How long can a county player give his county nowadays? Waterford hurling captain Noel Connors is inclined to think that eight years is becoming the cut-off point.
The Passage clubman is facing into his 11th season in white and blue, but all around him he sees careers shortening.
“It’s happening more and more, you see the age profile of lads retiring. When I started, in 2008-9, a lot of players were in their early-to mid-thirties, and a lot of them were hitting their peak in their early thirties.
“Now you have lads retiring at 28, 29, 30, and it’s down to the mileage and demands placed on the body. I don’t think you’ll have too many lads in the next few years who’ll play much beyond eight years inter-county because of the demands on the body. They’re so intense and they’ve increased so much in recent years that it’ll be unsustainable.
“I think players are more conscious of wanting to travel, to have kids, to commit to their professions, to do other things. You’re young for a short period and I suppose when you’re young you can become very narrow-minded and focused on one thing, other things take a back seat.
“Now players are more attuned to what they want, they’re more emotionally attuned to making decisions about what they want.”
Tom Devine departed the Waterford panel to pursue his medical career, and Connors has other examples: “The likes of Jack McCaffrey taking a year out, Shane O’Donnell was gone (to Harvard) for a while, those are lads who have to do other things outside their playing careers.”
Connors himself has a significant commitment outside the hurling field. The recent arrival of baby Cathal puts him in a select group on the Waterford panel.
“Yeah, only Shane Fives, Kevin Moran and Brick Walsh have kids. It puts things in perspective, at times you’d be worrying about small things but if you’ve a child smiling up at you it puts a perspective on things. It’s brilliant.
“You can use it as inspiration but it also makes you realise — without sounding cringey or cliched — the important things in life, what a privilege it is to pull on a jersey and train with a great bunch of lads.”
This year was going very well for them until the league final, when Limerick cruised away to an eight-point win in Croke Park.
We had some good games, some mediocre games, some poor games, but overall the performances were positive.
“The only negative was the performance in the final but the reality is you’re playing a Limerick team which is the best in the country at the minute. They’ve been on the road for four or five years now and it’ll take a lot to beat them, unfortunately we weren’t at the pitch of the game.
“It took us probably ten to fifteen minutes to get to the pace they were playing at, and when you’re playing a team like Limerick it’s hard to claw back the lead they have.”
Still, it was a competitive outing in Croke Park — always a help to a Munster team which may not see Dublin 3 too often.
“It’s massive, and even beyond that, it is (beneficial) for anyone to play up there at this time of the year. We don’t get the chance to play there too often, so any opportunity to play there for even five minutes, it makes no difference.
“The unfortunate reality of playing in the Munster Championship is you don’t get there too often outside an All-Ireland semi-final or final, so it’s great to get there. Our previous visit was for the All-Ireland final of 2017, which is a long time ago, so having the experience is great.
“Obviously the aspiration is to win the match, but getting onto the hallowed ground of Croke Park is great as well.”
Connors doesn’t hide his admiration for the All-Ireland champions.
“Playing against a top quality side like Limerick, the quality of ball coming into the forwards is going to be 80-20 in favour of the forward, that’s the reality of playing this level. You’re doing your best to get out in front, but you’re up against the very best from other counties, they’re going to come up with a score or two.
“You do your best to stick the course but Limerick are a phenomenal team, they’re a well-oiled machine with a great backroom — but they’re also a team where everyone knows their job, they have it down to a fine art.
“It’ll probably take us a bit longer to get used to what we want to do, and what Paraic (Fanning, manager) wants us to do. More games will benefit us and we’re hoping we’ll learn from the league final.”
Would he say they’re a level above what Waterford have played last year or two?
I would, looking at them in terms of their physical and psychological performance, but also in terms of their hurling performance. They’re ticking all the boxes to be successful.
“They’re not focusing on one aspect of play or one or two individuals, they’re working on everything to make themselves the best possible team out there. In fairness they’ve been incredible over the last year or so, you’d get great joy out of watching them, even if we underperformed against them the last day.”
One of their better days was the NHL quarter-final against Clare, which Waterford won 0-31 to 1-14.
“Absolutely,” says Connors.
“But go back a couple of months before that, though, we played them in Fraher Field and they cleaned us out in the first half.
“It’s a bit like the Munster Championship, teams beating each other, which is great for spectators, because nobody knows who’s going to come out on top on any given day.
“I know Paraic (Fanning, Waterford manager) has said it won’t have any effect on the championship game, and that’s true. In cases like the Leinster or Munster Football Championships you can nearly predict who’ll win the title, but the Munster Hurling Championship is totally different.”
He’ll lead Waterford out in their Munster opener in Walsh Park, which is likely to be crammed with locals for their first home championship game in over two decades. Will it be an emotional occasion for him?
“I don’t think it’ll be too emotional. The way I’ll take it on is it’s another game — that’s not to downgrade the importance of being at home or being captain, it’s obviously a huge privilege and honour, but you can’t let the emotions take over because that’ll take up too much energy.
“My job will be about trying to do the simple things right, which I’ve been trying to do for almost 11 years now with Waterford.
“That’s what it’s about for me.”