Cork camogie manager Paudie Murray has overseen sweeping changes in how players train and prepare at the elite level in the 21st century.
Now, he is turning his sights on how the game is administered and officiated from the top down.
Since his appointment late in 2011, a term of office which has so far delivered four All-Ireland senior titles, Murray has borne witness to significant change within Cork camogie and, indeed, the game at large.
Where the former is concerned, Murray has been a driver of that change. Among the reforming steps taken was the addition to his backroom team of a strength-and-conditioning coach and implementation of an S&C programme. Necessary advances, he says, to satisfy a group who wouldn’t be shy in telling management off if training is not up to the standards they demand.
Throughout October and November, Cork players, instead of tuning out during the off-season, were in regular contact with conditioning coach Martin O’Brien to tic-tac ahead of their return to training.
“I’ve been meeting them coming out of gyms continuously since September,” says Murray. “That’s a change from recent years, where you wouldn’t hear from them until January.”
However, where his own players and almost every other top-level county have made notable improvements in how they ready themselves for league and championship, Murray believes they are being let down by a Camogie Association stuck in reverse.
As Kilkenny midfielder Meighan Farrell recently bemoaned, what is the point of teams carrying out a two-month S&C programme during the winter if players are not allowed to shoulder one another come spring and summer.
For those operating at inter-county level, the camogie rulebook makes for frustrating reading. The main bone of contention is that shouldering and ‘moving into an opponent’s body’ are not allowed.
“The Camogie Association is at a crossroads,” says the Cork manager. “The biggest problem is that we have come from a 12-a-side game, which was in place up to the late nineties, and a lot of people in administration played that game. They’ve no real experience of the 15-a-side game. The Camogie Association has to change with the times.
“We are starting the league in a couple of weeks time and I can guarantee you that 90% of the scores in our first league game will come from frees. If this continues, you’ll have nobody watching our game.”
September’s All-Ireland camogie final between Cork and Kilkenny made for turgid viewing, the game blighted by 36 frees and containing only nine scores from play. Similarly unappealing was the Galway-Kilkenny semi-final, a fixture which also had a free-count in the 30s and produced a meagre seven scores from play.
“To keep people watching our game, we’ve got to move more towards hurling rules. The closer the game is to hurling, the better. Going back the years, we have regularly been involved in games where there has been 40-plus frees doled out, even though the game has been absent of a single dirty stroke. That cannot continue.”
Contacted by this newspaper in the days after the All-Ireland final, Camogie Association president Kathleen Woods said the game “will progress as delegates deem it should”.
Woods, serving as president since April 2018, put it up to players unhappy with the current rules, telling them to bring forward proposals for change to their respective county boards.
Murray was most disappointed with the comments.
“She is a new president and I was hoping she would grab the bull by the horns and drive this thing. There was a comment that players have to lead it. To push it back onto the players and delegates is nonsense. Kathleen needs to lead [change] and lead it as quickly as possible.
“You look at the evidence and the evidence would suggest that [the Camogie Association is conservative]. We need to make the game more appealing to the spectators.”
With the GAA currently trialling a host of experimental football rules, the Cork boss sees no reason why camogie’s governing body can’t follow suit. He doesn’t, however, see that happening anytime soon.
“They’ll drive on as they are at present. Nothing will change until, maybe, someone new comes in and starts to shake things up.
“We shout at the players not to tackle in training. You are telling them not to make contact, because you are going to give away a free. It is both frightening and frustrating.”
Equally restricted are the referees. Eamon Cassidy was widely castigated for his handling of the Cork-Kilkenny decider, but Murray found the criticism unfair, given the Derry official was simply adhering to that much- maligned rulebook.
“The general feeling I get from referees is frustration. I do believe the majority of them want to leave the game flow as much as possible. You can’t blame the referee. They are all fighting to referee the All-Ireland final.”
Murray continued: “If camogie does come under the one umbrella, it can only thrive. Certainly, you would see change a lot quicker. You would have the expertise in there to promote the game and promote the game correctly.
“Some of these experimental football rules may not work, but at least the GAA are trying them. Next year’s All-Ireland camogie final will be no different to the last one. With 33 to 40 frees per game, it is stop-start, stop-start and that just turns people off.”
Still, though, Cork press on. The Rebels are within touching distance of the three-in-a-row, a feat last achieved by the county in 1973. The minor and intermediate successes of the past year have the county perfectly positioned to extend their stay at the top. The All-Ireland champions returned on Tuesday, December 11, meeting in the St Finbarr’s complex for their first S&C session of the 2019 campaign.
“In 2016, the last time we went for three-in-a-row, we let our standards slip,” said Murray. “We made mistakes. We fattened on our success of the two previous years and didn’t drive on. If anything, our standards for next year are going to have to be higher than where they were in 2018.”