IT’S the question that has exercised some of Tipperary’s keenest hurling minds over the past fortnight — would Ryan O’Dwyer find a starting place on the current Tipp team?
The debate has intensified since the Cashel man scored 3-2 — including a hat-trick of goals before half-time — in Dublin’s All-Ireland quarter-final victory over Limerick, and it may be settled on Sunday, when he lines out against his native county.
O’Dwyer has no regrets over his decision to swap blue and gold for sky blue last year.
Having spent some time in Boston during the summer of 2009, he promised that he would go back to the USA a year later. And he did, turning down a recall to Liam Sheedy’s Tipperary senior panel the following summer, having returned for a couple of sessions in June.
His assessment now is admirably frank: “If I was good enough to be there in June, I was good enough to be there in January and February.”
He might not have been every purist’s cup of tea when he pulled on a Tipperary shirt, but his displays for Dublin have made even the harshest critics sit up and take notice. Under the tutelage of Anthony Daly, Richie Stakelum and coach Martin Kennedy, the 25-year-old has taken his game to the next level.
Six points against Kilkenny in the Walsh Cup final hinted at bigger things to come and he chipped in with 2-13 — including 2-2 against Offaly — as Daly’s team captured National League Division 1 glory.
O’Dwyer’s finest hour — pre-championship — arrived when he claimed the Man of the Match award against Kilkenny in the league final, dropping deep in the closing stages to help close the game out.
A self-confessed moment of madness earned a red card in the Leinster semi-final victory over Galway — ruling him out for the final defeat to Kilkenny — meant O’Dwyer felt a desperate need to redeem himself.
And it arrived on familiar Semple Stadium soil last month when Dublin faced Limerick in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Daly placed O’Dwyer on the edge of the square, against former University of Limerick college-mate Seamus Hickey, and he posted 3-1 before the interval.
O’Dwyer’s memories are sketchy, as he was forced to leave the field late on with blood pouring from a head wound. Four stitches were required for that particular patch-up job, after over 30 were inserted in a horrific ear injury he sustained during a stop-start appearance against Galway.
That was a game pock-marked by running repairs and finally terminated by a red card for a needless tap on Shane Kavanagh’s helmet with his hurl.
But that’s history now and despite the circuitous route, Dublin are where they wanted to be at the start of the year — in an All-Ireland semi-final, mixing it with the big boys.
When O’Dwyer made what he describes as “the big switch”, he immediately insisted that it was time Dublin started making waves. And he was central to that, bringing a much-needed physical dimension along with the free-scoring, but now injured, Conal Keaney.
When he came back from Boston last year, O’Dwyer took up a post teaching at St MacDara’s Community College in Templeogue in Dublin.
It wasn’t long before Daly enquired about his availability and last November, the necessary paperwork was processed as Ryan O’Dwyer of Cashel King Cormacs and Tipperary morphed into Ryan O’Dwyer of Kilmacud Crokes and Dublin.
He reflects now: “When Daly came knocking, it was a no-brainer. I definitely don’t regret that decision and even if we weren’t in the position we are now, I wouldn’t regret it. The bond I have with the boys and how well I’m getting on with them is a great feeling.”
O’Dwyer is held in high affection within the Dublin camp — often the butt of practical jokes, but more often the architect. And he’s settled well in the capital, living with his brother Thomas, a hurler with Thomas Davis, in Springfield, Tallaght.
The family bond has always been strong and from a young age, O’Dwyer was made aware of the exploits of his grandfather Paddy Ryan, an Olympic medallist from the 1920 Antwerp Games, when he represented the USA.
O’Dwyer’s first memories of juvenile hurling with Cashel King Cormacs are of Thomas bringing him and his childhood friend David Slattery to the local field, Leahy Park, for an U-11 blitz.
He reckons he was eight years old at the time, and Roger Ryan was his first tutor. “Everything goes back to the club,” O’Dwyer smiles. “Forget about the people you have at inter-county, they (club) are the people that get you to inter-county — without them you’d be no one.”
He name-checks men like Michael Butler, Timmy Moloney and Tommy Grogan as formative influences in the club, while Cashel’s 1989 and 1991 All-Ireland medallist Conal Bonnar was a player he admired hugely.
He looked up to current Tipp boss Declan Ryan too, “so skilful and a very strong, physical man as well.”
Ryan was the leading force on the Clonoulty-Rossmore teams of the late-1980s and early-90s which enjoyed classic jousts with Cashel, days when the local fields heaved on Sunday afternoons.
Cashel were crowned high kings of Munster hurling in 1991, but are now locked in a desperate battle to avoid relegation to the intermediate ranks.
Last Saturday, they lost to local rivals Boherlahan-Dualla in a tense shoot-out in Holycross after extra-time. Surely, the presence of O’Dwyer in the Cashel ranks would have tilted the balance?
But for now at least, his priorities have shifted and a good performance next Sunday could secure an All Star award, even if Dublin bow out of the All-Ireland series. His inter-county career for Dublin has been infinitely more productive than his time with the Tipperary seniors.
A member of the U-21 team beaten by Kilkenny in the 2006 All-Ireland final, O’Dwyer made his senior debut against Limerick, marking Brian Geary, in the first of a classic Munster championship trilogy in 2007.
He was sacrificed for the second game, along with Brendan Cummins and Willie Ryan, but returned towards the end of the second half of the Thurles replay and lined out in extra-time. Qualifier appearances followed against Offaly and Dublin and while he was ready to come on against Wexford in the ill-fated All-Ireland quarter-final defeat, time ran out on Tipp and manager Babs Keating.
O’Dwyer’s last appearance for Tipp was in 2008, against Cork at Pairc Ui Chaoimh, when he admits that he was given “a roasting” by John Gardiner.
Sheedy never picked him again and while he remained on the panel for the remainder of the ’08 campaign, he didn’t feature in ’09 or 2010.
Last year, he played senior football for Tipp during the National League and captained Tipperary’s junior footballers in the Munster championship. An early exit freed up the summer before Sheedy came calling in the wake of a 10-point mauling by Cork in the Munster championship.
But O’Dwyer’s mind was made up. Boston it was, before coming back to Dublin and watching Tipp winning the All-Ireland title on the terraces. This Sunday, he could play a part in ensuring that they don’t do it again.
Written by Jackie Cahill