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tipp top Tipperary's Pádraic Maher is a modern defensive giant whose record of unbroken service stood out

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Premier class: Pádraic Maher has called time on his 13-year inter-county career with Tipperary. Photo: Sportsfile

Premier class: Pádraic Maher has called time on his 13-year inter-county career with Tipperary. Photo: Sportsfile

Premier class: Pádraic Maher has called time on his 13-year inter-county career with Tipperary. Photo: Sportsfile

When Tipperary played Kilkenny in the 2009 league final on the Bank Holiday weekend in May in Thurles, they were still smarting from the 17-point hammering Kilkenny had given them in a regulation league match in Nowlan Park just six weeks earlier.

Kilkenny were in their absolutely pomp in those weeks through February and March, laying waste to opponents in league matches as a carryover from the previous year’s championship when they had routed everyone.

A week after that Nowlan Park massacre, 20-year-old Pádraic Maher made his debut as a substitute against Dublin. In the league final five weeks later, not only had he cemented his place on the team, but he was entrusted to pick up Henry Shefflin at centre-forward despite having No 5 on his back.

Shefflin ghosted away to score two early points but by the time the Kilkenny icon had left the field through a yellow card (it was that brief window of experiment when the terms and conditions for a yellow-card offence changed and a player in receipt of one was ordered off and replaced), Tipp had taken a dominant position.

They didn’t win but they had recovered lost ground from the spring, enough to put a deposit down that they withdrew some 16 months later.

Maher had held his ground impressively through a fractious affair as flashpoints erupted everywhere, a real ‘bring it on’ attitude that prevailed through a 13-season career that came to an end, for club (Thurles Sarsfields) and county as he bowed to medical advice that a neck injury could no longer be risked in a contact sport.

There’s irony in that because injury was something Maher just didn’t have to reckon with at any stage over the last 13 years. It wasn’t until the 2020 Munster semi-final with Limerick in Páirc Uí Chaoimh that he had to retire from the action but typically he was up and running for a subsequent qualifier against Cork.

There were blood injuries that were part of the course for a player who thrived in the trenches, whether at full-back or half-back where his fielding ability and subsequent capacity to clear a path for himself brought roars of approval from the Tipp support in much the same way that Brian Lohan had the Clare crowd on their feet when he cleared his lines, or Diarmuid O’Sullivan did similar for Cork. He never took a step back and was always front and centre of any Tipperary response.

Maher had that. And much more. But above all he had consistency and such a huge physical presence. His well-being allowed him to play 60 consecutive championship games. That’s 4,200 minutes without added time. If he was off the field (barring blood injuries) for 60 of those minutes that was about the height of it.

His league record encapsulated that ‘any time, any place, anywhere’ attitude too with 71 appearances from 77, and for most of those 70 minutes, just like his championship collection, there were 70-plus minutes spent on the field. He was the ultimate ‘have hurl will travel’ players. Successive Tipperary managers knew the value of keeping him on the field, irrespective of how a game was going.

There was often merit in giving him a break but he meant so much to every Tipp team he played on, his removal became non-negotiable from an early stage.

It was often hard to reconcile the perception of a Tipp team not having the stomach for battle with Kilkenny in the years after their 2010 win when Maher was at their core. He brought an engagement that few hurlers could match in the modern era.

His sixth All-Star in 2019, having won them previously in 2009, 2011, 2014, 2016 and 2017, brought him level with fellow county men Nicky English and Eoin Kelly as the most decorated recipients outside Kilkenny. Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s seven included two with the Cork footballers.

Three All-Ireland final wins over Kilkenny helped to restore the balance of some of those earlier defeats in his career while seven Tipperary championship wins with Thurles Sarsfields brought one subsequent Munster title.

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In his fledgling days he won All-Ireland minor medals in 2006 and 2007, years when he was obvious the addition he would be in the future.

His Thurles club mate, former Tipperary colleague and friend, Lar Corbett, rates him the best hurler the county has produced.

“As a forward you can get lucky on a particular day,” he said in 2020. “As a defender you have to earn your stripes harder and you have to be more consistent over a longer period of time. He had done that far and above any Tipp player I have seen. He is the best in my lifetime.”

It was a view that, 15 months on, he was happy to reiterate now.

Maher had been looking forward to getting back with Tipperary as he recovered from an ankle injury, until the weight of his ankle diagnosis hit home over the weekend.

A shock for him and for the Tipperary management team to be losing such a defensive bulwark and leader.

His departure really does feel like a new era in Tipperary is being ushered in now.

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