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Tuesday 17 October 2017

Rushe: We know we can produce on the big days

Dublin manager Anthony Daly and Liam Rushe celebrate after the Leinster final. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Dublin manager Anthony Daly and Liam Rushe celebrate after the Leinster final. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Dublin hurler Liam Rushe. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

LIAM RUSHE has been there since the very start of the 'Dublin-Dalo' project. He was the coltish 18-year-old who made his league baptism at the outset of Anthony Daly's debut campaign in 2009 - and marked the event with a brace of goals.

The opposition? Cork. The same Cork who now stand in the way of a first All-Ireland final appearance since 1961. And yet a very different Cork, too.

That Páirc Uí Chaoimh outing in February '09 was anything but your typical Dublin/Cork collision. The '08 Rebels were literally rebelling against Gerald McCarthy: initially a case of unstoppable force meets immovable object, as a defiant manager stuck to his guns and went with a 'shadow' Cork squad for that league opener.

Four-and-a-half years on, only one name leaps out from the match programme XV: corner-back Conor O'Sullivan, who subsequently franked his reputation as one of the cleverest defenders around during Cork's stunning defeat of Kilkenny two weeks ago.

Rushe, for the record, was a late corner-forward inclusion for the Dubs and rewarded his new manager with those two goals inside 16 minutes. And a whole new career as a Sky Blue assassin beckoned ...

Fast-forward to August, 2013. The play-anywhere Rushe has been around the houses over the last five seasons - full-forward, wing-forward, midfield, a brief sojourn at wing-back (more anon) - but this summer he has finally settled on what almost appears like a permanent home.

Centre-back. Number six. Leader of the defensive pack. The St Pat's of Palmerstown clubman has excelled in the position several times before: after Tomás Brady tore his cruciate, he switched there to devastating effect during the early stages of Dublin's standout victory over Galway in a 2011 Leinster semi-final at Tullamore.

But even as that eventful summer unfolded, he would alternate between midfield and wing-forward while declaring (according to a player profile dated August '11) that his favourite position was "full-forward when I get the ball!"

Rushe has seen plenty of ball at centre-back this summer, and was arguably their most inspirational performer during the epic two-game duel with Kilkenny in June.

And yet his Leinster campaign had started on such a comparatively unsteady footing. "I hadn't played wing-back ever before," the 23-year-old says, harking back to Wexford Park on June 8. "I think I might have slotted in for a few minutes, but that was my first time actually named to start there.

"Look, you use a lot of the skills to play any position. It probably didn't work out too great for us on the day. I think we were more balanced when we threw (Conal) Keaney back forward ... they're probably our more natural positions. Sure, we'd play anywhere but Keaney prefers the half-forward line and I prefer to be centre than wing."

Even in the Wexford replay, the relocated Rushe was struggling to rediscover his 2011 All Star form. But eight days later in Portlaoise - or more specifically the second half of that deadlocked semi-final with the All-Ireland holders - was when summer caught fire for both player and team.

"Everyone was saying that was our chance missed," he recalls. "We let them come back with a draw in the last minute and they thought that was our chance gone, or maybe we're in the back door to face Tipperary. That seemed to be the talk all that week.

Confidence

"But we took heart and more confidence from it because we felt we hadn't played at all really in the first half - when we finally got going in the second half, we probably should have finished it off, we probably are to blame in bringing ourselves to a replay.

"But at least we knew we could mix it when we weren't even at top level, and then we finally reached it in the second game. We finished the job."

What followed against Galway was better again. By Rushe's estimation, the Leinster final was Dublin's best performance "over a sustained 70" under Daly. "The only other time that comes to mind for putting in such a complete performance was the league (final) in 2011," he reckons. "But, sure, that was only the league against a depleted Kilkenny team."

Now, as August dawns, Kilkenny have departed the stage. Whatever happens over the next two Sundays, the second Sunday of September will have a very different feel to it this year.

In this summer of seismic shocks, will Dublin ever have a better opportunity? Rushe plays a straight bat to any such leading questions, merely accepting that the way things have levelled out, it is "a good chance for us to push on". But he refuses to look beyond Cork, warning: "Last year we looked a few steps ahead of that first step - and we fell."

Beyond that, what's the big difference between Dublin's annus horribilis 2012 and their annus mirabilis of 2013?

"I think that our run-up this year, our preparation this year, has been much better," he suggests. "Obviously the injuries: touch wood, we've come through this year very much unscathed ... whereas in the previous years, we've always had either somebody tear a cruciate or somebody just coming back from a cruciate.

"Last year we probably took a bit of a gamble, starting three lads who had been out for a whole year, just as they were coming back. We started them in championship and maybe they probably just weren't ready for it."

Another big difference has been a bench that consistently delivers - another by-product, perhaps, of their belated good fortune on the injury front.

"It's been a massive squad effort," confirms Rushe, highlighting younger players who have been "around the panel for a few years and are now really starting to contribute. You see coming in off the bench Mark Schutte, who's been around development panels and probably dabbled in football ... he's coming off the bench and making a massive impact every game."

You wonder how has preparation been better, and he replies: "I think we just have the right 30 lads. We haven't been hobbled with injuries. Things have just gone well for us. We've focussed on every league game and we've achieved our goals."

But there's another goal lurking over the horizon. Rushe preaches caution about the perils of bursting bubbles but confirms that self-belief has risen through their five-game Leinster odyssey.

"We take confidence from taking our first title in God knows how many years," he reflects. "Not even just finally winning a trophy, but just look at the style of hurling, the quality of hurling we've produced. And now maybe we know we can produce that on big days, it will be easier for us to do it again."

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