October 25, 1991
Niall Rigney gets in his strike
Most sportsmen have an off-season. A time to reflect on battles gone by and to recharge the batteries for the challenges ahead. But not Niall Rigney. His sporting life takes up just about every spare moment he has - both winter and summer.
The 22 year old Portlaoiseman has a very busy schedule indeed. If it is not hurling, its rugby and if it is not rugby, its gaelic football, the cycle never seems to end. When the seasons of each sport overlap, his days and nights become a hectic maze of training sessions and games. Recently when he was involved in preparing for the Laois county hurling final as well as training and playing for Greystones rugby team, he spent four, sometimes five, nights a week training. Then on the weekends he often had a game on Saturday and another on Sunday.
Even considering the heavy demand on stamina and the odd bruises picked up on the way, it is not the type of schedule that is likely to knock too much dust off a supremely fit 22 year old. But he realises that in the long run something will have to give. And choices will have to be made.
"Every weekend I am playing one sport or another and sometimes you can get a little bit tired of all the coming and going. It can be very demanding on time. Usually I get a two week break all year - if I am lucky."
In a way Niall Rigney is caught in a difficult situation. At one extreme is the hurling, the game he loves, and at the other is rugby, a game he is taking to very quickly and where his family has already left their mark with his brother Brian getting capped for Ireland.
He enjoys the cut-and-thrust of rugby where he usually plays at either lock-forward or wing-forward where his large 6ft 2inch 15 stone frame can come in very useful. He started playing the game when he was 18, lining out for the local team Portlaoise who play in junior ranks in the midlands.
He was encouraged in rugby by Brian who would undoubtedly be part of the Irish World Cup squad but for a bad injury picked up on the summer tour to Namibia. At the beginning of the season Niall was asked to join Greystones, one of the leading sides in the country. It was a challenge Niall quickly accepted, seeing it as a major step towards achieving one of the most cherished ambitions - to play for Ireland.
"I would dearly love to play for Ireland and I am going all out to achieve that. I know it will require a great deal of hard work and commitment and I am prepared for that."
He will not be short of advice in his new club as his brother Des already plays for the Wicklow side. And Niall recently started a job in the Garden County.
Yet despite his pledge to rugby commitment, which will probably see him opting out of the national hurling league with Laois, hurling still remains very close to the young man's heart, which is hardly surprising, considering his family background.
His father Michael played hurling for Portlaoise during the fifties and was good enough to play for the Laois county team. He recalls playing against such greats as Dan McInerney of Clare. Niall's mother Kathleen is a relation of Greg Hughes, the former great Offaly full back. Little wonder then that when the Rigney family get together, the household is filled with talk of sport - of games just played and games soon to be played. Seven of Niall's brothers, Mick, Noel, Brian, Des, Donal, Ciaran and Colm, are involved in one form of sport or another with Noel and Des playing with Niall on the Portlaoise team that recently won the Laois hurling final.
Niall recalls starting to play hurling at seven or eight years of age, thereafter working his way through the juvenile ranks of the Portlaoise club. But as he says himself, he was not particularly good as an underage player. The county selectors sought elsewhere for midfielders. But as his hurling skills became more polished, these same selectors began to take note. He helped Portlaoise win minor and under 21 titles. Then in 1988 when he was just 19 he got his big break when selected to play for Laois against Dublin in the Leinster championship.
The following year he was at midfield but Laois were beaten by Wexford. Consolation followed when Portlaoise beat old rivals Camross in the county senior final. That was a triumph that Niall Rigney looks back upon with great satisfaction, not only because he collected his first senior championship medal but also because he scored the winning point. The victory was even sweeter because Portlaoise were given little chance of victory before the game.
The same sequence of results followed in 1991 with Rigney experiencing the disappointment of an early exit from the Leinster championship, but once again savouring county championship success with Portlaoise who beat Clonad in the Laois final. This was a match where yet again Niall Rigney found a platform to display his maturing hurling talents. In a game strongly influenced by the stiff breeze, Portlaoise were under sustained pressure in the first half. Playing against the wind they found it difficult to contain the Clonad forwards, but with goalkeeper John Hanniffy, Sean Bergin, John Bohane as well as Niall's brother Des and Noel playing splendidly in defence, Clonad's scoring chances were kept to a minimum and at half time the teams were level at 0-5 each. Niall Rigney had scored two of those points.
But in the second half the whole situation changed utterly as Portlaoise began to dominate. In midfield the tall, red-haired figure of Niall Rigney began to give the type of display that earned him the 'Man of the Match' award, plucking balls from the air and sending them into the opposition goalmouth. The tall midfielder scored two points from close to the half way line, sending over, what was described as two mammoth shots that highlighted the players strength, and helped his team pull away as the half progressed.
Altogether the Portlaoise midfielder contributed seven points to his sides total, four of them from frees and one from a penalty shot he sent over the bar. At the final whistle, Portlaoise were ahead by 1-14 to 0-7.
A few weeks later Rigney was involved in another final. This time he was in the Portlaoise midfield that took part in the county football final against Portlarlington. Again the Portlaoise side triumphed 0-7 to 0-5. But Rigney's own performance was an indifferent one. At times he showed flashes of a promising one, while at other times, he was noticeable by his absence.
This contrast in performance in the two finals perhaps best reflects the position of both hurling and football on his scale of preferences. Hurling he "loves" but football is a game he enjoys, yet it has never held the same attraction for him as the small ball game. The skill and speed associated with hurling still fascinates him.
Speed, allied to his great strength have been two attributes cited by observers that makes Niall Rigney one of the most exciting players that has emerged in Laois hurling for some time. Portlaoise itself is a club that is no stranger in producing its own crop of outstanding talent over the years. The club's corner forward Pat Critchley is, so far, the only hurling All Star chosen from the midland county. He gained selection in 1985 along with other stars of the game such as Pat Delaney, Peter Finnerty and Joe Cooney. John Taylor, who usually plays on the half back line for Portlaoise club has also been a consistent member of the Laois team down the years and has been selected to play for Leinster on many occasions.
Taylor is one of Niall Rigney's hurling heroes. Players he admires for their skill and determination. In the eyes of Rigney, his club mate is one of the best hurlers in the country never to have won a major honour, such as an All-Ireland or an All Star. One of these players fated to play out their careers away from the limelight.
Another player he admires is Wexford's George O'Connor and Kilkenny's Richie Power - "superb athletes" - who work hard to perfect their game.
But while hurling has given Niall Rigney a great deal of enjoyment and satisfaction since he first started playing it, he is very well aware of the vagaries of the game. One day you are a hero acclaimed by all, the next day, after a defeat, you are a nobody, ignored by most - a bum.
Rugby he says, has changed his life, opening up a new vistas for him, allowing him to meet many new people from all walks of life. He is likely to put the hurling stick aside for the forthcoming months and concentrate on the oval ball, but come spring Niall Rigney has no doubt that he will be once again playing the game he regards as his "first love".
Pulling on the famous jerseys of his club and county and running onto the field to play hurling - and football - and embarking once again on that mazy round of training sessions and games in off-season? What's that!
Taken from Hogan Stand magazine
25th October 1991
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