The all-consuming nature of inter-county life finds itself front and centre once more. Burnout tends to dominate GAA discourse this time of year, but the tales of Kieran Bergin and Joe Sheridan have overshadowed however many emerging talents are being pulled here, there and everywhere.
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Former Meath footballer Sheridan says players are “nearly detesting” being involved with a county panel, while Bergin, a member of Tipperary’s 2016 All-Ireland winning set-up, claimed Premier hurlers were treated like children and told to “basically give up drink for the entire year”.
Patrick O’Connor is entering his eighth season with the Clare hurlers. He’s played under three different management teams during that time. He knows enough, has seen enough, to weigh into this discussion.
Whatever the commitment, the Clare defender is happy to serve. “In my early years with Clare, I used to laugh when Pat Donnellan and some of the older players would say how much they absolutely loved being in and around the Clare scene. I was thinking to myself, ‘it’s not that much craic’. As you grow older, though, your view changes. You spend so much time with these guys, you really get to know them, go on journeys with them, experience big days together. You won’t come across that environment too often throughout your life. I just really enjoy being involved with Clare. Christ, I sound like Pat Donnellan,” O’Connor laughs.
As much as he sees it as an “honour” to pull on the saffron and blue, he’s enthused by the condensed inter-county calendar. Barring a replay, the hurling championship will be wrapped up by August 19 and for whichever two teams finish fourth and fifth in the Munster round-robin, their season will be done by June 17.
“The August finish frees up the bit of time for the club. Some of us have other interests outside GAA,” he adds, wryly. “Your year won’t be consumed by the inter-county season. If the season [finishes mid-June], life will go on and you’ll find that lads will be stimulated by other things.”
Despite reaching an All-Ireland quarter-final last year, the Banner played just three championship games. The minimum they’re guaranteed this summer is four.
“More games, less training; that’s what everyone wants. The challenge for players is to have yourself right for four games in five weekends. That’s a challenge I’m looking forward to.
“I know Munster is very competitive, but if you can’t finish in the top three there, do you have any right considering yourself an All-Ireland contender. In that sense, I agree with the new system.”
Those five weekends are now, effectively, the most important in the hurling calendar given two from Cork. Clare, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford will be eliminated. Does the cutthroat nature of May and June diminish the importance of what has been a massively competitive Division 1A in recent years?
“In Clare, we have a different focus on the league because we have been in Division 1B twice. We really don’t want to go back there. I didn’t play in the league last year because of injury. “Playing in Division 1A is brilliant preparation for the championship. That is where we want to be.”
With Brendan Bugler, Colin Ryan and Patrick Donnellan having announced their retirements during the off-season, added to Cian Dillon’s decision to step away for 2018, the Tubber native finds himself as one of the team’s elder statesmen at the not so ripe old age of 26.
“I was gathering dates of births for one or two things and as I was punching in the information, I realised that I’m right up there as one of the older guys even though I’m certainly not an old-timer.
“This is my eighth season and it seems like only yesterday when I joined. I was involved in the U21 wins of 2009 and ‘12. There was the senior in 2013. There were trophy presentations most years and I know it is a cliche, but you do think this is how it is going to be for the next couple of years. That wasn’t the case. We were lucky in 2013. A lot of things fell our way injury-wise and the fact that Kilkenny or Tipperary didn’t feature in Croke Park.
“In the years intervening, we’ve tried and have done the right thing, but for one reason or another, it hasn’t worked out. A small thing could turn it for us again.”
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