Barry moves - and Tipp go back forth
Galway switch to square patrol a key moment for both player and county as Premier close in on the holy grail
IF Tipperary win tomorrow's All-Ireland final, there's a very high chance that reference will be made to that watershed positional switch during the win-or-bust qualifier against Galway in early July.
In the space of six traumatic minutes during the third quarter, Jonathan Glynn had utilised his aerial prowess to devastating effect, delivering a brace of goals that left Tipp on the brink of oblivion.
Pádraic Maher, the team's defensive totem, was clearly labouring in the full-back position which has never quite seemed the correct fit for his swashbuckling qualities.
With a gun to their heads, Eamon O'Shea and his selectors were compelled to act. Maher swapped roles with centre-back James Barry - and duly stormed into the contest. Just as crucially, Barry got to grips with Glynn's towering threat - not by engaging in a high-fielding high-wire act but by using more subtle defensive instincts to prevent ball going to Galwegian hand.
It's a moot point whether one positional alteration - albeit a pretty significant one - can account for the sudden transformation all over the field, as Tipp came alive and turned a six-point deficit into a redemptive nine-point triumph down the home straight. But it certainly helped.
A week later, Maher and Barry were restored to their original roles for the cruise past Offaly.
But a fortnight later, with everyone expecting Dublin to pose a far sterner examination of this nascent Tipp renaissance, we had Barry (still wearing No 6) relocating to full-back and Maher (still donning No 3) lining out in his old left half-back stomping ground. It was the same story against Cork in the semi-final - No 6 on square patrol and No 3 on the wing.
Barry is the epitome of your fluid modern-day hurler, as typified by his response at the Tipperary All-Ireland press evening to a question about his usual on-field location when playing for Upperchurch-Drombane.
"Normally I start centre-back," he reveals. "If we need a few scores, I venture up in the forwards. If goals need to be stopped, I end up in front of goals."
This year, having made a belated county senior breakthrough, he has been faced with the added challenge of adapting to full-back patrol against the elite.
It probably helps that he has a very uncomplicated attitude to his job-spec. "As a back you're going out to stop your man from scoring, no matter what position it is," he explains.
"Sometimes, backs can be too interested in hitting the ball - your number one job is to stop your man from scoring. No matter where you are on the field. As long as your man doesn't score, that's the main issue."
Tipperary assistant-manager Michael Ryan - an Upperchurch clubmate of Barry's - knows a thing or two about life in the full-back fast lane. He was full-back on the Tipp team that won an All-Ireland U21 title in 1989. Two years later, he had broken onto the senior team and played corner-back as Babs Keating's crew overcame Kilkenny to reclaim Liam MacCarthy.
"Look, it's a pivotal position. But I think it's a completely changed position to back when I was playing or even ten years ago. The days of having a three who is a fixture on the team is a rarity," Ryan reflects.
"I just think the movement and inter-changing of players these days means you could have any opposition attacker at 14 at any given moment. You've got to be able to change and adapt. Fundamentally, you back the best hurlers. If it was easy, we'd be playing."
Cue a philosophical debate about media obsessions with the "iconic" full-backs of yesteryear ...
Ryan: "Well, name me the last one?"
Reporter: "Brian Lohan..."
Ryan: "Yeah, and when was that? There you go."
Out-and-out full-backs such as Diarmuid O'Sullivan or Philly Maher were "phenomenal players but I just think the thing has moved on," the Tipp selector expands.
"If you had a big, strong player in the older sense of what a full-back might look like, I think the opposing management would be rubbing their hands. I think they'd love to see you with that kind of player ... they'd just find their fastest guy and create a two-man full-forward line or a one-man full-forward line to go at him. I just think, with regard to the kind of question you're asking, versatility is the name of the game."
That's where Barry comes in; but it's been a long and winding road to get here, on the cusp of his first All-Ireland SHC final against Kilkenny tomorrow.
He was an All-Ireland winning minor at wing-back in 2007. And an All-Ireland winning U21 at wing-back in 2010. But it has taken four more years for this underage contemporary of Noel McGrath, Pádraic, Brendan and Bonner Maher to establish his senior claims.
He made his league debut coming off the bench against Dublin back in March, helping Tipp to avoid the dreaded relegation play-off by a statistical hair's breadth. A week later he made his first start, on the wing, in a Division One quarter-final shootout with Cork. His championship baptism - against Limerick last June - came just a few weeks shy of his 24th birthday and ended in painful defeat.
It begs the question why has it taken Barry, an intermediate All-Ireland winner in 2012, so long to make the senior grade? The player himself cites a combination of injury setbacks (he broke his hand last year) and physical immaturity.
"I got a lot stronger over the last number of years," explains the 6ft 1in defender, whose fighting weight is now 14st 2lbs.
"I probably wasn't physically big enough to be a defender nowadays, the way the game has gone with the likes of Kilkenny. You have to be physically able to match these lads and over the past number of years, with the gym programmes that I've been on, my fitness has come on.
"Then, when I got my chance in the league against Dublin, things went well and I got on a few balls. You have to take your chance, though, when you get it because competition for places is so strong with Tipp."
Barry identifies his four years in UCC, where he recently completed a degree in business analysis, as a key part of his hurling education. He won Fitzgibbon Cup medals in 2012 and 2013, and captained the Cork college to the semi-finals last spring. He describes his time there as "hugely important".
"You hurl with the likes of Seamus Harnedy and Conor Lehane, and you see them going out in Croke Park on All-Ireland final days and being the best on the field. You keep training and if you're playing against the best forwards in the country in the Fitzgibbon Cup, and you're able to compete with them, you know you're not too far off," he surmises.
"Inter-county is a step-up again. It just comes from experience. The first day against Limerick didn't go so well ... you're learning all the time. You have to be able to adapt, that's the biggest thing."
Especially when adapting to life as a modern-day full-back.