There was a moment last weekend in the Limerick v Kilkenny game when I couldn't believe my own eyes. Gearóid Hegarty bore down on the Kilkenny goal in the 29th minute and from 12 metres out hit what I thought was the perfect shot, only to see it saved by Eoin Murphy.
Hegarty did everything you would be telling a young forward to do. He hit the ball low to take advantage of the wet conditions. He aimed to the goalkeeper’s right, which would be Eoin’s weaker side. And he hit it hard, giving Eoin no time to think, only to react. That should be a certain goal. There was very little more the Limerick man could have done.
Somehow though, Murphy got his hurl to the other side of his body and saved it. I watched it back again and again on Tuesday. His natural way of holding his hurl is to have the bás up near his left shoulder. His way of facing a shot is to always stand as tall as possible, giving the forward an idea that he’s covering as much of the goal as possible – as a result, he had to get the bás of the hurl from right up there at his left shoulder to down low close to the ground just beyond his right ankle.
That’s the hardest save for a goalkeeper to make. It goes against the grain, it takes longer to get your hurl to where the ball is going and even when you do get down that far, the ball is travelling at such a speed that it’s often not enough for you to just make contact. You have to have incredibly strong wrists to make that save and deflect the ball away. Every element has to be spot on – anticipation, reaction time, flexibility and pure brute strength. I’ll be amazed of there’s a better save made all year.
The game took on a life of its own after that save and finished up with Limerick as deserved winners. My head was spinning after a busy day on The Sunday Game analysing it all but just something about Eoin's performance was special. I couldn't get it out of my head.
I got outvoted when it came to Man of the Match on the night – in RTÉ, they like to go with someone from the winning team unless it’s something totally out of the ordinary. To me, this qualified but I wasn’t able to convince the rest of them.
When someone you know puts in a display like that, it sticks with you in a way it wouldn’t normally. I played in front of Eoin for a few years when the start of his Kilkenny career and the end of mine overlapped.
I first knew him as a skinny little chap who came into the panel around 2011 and to watch him mature into probably the best goalkeeper in the country now fascinates me. What is different? What changes did he make to his game and himself over those years? What did he do to bring himself up to such a high level?
He was always diligent. Right from the start, he had the application. When we trained at seven o’clock, Eoin was on the pitch sweating and working hard shortly after six. He was peppering puck-outs, doing reaction drills, saving shots. Every inter-county goalkeeper has to do that extra work. It’s the least they need to be doing. Eoin always had it.
On top of it, he is very meticulous about his preparation – his hurls, stretching and gym work, his footwork drills. But again, what inter-county goalkeeper isn’t? You just have to be. Goalkeepers have a different mind and way of thinking to outfield players – they’re half mad in my eyes.
One thing Eoin has that sets him apart from the others though is a brilliant first touch. I would genuinely say he has the best first touch that I have seen since the great DJ Carey. It's a natural talent that he has honed through hard work.
But when I’ve watched him this year, the big difference in him from what he was before looks to be in his mentality. He has a different outward attitude now, an edge and an anger to his game. He is 27 and has been on the panel for seven years and you can see that he is way more confident, a more powerful presence in the team. There is a real cut in how he plays now. He’s not spending any time looking over his shoulder, worrying about his place, worrying about proving himself, nothing like that.
He realises where he is right now and that you can't wait for these things to just happen for you. You go after what you want, make it happen and be ruthless in your approach to your game. He bosses around his defence now with authority and aggression – a far cry from the first round of the 2013 Leinster championship when against Offaly he was a lot more timid, uncertain and was almost apologetic about barking orders at me and JJ Delaney.
Back then, he wouldn’t be jumping out of the goal to take a free. Not a hope. But this year he scored seven points in the championship and when he walks out to the frees, there is an air of inevitability about it. This is all down to his mental development. His mental approach is one of power, belief, confidence and that’s the difference between a good hurler and an elite hurler at the top of his game.
The other performance that stuck with me from the weekend was Lee Chin’s for Wexford on Saturday. Different player, different team, different circumstances. Unfortunately for Lee, different story altogether. I was watching him against Clare and not for the first time this summer, I was wondering what happened to the player who dominated Kilkenny almost single-handedly in 2017.
That night in Wexford Park, Chin put in a display that was every bit the equal and maybe even better than Eoin Murphy's last Sunday. Hurling is a team game and it's only very occasionally that you can pinpoint a performance and say with total confidence that the result would have gone the other way without that guy playing the way he played. Without Lee Chin that night, I have no doubt that Kilkenny would have dug out a win.
I haven’t seen him play or perform like that or even close to it since. The odd flash here and there but nothing tangible to suggest that he is back to that form. Now he looks lost and disillusioned and in need of some guidance. Here is a guy who is a super athlete, talented in both codes, has all the tools but who will be not be an All Star in 2018 and probably not be nominated either.
From what I can see, Chin has no edge to him these days. That’s part of the reason I wanted to write about him and Eoin Murphy in the same article. Murphy is a guy who I can say, hand on heart, has had to go looking for that hard edge and has developed it within himself. Chin has to do so the same – probably even more so seeing as he’s involved in far more physical exchanges playing out the field.
I don’t know Lee so any theory I have about him is coming from a distance and I accept it could be wrong. But I wonder has his lack of form had anything to do with his public announcement earlier this year that he wasn’t working and instead was devoting himself being a full-time athlete. The very least we can say is that it hasn’t worked out.
I would go further and say there’s a good chance it has actually contributed to his loss of form. The theory behind taking time out from work to concentrate on hurling is all well and fine but what does it mean in reality? Are you setting yourself a schedule and sticking to it as if it’s a job? Or are you taking it handy, doing a few bits here and there, whiling away the hours on the couch before you go to training in the evening?
I’ve seen it work for some people, definitely. Declan O’Sullivan did it in his last year playing for the Kerry footballers. But the difference there was that he was in his 30s, he’d been playing for 13 seasons and he had been crucified by injuries. He knew he had one more year in him and he wanted to give himself every possible chance with rest and recovery and a specific schedule to be able to get himself right.
Lee Chin is 25. He is a physical specimen of a man. He has no need to be taking care of his body any more or any better than he already is. It’s just not clear to me what use all this spare time has been to him.
I can only speak for myself but I needed the distraction that work gave me when I was hurling. I needed to get away from it, to spend seven or eight hours remembering that something else in my life is important. I needed to be busy, to strive at something other than hurling, to try and push myself to find success in that world as well as the one I walked into when I got to Nowlan Park for training.
If you don’t have that, then what’s occupying your brain for the 14 hours in the day when you’re not training and you’re not sleeping? What’s keeping you sharp? What’s testing you? Are you sitting on the couch constantly thinking of last night’s training session and what you did right and what you did wrong? Or are you sitting there zoned out and ticking down the minutes until it’s time to go again? Neither option is a good, as far as I can see.
You can have too much time on your hands. Hurling is such an instinctive game, it depends so much on your reactions being sharp and your mind being alert. How many times have you seen a lad puck a wide and known straight away that the problem was he had too much time to think about it? Hurling is bang-bang-bang – get the ball, hit the ball. Fast, fast, fast.
If you’re not working and you don’t have to engage your brain on a day to day basis, kick-starting it for training and for matches might not just be the paradise option it sounds. Maybe if there’s a few of your doing it together, then at least there’s stimulation there. You’re forcing each other to keep a schedule, maybe doing a hurling session in the morning and going for lunch or coffee together afterwards. Above all, you’re not bored.
But if it’s just you on your own, then the temptation to drift from one day to the next must be massive. Even when you’re doing something important, like recovery the day after a game, do you wait all day on a Monday while the rest of the lads are in work to do it with them in the evening? Or do you think, ‘Well this is the whole idea of being off work, I’ll get it out of the way now.’ If so, are you distancing yourself from the group, cutting yourself off even more, drifting, drifting, drifting.
Again, I don’t know if any of this applies to Lee. I know his parents have a shop at home and for all I know, he could be doing a 40-hour week for them. But what I do know, just by looking at him play is that he has played this summer like a guy who has lost his explosiveness and who hasn’t been switched on. If we didn’t know he had it in him, then it wouldn’t be as much of an issue. But the memory of that game against Kilkenny last year is too strong.
Lee Chin has the natural talent and skills but he has played this summer like a lad whose attention is wandering. The body follows the mind, not the other way around.