There’s silverware on offer tomorrow in the Gaelic Grounds, when Clare and Tipperary face off in the final of the Co-Op Superstores Munster senior hurling league (2pm).
Tomorrow. January. You’d be forgiven for being sceptical. Surely even the two teams facing the chill tomorrow will struggle to get their game faces on?
As former Clare star Brendan Bugler points out, a youngster trying to make an impression on management may have a different attitude to a veteran with a decade of service.
“That’s absolutely the case, for a guy starting off in his career, he’s trying to impress and to show off his abilities with every opportunity, and he’ll look to take his chance in a game like that.
“But there’s another factor and that’s the attitude of the team, or specifically the manager, and the approach he wants to take in the league later in the year.
“Take Clare last year, they seemed to go out to try to win all their games in the National League and they didn’t use a huge number of their panel. So if you were on the fringes of the panel, you wouldn’t have gotten a chance in the (national) league — because of that you had to make the most of an opportunity in the Munster league if it came up.
“Look at Tipperary, on the other hand, and they seemed to try all their panellists at various times during the national league, so it depends on how the team approaches the competition.”
Is there a right approach, then?
“That’s hard to say, because last year you’d have been thinking that Clare should maybe have tried out a few more lads in the (national) league, but in the end they had a more settled look about their team, while Tipperary might have had more questions than answers about their side after the league finished.
“For a player starting out, then, with a team that’s going to take the league seriously, these pre-season competitions are very important. Though I’m not sure if pre-season is the right description, because they’re really starting the
season off. Those fringe players may end up just getting those one or two games in the Munster league or its equivalent, so it becomes all the more important to them.”
There are examples readily available. Last Sunday in Fraher Field Clare’s Diarmuid Ryan clipped an impressive six points from play, for instance.
“With Clare you can see the impact of playing in the Munster league immediately,” says Bugler.
“There are a couple of lads and a couple of weeks ago you’d have been surprised to see making the 24-man panel for the national league, but now it looks like a couple of them will go straight into the team, never mind the panel. Diarmuid Ryan is a guy who comes to mind, he’s a half-back but he’s been tried in the half-forward line and done very well. That’s a classic case of a player taking his chance and putting his hand up for selection in the national league.”
Bugler teases out the point further: Just because a manager used the Munster league one way last year, it doesn’t mean he’ll treat it the same this year. “That changes, too. Obviously Limerick’s season in 2018 went a lot later than it did in previous years, so that would obviously change their approach to this year’s Munster league and the national league after that. I’d say their attitude would be different in that they’d be happy enough to stay in Division 1A, and if they made a semi-final it’d be a bonus. Other teams, though, would be looking to win the league, while a couple of others might hold off and train through the league for the championship — it all depends on what it is they’re trying to get out of it.
“Personally, I always liked the one or two games to get you up to the pace of hurling needed for the national league, so you’d get more out of those Munster league games than you would from a couple of challenge games against the Munster club champions or whatever.”
It’s an important distinction, however. There was a time when players might use those early season games on muddy fields to play themselves back into fitness, but now that’s taken for granted. So is the standard of the venue. All of that contributes to the quality of the fare.
“I don’t know if you can actually say there’s even an off season now, fellas are in the gym two weeks after the intercounty season ends — and the reason is that they’re petrified of what the preseason training would be if they came back out of shape.
“Panels are so competitive that if someone comes in and plays well, then someone else’s place could be in jeopardy straight away. In the modern game lads are so accustomed to looking after themselves, the strength and conditioning side has gone to such a high level, that the conditions hardly have an effect. Pitches are very good everywhere now, in fairness.
“That said, I can remember a time you’d play those games in places like Meelick in Clare, which is a club ground. And it’s grand, but now those games are played in Cusack Park and the Gaelic Grounds, each county’s main ground, so that’s going to be better for the standard of hurling.”
So is the fact that those are formal games. Bugler points out that an official competition will always get the competitive juices pumping harder than any hastily-arranged challenge match.
“Definitely, and again it might come back to age and experience, and how you see yourself in terms of the panel. If you’re a new guy coming in you’re going to treat a challenge the same way as a Munster league game, while a player who’s been around a while would be looking forward to a really competitive game rather than a challenge. I’d have felt like that later on in my career — those competitive games were just what you were looking for.”
CLARE v Tipperary: D Tuohy, J McCarthy, D McInerney, R Hayes, A McCarthy, C Cleary, C Malone, S Golden, T Kelly (Captain), D Ryan, N Deasy, R Taylor, C Guilfoyle, C McInerney, M O’Neill. Subs: K Hogan, G Cooney, M O’Malley, B Corry, J Browne, C Galvin, I Galvin, D Conroy, R Considine, P Collins, J Shanahan.