The best hurler Ireland didn't get to fully appreciate? 1 week ago

The best hurler Ireland didn't get to fully appreciate?

Michael Rice was forced into an early retirement in 2016.

After a swift chat with Brian Cody, the Carrickshock club man was told that he was no longer cutting it at training and so that was it, after ten years, his days as a Kilkenny senior hurler were over.

"He said to me, 'look, it's not working anymore,' and really, you're finished," recalled Rice on RTÉ's excellent recent 'The Geansaí' documentary.

That, however only tells half of Michael Rice's story, a successful story, but one that could have have so been so much more.

Every hurler, every GAA player has suffered with injuries at different stages in their career but few knew an injury hell like the Kilkenny midfielder ever since the year 2012.

In 2012 Michael Rice was in the prime of his hurling life. A 28-year-old, he was one of the Cats' most powerful cogs in the engine room that year and he had been in years previous too.

A hound for any ball that broke around the middle third, the secondary school teacher was also strong in the air and would distribute the ball into the Kilkenny forwards like he was the one on the receiving end of it.

But to truly uncover the achievement that was Rice's rise, we are taken to his emergence. His emergence in the place of James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick.

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In 2006 James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick was not only the hottest ticket in Kilkenny, he was the hottest ticket in hurling. An underage prodigy, Cha's transition to the senior stage was even smoother than Con O'Callaghan's 2017. 

That year, he won all there was to win.

He delivered on the biggest stage of all every single time on his first year in with the big boys and looked for all the world to have a long and fruitful career in Black and Amber ahead of him.

Five years later, in 2011, he retired at the age of 26. With five senior All-Irelands to his name, three National League titles and three All Star awards, he had also captained Kilkenny to both U-21 and senior titles in his time.

Michael Rice was one of the reasons Cha's career was cut short. After the Ballyhale man contracted a dose of mumps between 2008 and 2009, his form dipped and as we well know, Brian Cody waits for no man.

Rice got the nod for that season and he went onto win an All-Star and played a starring role in what is largely accepted to have been the greatest All-Ireland hurling final of all time, Kilkenny's fourth in a row.

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Fitzpatrick had been usurped, he saw no way back in.

Rice was coming into his own now. In 2011, he added another All-Star to his collection and alongside Michael Fennelly, he was one half of the most dominant midfield partnerships in the game.

Fennelly is a lot better known in hurling circles now.

That's because the year 2012 would be the beginning of the end for Michael Rice.

It was All-Ireland semi-final day and Rice clashed with Tipperary's Paudie Maher in the 19th minute of the game, a clash that saw his finger smash, a break so harsh that it would see him out of work for more than 8 weeks.

The brew of strength, power and skill he had shattered 2009 to 2012 with would never grace lár na páirce with the same bursting power again.

He didn't play as Kilkenny were knocked out of the Championship by Cork in 2013, and after he ruptured the dreaded cruciate in a training camp in early 2014, he was always chasing his tail.

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He battled back, won All-Irelands as a panel member, but those four famous years wouldn't be matched.

The pity is perhaps best summed up by the number of parallels between him partner in crime Fennelly. Or how their careers diverged.

When Fennelly kicked on, all the way up to 2017, Rice was hampered and hamstrung.

And that's the most frustrating thing, that there was so much more yet to come.

By 2016, he was out the door.

"I spent ten years training and playing with the lads and in the blink of an eye, you're gone."

 

That's the way it is, but free from the rigours of inter-county training, he's still lording it for Carrickshock. It's just a shame that he wasn't allowed to do it for longer on the biggest stage.

We'll always have 2009 to 2012.



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