Eight seasons steering Waterford IT to a bunch of Fitzgibbon Cup titles and being at the helm of the Wexford hurlers for the past few years have informed him on the demands placed upon the elite young GAA players in the country at this time of year.
Today the ball is thrown in for this year’s Sigerson Cup and the first sliotar will be pucked in anger tomorrow in the 2012 Fitzgibbon Cup. The dilemmas the protagonists involved have faced is one Bonnar can relate to.
“If you’re a manager at inter-county level, you’re under your own pressures,” he said.
“If a player is trying to get on to a county panel, he needs to make an impression at this time of the year as cuts are made to panels towards the end of January. But it’s also a key training period for the colleges. Everyone’s looking after own little corner and players can be caught in the middle.”
Paul O’Keeffe is in his second incarnation as a Sigerson Cup figure. He was previously engaged as a player, winning titles in 1994 and 1995 with UCC, and is now part of the management team that brought silverware back to the Western Road campus last year. The landscape has changed since he was a player.
“We didn’t have as many inter-county players so there wasn’t as much of a crossover and the demands have increased,” he said. “The training that is done at inter-county level really isn’t great for Sigerson Cup. They’re doing endurance work whereas we’re doing specific drills to get the team at a peak for the Sigerson. But I found it fantastic to play. I never went on to play inter-county football at senior level. To be up against guys who went on to really excel was brilliant. I remember marking Anthony Tohill a good few times in Sigerson matches when he was with Queens.”
The friction generated between inter-county and third-level management setups jostling for players has been well documented. But O’Keeffe is unequivocal in his belief the third-level arena can be hugely beneficial to senior managers.
In 2010, O’Keeffe was involved as UCC reached the Sigerson Cup final and when Cork and Kerry met in last summer’s Munster decider in Killarney, he watched the corner-backs from that team Eoin Cotter and Shane Enright play having graduated to the senior inter-county setup.
“It’s been a proven testing ground. If you’re an inter-county manager you’ll get more out of watching a player in the Sigerson Cup than watching McGrath Cup or challenges.
“It’s a huge showcase for players. I don’t believe inter-county managers have anything to fear from these competitions.”
John Evans shares that school of thought. Last Sunday Ciaran McDonald and Robbie Kiely lined out in defence in his Tipperary team in the McGrath Cup final in Clonmel. It was Evans’ first chance to take a look at them this year as he has left them focus on their Sigerson Cup preparations with NUI Galway.
“They have a game now tomorrow and then they’re out again with us [next weekend]. We’ve had no problem with that so far as I don’t believe in burning the candle at both ends.”
During his stint with Waterford IT, Bonnar whiled away plenty hours in consultation with inter-county managers over the availability of players. In general he found senior hurling bosses to be accommodating and hails the greatest manager of the modern hurling age as a shining light.
“A lot of the managers were very reasonable and Brian Cody was particularly good. He knew the benefits of the Fitzgibbon Cup.
“We did most of our work during the week then we’d let them off with their counties at weekends. I learned from the experience gained in 2003 and 2004 when I made mistakes. I organised challenges at weekends and lads were under pressure to play games with their counties on the same days. We got rid of that and started to get the best out of them.” O’Keeffe agreed: “Common sense is key when it comes to managing your players. We stopped after the Munster club final in December and took a break to give them a few weeks off until the New Year.
“We would also liaise with senior and U21 managements in Cork and Kerry to make sure fellas are not being burned out.”
In the frenzied schedule to prepare thoroughly for the third-level arena, O’Keeffe felt the main purpose of players in college must not be obscured. Gaining their degree is the primary objective and in that sense he welcomes the arrangement that will see UCC face GMIT at 7pm this evening in their Sigerson Cup, to allow players attend lectures during the day.
“Players are very focused on their studies and want to make sure they get their degree,” outlined Bonnar. “But I think players still get huge enjoyment out of the competitions.”