Taking it in his stride

By Michael McMullan

THE warm smile on Ruairí Ó Mianáin’s face tells you exactly how he plays his hurling. It’s just a part of him.

His touch and bag of tricks are one part of the package. It would make any manager in Ireland take note. The hurl is merely an extension of his arm.

The other part is a laid back approach. Yes, winning is important but it’s a game. A way of life almost. Ó Mianáin is at home playing and talking hurling.

And he couldn’t miss. His father Padraig, a former Derry hurler, was between the posts when the Oakleafers won the 1996 All-Ireland B title in Croke Park.

He managed the Eoghan Rua hurling team for close to two decades. Sons Ruairí and Cathal, centre back on Derry’s Ulster minor winning football team, tagged along. Just slips of lads, leisurely pucking back and forth was the start of a love of hurling.

The family, steeped in the Irish language, moved from Portstewart to Sleacht Néill in the summer of 2008 when commuting to the local Bunscoil Naomh Bríd wasn’t sustainable. Soon, they were in the fabric of the community.

It’s 10 days from Derry’s Christy Ring Cup date with Kildare, which takes place this Sunday. Seated in Owenbeg’s Johnny Burke suite, the hurling chat flows and memories come flooding back, but Ó Mianáin is totally at ease.

He remembers the days of Sleacht Néill u-6s and all the fun came with it. When did hurling become something he wanted to really hone in on?

The 2013 senior hurling final lit a fire. It was the club’s first senior hurling title, one they haven’t given up since.

Current Derry captain Cormac O’Doherty, then a teenager, came off the bench. His older brother Oisin, Derry’s ‘keeper this weekend, bagged 1-2 in an attack that also included Derry coach Gareth O’Kane.

“I remember coming home from that thinking that was deadly,” Ó Mianáin said of the lightbulb moment.

“I remember a couple of goals going in and the whole place going mad, so that’s when I knew I wanted to play hurling at a decent level and play for the seniors.”

As the Q&A continues, Cormac O’Doherty walks past on his way to a separate interview. Instead of being his idol, the Derry skipper is the man spraying passes for Ó Mianáin in his new role as an inside forward.

“Cormac, Brendan (Rogers), Chrissy (McKaigue) and all them boys would have been massive in terms of inspiring you,” Ó Mianáin said of the heroes on his doorstep.

Like he did with other young guns, manager Michael McShane brought Ó Mianáin into the setup before he was old enough to play senior. Being involved in training and seeing how the match day routine worked was an invaluable learning curve.

“I just remember the intensity of training and the whole build up,” he said. “I went down to the hotel the night before the Ballygunner game just thinking like this is unbelievable, wouldn’t it be unreal to be a part of this.”

Last year he was the wizard that worked Derry’s magic at Croke Park on the way to u-20 All-Ireland glory. And it didn’t faze him.

The wayward shots in the first half would’ve broken many players. Not Ó Mianáin., A carefree outlook had him waving his wand until he had Derry on the way to victory.

The fact it was at Croke Park was written in the stars. While Padraig Ó Mianáin started hurling late, at 16, he was spreading the gospel early.

“I started when I was far younger so he sort of developed,” Ó Mianáin outlined, explaining his father’s fixation on the skills of the game.

“He took us all around the country to watch hurling. I remember when I was five or six years old going down to Croke Park four or five times a year.”

At a guess, he hasn’t missed an All-Ireland final since 2012.

“That’s not cheap for somebody to be taking their three weans down but he was adamant that he wanted us to go down and watch it,” Ó Mianáin continued.

“We were down in Kilkenny a good bit too so he’s always had a love for hurling and teaching hurling and watching it so he sort of fed that on to us.”

Watching Ruairí Ó Mianáin in action, he makes the world’s most skilful game easy. And it’s not. Far from it. So, what’s the secret?

“It’s probably just years of practising, years of trying weird stuff in the garden, pucking about, drilling balls at each other,” he says with a laugh.

Croke Park is beckoning again, but now he’s involved with the seniors, one of five players to have won the All-Ireland u-20 at headquarters involved this weekend.

“You’re playing against very, very good teams, you can feel yourself getting better,” he outlines of the step up.

“You’re learning how to play with more pressure, with less time on the ball, it’s very, very enjoyable.”

“From even playing u-20 hurling with Derry, you have one or two seconds on the ball to all of a sudden it being completely cut in half.

“(The) Christy Ring is a good level of hurling and it would be equal to most of the best club teams in Ireland so you’re playing against that week in, week out.”

He references Cork and Limerick’s epic games in Munster. The difference in the levels is operating in less time.

“They can’t have that extra half a second whereas probably at our level we can,” he outlines before explaining the importance of hurlers challenging themselves.

“Whenever you’re forced to play at that level you get better. That’s what’s happening at the minute. I feel my touch is getting sharper because we’re playing at a decent level.”

The million dollar question. Last year Derry came up short against Meath. What must Derry do differently to come home with the silver?

“It sounds like a cliché,” begins Ó Mianáin’s reply, “but you can only do your best, you can only go out and try and give everything, do what the management tell you and hopefully you come out on the right side.

“There’s no point in worrying about things that could go wrong. You may as well just go out and give it a lash. If you come out the right side, brilliant, and if you don’t, well nothing changes. It’s a game of hurling at the end of the day.”

Ó Mianáin will keep on hurling and keep on smiling. He knows no different.

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