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Corbett works his way in to Premier class

posted 3 Sep 2011, 03:34 by Unknown user

KEITH DUGGAN

THE TRANSFORMATION of Lar Corbett has been so gradual and smooth that nobody really noticed it happening. Nicky English didn’t exactly pluck the Thurles man from the ether 11 years ago, but he saw enough in the flashes that Corbett, overlooked for the county minor team of 1999, produced on winter fields to convince him he was the real thing.

“I suppose it was a bit like Aidan O’Brien spotting a good horse,” says Denis Maher, who coached Corbett at underage and senior level with Sarsfields. “He saw something.”

English’s instinct was proven immediately correct when Corbett performed well as a teenager in Tipperary’s 2001 All-Ireland winning team. But it could be argued only now are the Tipperary public seeing the mature vision of what English sensed a decade ago. When Corbett started out playing with Tipperary, Declan Ryan, his coach tomorrow, was the senior figure on the side. Ryan was cut in the traditional mould – a hefty full forward with the light feet and the deftest touch and Corbett and Eoin Kelly were like kids running around him.

This week, Ryan noted the sweeping changes that have taken place within the game, from collective fitness and physique to the tactical influence. Corbett has grown up in that culture, in the on-going quest for near perfection in which Kilkenny seemed to have a march on everybody else.

The first half of Corbett’s career was about a rangy forward with an on-off talent for creating precocious goals from nothing and a tendency towards injury. But in the past four years he has moved into a different realm. The

three goals in last year’s momentous All-Ireland final registered as one of the more celebrated feats in Tipperary hurling lore. It is also highlighted how Corbett has become a consistent and heavyweight presence on the Tipperary team. He has become a leader and the consensus is that stopping Corbett is the key to stopping Tipperary.

“Larry is there 10 years and he knows he needs to step up to the mark,” says Eamon Corcoran, Tipperary’s former All-Star half back and team-mate of Corbett. “When Lar came in first, there were a lot of big personalities and he probably tended to shy off a bit. Players respect him so much now. You see it when he is out – he is a popular lad at home when he is out. I was waiting for Lar to become vocal and it is only in the last number of years that he has done that.

“But he had to get his game right and now that that is there, he has taken up that role. For me, he has bought into the set-up Tipperary developed. His work-rate is as hard as any forward in the country and that element of his game is there now and it probably wasn’t there for a number of years.

“Plus, from Larry’s point of view, the supply of ball he is getting now is much faster and quicker. The forwards around him seem to be on the same wavelength. He probably has gotten used to playing with Noel McGrath and it is a more settled forward line.”

Two forces undid Kilkenny last September: Henry Shefflin’s injury and Corbett’s goals. The clairvoyant line of communication he has developed with McGrath was crackling and Tipperary’s second goal, created by a handpass which left three Kilkenny men turning towards their own goal to discover Corbett already there and ready to strike, was the pick of the bunch.

But his first goal had nothing to do with his celebrated burst of speed.

Instead, he stood his ground under a dropping ball and shook Noel Hickey off his left shoulder while catching the ball with his right hand and making light work of the finish.

“He has good fetching ability which is another string to his bow,” says Eamon O’Shea, who coached Corbett as a member of the successful management team last year.

“He has this good positional sense under a dropping ball so even if he is physically dominated, his height and reach enables him to pluck a ball. So he is not just reliant on his pace. He had been a centre forward and he had spoken about when is the right moment to be there for a one on one. And he developed that knack for knowing what the right moment is.”

O’Shea was taken by Corbett’s willingness to work as much as with his natural ability. Liam Sheedy constantly drilled the forwards to get their requisite number of blocks in at training and O’Shea remembers the pleasure Corbett took from meeting that total. Corbett’s form yielded 6-11 in the championship last year, but he never lost sight of the importance of the collective.

Last year, about an hour after Tipperary’s All-Ireland win, he came strolling along the dressingroom area in the company of Shane McGrath, completely relaxed. When asked about the three goals, he immediately began to distribute the credit and sounded genuine when he declared it was immaterial to him who had gotten them. “You have to look at Bonner Maher for the third goal,” Corbett said that day.“He was on the flat of his back on the edge of the square and he held on to the ball . . . could have been called for over-carrying, but no, he got up and gave the handpass out and the hard work was done . . . It does not matter who gets the scores as long as we put in the work-rate. And the thing about it is that if the work-rate is put in the ball will spill out to someone.”

Later in that conversation, he recalled how O’Shea had told them before the match there were goals in the team and it was up to them to go and get them. The spurned chances of the 2009 final were still fresh in their minds. Last September, they were coldly clinical. The shimmering confidence that marked Corbett’s finishing was evidence on the most important stage of all of a player in exuberant form. “Playing with abandon,” as O’Shea puts it.

After the initial success under English, Corbett’s years with Tipperary were characterised by a kind of turbulence. Managers came and went – Michael Doyle, Ken Hogan and Babs Keating all tried to respond to Kilkenny’s forbidding grip. Meanwhile, Corbett was trying to cope with a worsening hamstring condition which spoiled several seasons for him. The low point might have been in the 2005 championship, when he cracked a fine goal against Clare, set Micheál Webster up for the next and was about to pull the trigger again when he felt a familiar tear. A few voices of discontent greeted Corbett’s departure that afternoon – it was a sight they had seen too often.

That autumn, Thurles Sars won their first county championship in 31 years. Corbett was on the field, but had managed about six training sessions.

It seems weird now to see no brackets after his name in the match report, but he did not score that day.

He saw specialist after specialist and was advised to quit. Instead, he turned to former sprinter Gary Ryan and began to rehabilitate himself. The injuries stopped recurring; Corbett grew stronger and more confident.

He has a low-key, laid-back nature that helped him during years when Tipperary championship seasons seemed bound for disappointment.

In 2008, he told this newspaper not making the Tipp minors didn’t bother him because he figured he was only good enough to make the panel. That didn’t interest him. And by 2008, he was acutely aware of the fact he had a limited number of years with which to enhance his All-Ireland medal haul.

“Things take you by surprise,” he said. “I see younger lads coming into the panel now and I remember being like them and playing in an All-Ireland. The years don’t be long going. I just hope I get a shot at another one.”

And now Corbett is preparing to contest his third All-Ireland final in a row. Once again, he is in hurler- of-the-year country. His profile has risen immeasurably since Tipperary’s return to prominence. Three years ago, he was working as an electrician. Since the economic collapse, that work has dried up and Corbett was among those GAA stars who spoke on the Late Late Show about the difficulties of finding work. Earlier this year, he went back into the family pub trade and opened a bar in his home town of Thurles.

“He has matured as a person too,” Denis Maher says.“Lar scored three goals in an All-Ireland final – but they are not the only goals he scored. He has scored a lot of important goals for us down the years. Lar always took things in his stride. I mean, it surprised us all those years ago when he didn’t make the minor panel but he accepted it and moved on. He is a cool kind of guy. He thinks things through and he has the whole package now.”

Corcoran retired from intercounty hurling just before this latest period of success for the Premier County. He laughs when he remembers Corbett’s ability to explode away from defenders at training. “Like he pressed a button,” he remembers. He expects a tough and cagey final on Sunday, predicting that closing down the Thurles man will be central to Kilkenny’s plans.

“I can’t see it being a goal-fest or Lar being given anything like the space he had last year. But it’s the old story. Whichever team gets the goals will probably win. And now Lar’s injuries have cleared up, we’re seeing the work- rate and confidence of the player.”

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