the championship would most likely have gone ahead without him, due to a cruciate injury he picked up last September playing for Clashmore.

“At the time he wasn’t even sure whether it was his knee or his hamstring,” O’Halloran says. “It all seemed innocuous enough – he met someone slightly wrong in a challenge, that’s really all it was. It wasn’t at all clear at the time that anything major was wrong. But if the championship had gone ahead in the summer as normal, it would have been very touch and go as to whether he’d have been in the right shape for it.

“Cruciates are obviously not the injury it once was but people still have a real fear of it. It’s the dreaded injury, it has that reputation. There’s no guarantee you’ll come back as good as before. Everyone has dark thoughts about it. Will it ever come right? Will I be able to push it? There’s always little niggles with it – the knee might be okay but other little parts around it might suffer during rehab.

We take for granted how good he is as a hurler but to be able to mix it physically is a massive thing

“So he wouldn’t have been a certainty to make it. And in fairness, when he came back with us in the club in June and July, he was a good bit off the pace. That’s to be expected after a cruciate so really, if there had been a normal championship, I don’t think he’d have been in the right shape to play for Waterford.”

Whatever about June or July, there was no guarantee he’d be good to go by October. The outside world has probably become overly blase about cruciate injuries down the years, just because thew science has advanced to make the treatment of them theoretically straightforward doesn’t make the work involved any less arduous. De Búrca may have had the carrot of a delayed championship dangling in front of him but he still had to propel himself towards it.

Not that anyone doubted that he would. If anything has typified his hurling life, it has been the work he has put into it. De Búrca was one of the smaller underage players on the Waterford scene in his teenage years and only really developed a frame worth growing into during his final couple of years in St Augustine’s in Dungarvan. He was a forward most of the way through school but marked Shane O’Donnell in a Harty Cup game once and kept him to a point, sealing his fate as a defender forever more.

“And then he filled his frame with sheer gym work,” says O’Halloran. “He put in the time and effort in the gym over the years and didn’t lose any mobility, which was important. You see it most when he plays football for the club. His physicality really stands out when he plays there in midfield. We take for granted how good he is as a hurler but to be able to mix it physically is a massive thing.”

So whatever about June or July, it wasn’t going to be a lack of work that kept him out of an October championship. Man-of-the-match against Cork, he powered into the Limerick game before they worked out how to keep him out of it. Bravura performances against Clare and Kilkenny have him running third in the betting for Hurler of the Year going into the final.

He is also the only survivor of the Waterford defence that last lined out for an All-Ireland final just three years ago. The moving parts all around him keep changing but De Búrca remains the one constant. Plenty of teams play with sweepers but few of them are as critical to the fortune of their side as De Búrca is to Waterford’s.

“He naturally has an idea of where to be on the field,” O’Halloran says. “He fills the same role for the club as he does with the county. He’s one of the best at it that I’ve come across. You often see fellas who can read breaks and they seem to have a sixth sense of where to go. But that’s a very rare thing. He is very good at watching the striker of a ball at the other end of the field and judging by how he is shaping where the ball is going to go. He gambles on it a bit so as to get a split second headstart.

That ability to know what the right thing to do is, the right place to go, Tadhg has it in abundance but it’s nearly unique to him

“There’s an innate sense of judgment there. If I went in centre back in the morning and I had to decide whether to stick on my man or drift across behind where I thought the ball was going to land, I would most likely be caught between two stools. Am I going to get cleaned out by my man or am I going to leave a big hole behind me and leave them in for a goal? That’s the question that every centre back has to deal with. There’s such a fine balance because you have almost no margin for error. If you follow your man and leave a gaping hole, it takes very little for the opposition to get in for a goal.

“If I was marking Tadhg as a centre forward, I’d be trying to drag him everywhere with me. But he seems to have a lovely balance this year especially of pushing further up the field than he would have in the past. He intercepted a ball in front of Aaron Gillane beyond midfield at one stage and you would never have seen him do that before. But it was just him gambling on making a ball that nobody thought he could. It ended up in a Waterford point, coming from a turnover he made almost on the Limerick 65.

“You have so many questions to answer in that role. You have so many decisions to make. Most lads have their man to mark and they follow him and that’s that. Tadhg has a lot more to deal with. But his experience and the years he has put into it now mean that he is nearly a unique player in the game at this stage.

“I don’t know if you could coach a young fella to be Tadhg de Búrca. That ability to know what the right thing to do is, the right place to go, Tadhg has it in abundance but it’s nearly unique to him. That’s why he is the way he is.”

The way Waterford need him to be. The way Limerick can’t let him be. The fate of the final may well lie in the tension between those two states.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.