Pictured at the 2018 Munster GAA Senior Football & Hurling Championship Launch at Bunratty Folk Park, Co. Clare were: Cork’s Ian Maguire, Limerick’s Donal O’Sullivan, Clare’s Gary Brennan, Waterford’s James McGrath and Kerry’s Fionn Fitzgerald . Photo: Inpho.
When one captain falls, another emerges. In the absence of Paul Whyte, James McGrath will lead out the Déise for the first time on Saturday night. Through pure graft and determination, the 27 year old has established himself as a nailed-on starter with the county team.
Former Nire manager Benji Whelan worked with McGrath for three seasons and couldn’t keep him off the training field. He missed out on a senior title and a Munster final in 2014 but returned from his travels for the 2015 campaign. “He was in Dubai, worked on the engineering side of things. I didn’t know anything about him when he came in. Anyone that I asked said that this guy will fit in at half back no problem at all. That was the surprise to me that someone that good was going to come back. When he did come back, he was a model professional. All the Nire guys are this way inclined but he would always be training even on a night he should have been off. If he was training with the county team on a Monday night and a Wednesday night, and we were training on a Tuesday, he’d be there. You would almost have to tell him to calm it down and do a few laps while the lads are doing their sprints. A top quality individual, I couldn’t say enough good things about him. A manager’s dream I suppose. I never had any problems with him, an excellent individual.”
McGrath comfortably slots into either line of defence. He can get forward from wing back and pop over a score but also execute a man marking job in the corner. That flexibility impressed Whelan. “He showed himself to be very capable going forward with the ball. One of the platforms that we would have worked from was an attacking half back line and James was very much a part of that. There’s not many lads that can perform an attacking half back role and yet go back into the corner and quieten one of their better players in that area where you have to twist and turn very quickly. James likes playing the ball so he wasn’t just happy to stop a fella playing. He wanted to get on the ball and force the issue with the opponent. Every time I saw him, he got better and better.”
He never shirked a challenge during Whelan’s time in charge. “Even in the hurling, I think he played a couple of games for us at corner forward. There was never a job that wasn’t within his compass.”
The Clonmel High School pupil captained The Nire to a first county minor A title in 2007 and won the young footballer of the year award in the process. He started on the Waterford minor team alongside the likes of Tommy Prendergast, Tadhg Ó hUallacháin and Shane Aherne. His first senior medal came along a year later. He lined out with the county under 21s in 2009 and 2010 but waited until 2016 for his senior debut against Tipperary.
McGrath has designs on a championship win this summer. When Waterford went the distance with Cork, the number five was one of the last men standing. “It was a game that many looking on probably felt we could have done a bit more, maybe got a draw out of it. On the field, we couldn’t physically have done any more. We left it all out there. If we had got that win, it would have been a huge boost. Even in defeat, we took a lot of positives out of it. It brought a lot more confidence, we felt that we could compete. Mindset is a huge thing coming into these games. If you’re going out thinking that you’re automatically going to lose, your performance is down five or ten per cent. It would be huge if we could get a big championship win like that this year.”
This group perform best when the pressure is off according to McGrath. It explains their quirky form of late. The Déise have struggled for wins in Division 4 but nearly caused the shock of 2017. “That’s something we’ve been looking at. We tend to perform in games where the opposition is better than us. In other games, where we have a greater opportunity of winning, we tend to fall down a bit. We have looked at it and we have picked out things that we can improve on but it’s often not that easy to raise it for every single game.”
They re-enter the Munster arena minus their main figure in Paul Whyte. “He’s almost irreplaceable in what he does for us,” McGrath admits. “We feel sorry for Paul at this moment in time. We’ll have to knuckle down without him. No doubt he’ll be down on the sideline roaring instructions at us.”
Whyte took charge of the defence on that Saturday night against the Rebels. “His ability to tackle, cover ground and talk to the men around him was vital that day. He brought huge energy when we broke up the field with that ability to score and he was doing that again this year.”
McGrath’s 2017 didn’t end until December 3 when Stradbally scuppered his hopes of a third senior championship. It left the county squad with a tight time frame to limber up for the league and ultimately that took its toll. “We only had four weeks to prepare for the start of the league. It was on a week earlier this year, which obviously doesn’t help. Club championship for myself and a lot of the lads was only finished four weeks and we were expected to go back into heavy winter training. Lads did need a bit of a break and in fairness to Tom, we got the break but at what cost? Going back on January 1, it’s not ideal. It’s very difficult to do a lot of hard running during the league when you have game after game. It only opens yourself up to injuries which has happened so maybe that was a contributory factor to it.”
McGrath started five of Waterford’s six NFL assignments. He kicked points against Wicklow, Carlow and Limerick. Kerry legend Tomás Ó Sé counts as one of his idols.
He got his marching orders in Martinstown as an overzealous tackle earned a second yellow card. Sean McSweeney converted the free and snuck a 2-10 to 2-9 win for the Treaty men. Another one that got away. “Over the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of these near misses. From our perspective, a loss is a loss. We should have definitely won that game against Limerick. We were three points up with ten minutes to go. We should have come out with a win. We have looked back at that game and others where we’re trying to eradicate simple mistakes in the last ten minutes and get over the line.”
The new skipper and his defensive workmates will be kept on their toes in Semple. Tipperary rated as the highest scorers in Division 2 this spring (13 goals and 89 points). Michael Quinlivan and Conor Sweeney would squeeze into most forward units in the land. “If you look back on the National League, Tipperary’s forward line was one of the most exciting. They definitely had a bit of freedom to play. They didn’t have an out and out defensive structure. They like to supply ball into Michael and Conor. When you have two top quality forwards like that, there’s no reason not to be putting ball into them. We will have to be very mindful of that. It’s a huge task but we can only go out on the day and give everything we have.”