Tipp and Cork would have had theirs last weekend, just like every county team at some point will in the coming weeks. The in-house game a week out from a championship match, commonly known as As versus Bs.
This is more than just a longer game among yourselves than you would have on another training night. Among the best setups, it’s something they pride themselves on, in terms of organisation and competitiveness.
One of the many things that madeone of the best and most insightful GAA books of them all was that the author Declan Bogue went to the bother of taking in such an in-house match as part of his extensive research.
It was an internal game within the Derry camp, a week out from their 2011 Ulster final showdown against a Donegal team in their first year of the Jimmy McGuinness Experience-Experiment.
Bogue could see why Derry had reached their first Ulster final in 10 years. The warm-up began bang on at 12.30 that Sunday morning on the sound of trainer Conal Sheridan’s whistle. Team manager John Brennan kept his distance throughout, just as he would during a warm-up on matchday; the players would be hearing him enough. A top referee within the county would emerge from the dressing rooms. One of the teams would wear the gear of the Glen Watty Grahams, a local club whose green with gold hoop tops were the ones within the county that most resembled Donegal’s. Little touches like that would give the players confidence; no stone unturned and all that.
But soon enough Bogue could see why Derry would lose that Ulster final. One big stone was going unturned, and one big man virtually untouched. Eoin Bradley, in his Derry gear, was in just as electrifying form as he had been in the previous game against Armagh. Within a couple of minutes of the second-half, he had kicked five points from play. But watching on, Bogue couldn’t help but think: isn’t going to happen next week. The team in Glen jerseys resembled Donegal in colours only.
“Would Donegal leave so much room for him to operate in? Could Jim McGuinness leave one marker isolated on Bradley? The problem with trying to replicate another team’s performance is when players remain in trial match mode: taking an extra solo to look good, pushing up to join in the attack when the real Donegal defence would sit back. Every man is still bidding for a jersey or minutes on the field.”
That is what the top, top teams have to consider as they approach their most challenging – as opposed to challenge – games this summer. Is this still more of an audition or is it now more of a rehearsal?
Managers have a lot of considerations to weigh up. They want a competitiveness in the game which means they might mix and match the teams; maybe eight of their likely starters on one select, with maybe three lines (a fullback line, a midfield and full-forward line) playing as the side is likely to start the following week. But what you’re gaining in competitiveness you’re losing in cohesion; hence, the tendency to pick along A versus B lines.
But what way then have your B team lined up? Playing as your own team likes to play so the guys on the B team have a chance to impress and start next week, or as your opposition are likely to line up next week?
In other sports, the latter is a given. The US Olympic basketball team under Coach Mike ‘K’ Krzyzewski have gone to the extent of bringing in a dozen young NBA players a day in advance of trial games to replicate the offences, defences and styles of play of upcoming opponents.
Last weekend in his impressive debut as a columnist, Paul Galvin was highly critical of the standard of coaching in inter-county football, especially south of the border, and especially just across the border from his own. Cork footballers, contrary to lazy perceptions, weren’t lacking bottle under Conor Counihan; what they lacked was tactical know-how. In his eyes, they were hugely predictable, and “abysmally coached”.
It was a refreshingly candid if somewhat harsh assessment, especially as in Counihan’s final couple of years, Cork would up their preparations by taking a leaf out of the Munster rugby book, who still standard setters at the time. In the lead up to a big Heineken Cup game – and invariably, victory – Munster would have their second string line up as their opponents would the next week. Likewise Cork in 2012; when Donegal dumped Galvin’s Kerry out of that year’s championship at the quarter-final weekend, more than one Cork player ribbed Mark Collins, a squad player at the time; for the next few weeks his role in training would be to replicate Mark McHugh’s highly-unconventional and demanding one.
Cork would still fall to Donegal that year, but that part of their process wasn’t at fault.
Other teams that year would still play conventional A versus B games between themselves, just like Derry the year before, failing to recognise the one game that could not happen was Derry v Derry, that when their corner forward was lighting it up for five scores from play, there was little chance of it happening the following week.
As it would turn out, it wouldn’t happen that following week for Bradley: he would do his cruciate moments after kicking that fifth point in that in-house game in Ballinascreen. But as brilliant as he was that year, there was little chance he’d have lit Donegal up like that.
To beat a Donegal 2011-2012, you can’t just work on the pretence that this is still an audition, though there might be one or two roles still to be cast.
For the sake of the overall group, they must be more like rehearsals, simulating as much as possible what you’ll encounter – and look to impose, exploit and disrupt yourself – the following week.
And to beat a Dublin in 2016, the top teams like Kerry, Mayo and Tyrone must have an eye to it already. If they just play their standard game among themselves, they’re only fooling and beating themselves.