In what is a new departure on the provincial championship front, O’Connor believes the three qualifying spots for the All-Ireland series will be decided as much by how teams conduct themselves off the pitch as what they do inside the whitewash every Saturday and Sunday.
Tipperary and Waterford are out four weekends on the bounce, while Clare, Cork and Limerick will play their four round-robin fixtures across five weekends.
Each county’s strength-and-conditioning coach will be under pressure, he added, to ensure players remain injury-free and are going above and beyond the call of duty between games, so they are properly recuperated for their next outing.
Indeed, with Clare’s first-team regulars set to do only one ‘meaningful’ training session between this Sunday’s opener against Cork and their final round-robin outing on June 17, focus midweek will be solely centred on recovery.
“A hamstring tweak in your first Munster championship game last year was no big deal, because it would be four or five weeks to the next game; you had lots of time to recover. This year, it is going to come down to two things, in my opinion: The team that actually recovers better from game to game and what recovery methods did you target and implement during the league; are you going to use plunge pool, cold showers, ice baths?
“It is whatever team has really, really focused on that, and has put a plan in place over the national league that it can implement in the championship, will succeed,” said O’Connor.
So, he’s implying the Munster hurling championship could come down to ice baths?
“It absolutely could. The strength and conditioning coach that has been challenged the most to put the best possible recovery methods in place could be the team that actually gets through this with no hamstring, calf or flexor muscle injuries. They could be in a position, week in, week out, to pick from the same panel for the four games.”
“But you’ve also got to ensure the guys who don’t play on a championship Sunday are trained to a degree that would allow them to compete the following Sunday, if they are required. A lot of planning has to go into this five-week period.”
O’Connor, while a fan of the new structure, would have preferred a two-week space between games.
“There is no point moaning and groaning about it. For long enough, we have had management and players campaigning for more games. Now, we have more games and, while there is nothing wrong with the four-game format, in an ideal scenario, you would like to have a game, have the next weekend off and then another game. The window isn’t there, though, to play those games over an eight-week period.”
The Clare team, which fell to Limerick after a free-taking shootout in the league quarter-final back in mid-March, had seven players — Pat O’Connor, David McInerney, Tony Kelly, Colm Galvin, John Conlon, Shane O’Donnell and Conor McGrath — who started the 2013 All-Ireland final replay win over Cork. So, though a new team continues to emerge, the Clare joint-manager, now in his second year in the job alongside Donal Moloney, believes the players haven’t kicked on from that All-Ireland success.
On Sunday, they face Cork, a county which has won 10 of their last 12 championship meetings, the exceptions being the drawn and replayed 2013 All-Ireland finals.
“While there is no elder statesman in our team — John Conlon at 29 is probably the oldest — there are a bunch of guys between 25 and 28 who have done a lot and know it is time for this team to deliver some really solid performances in the Munster championship. As a group, they probably feel they haven’t delivered.
“For the last six months, I don’t think a group of players could have committed themselves more and applied themselves more than the Clare senior panel. They realise time is running out. You only have a certain lifespan as an inter-county player in this day and age. This year is a huge year for us, because I think the Clare public were very accommodating and lenient on us last year, because they felt we were learning how this whole process works. I wouldn’t expect them to be as generous this year so that puts added pressure and added focus on us. If you can’t thrive in that environment, there is no point being in this job.”