Last October when some of the country’s most enquiring coaching minds and leading service providers attended the HPX High Performance conference out in Sport Ireland’s fabulous new campus in Abbotstown, a number of the best operators working in inter-county hurling fell into each other’s company during a tea break.
As it happens, they all were involved in Munster hurling setups: Joe O’Connor, S&C coach to the Limerick hurlers; Podge Collins, who flourished as a player under O’Connor’s expertise when the latter was part of Davy Fitzgerald’s management team in Clare; and Damien Young, a performance analyst with Tipperary as well as a sports studies lecturer in Limerick IT-Thurles.
After initially chatting about some of the international speakers that would have just presented in the previous session, conversation soon changed from the merits of the New Zealand, UK and US Olympic models to matters closer to home and the revolutionary new hurling championship format that had been approved by Special Congress the previous month.
Recovery, they concurred, would be vital – as would the scheduling.
“Week Three,” pinpointed O’Connor. That was the slot you’d ideally have off during the five-week blitz of matches. Playing three weeks straight would be tough; four weeks straight, drastically difficult. But Week Three, with two games either side of it, was that perfect blend of momentum and freshness.
Young and Collins agreed. While the fixtures had yet to be made at that point, they’d be monitoring them closely – and crossing their fingers that their county would end up with that coveted Week Three as their rest window.
As we now know, Young and Tipp drew one of the shorter draws – their weekend off being the one just past.
O’Connor and Limerick fared better, avoided having to play four weeks on the trot as Tipp and hapless Waterford did.
But neither did they land the coveted third spot he hightlighted.
But as, became apparent yesterday in Ennis, especially in the second half, playing three consecutive weekends caught up with them.
And no better team to exploit than his rejuvenated and refreshed former charges in Clare and Collins, the clear beneficiaries of having their layoff in that coveted slot that was Week Three.
After the game both Collins’ current manager, Donal Moloney, along with O’Connor’s current number one, John Kiely, attributed part of Limerick’s underperformance to fatigue.
“You could clearly see in the second half there was nothing in [their] legs,” said Moloney.
Seeing as there’s little chance that the players will be receiving pay slips as early as next year, you would hope that the GAA before then would at least consult those who are the professionals, such as O’Connor who as far back as last October could foresee the challenges and complexities and pitfalls of the new system.
In Munster the same two teams that have ended up exiting the championship before July are the same two teams that had to play four consecutive weekends.
The two teams that played three weeks on the trot failed to win that third game – Cork failing to beat 14-man Limerick, then Limerick losing by nine points yesterday.
A similar trend unfolded in Leinster. While no schedule would have saved Offaly from relegation, their level of performance fell drastically upon having to play for a third and fourth straight week. Kilkenny and Wexford were both flat against Galway (who weren’t hectic themselves when scraping past Dublin by a point in a dead rubber last weekend).
You would think an organisation with the vision to have a medical, scientific and welfare committee as the GAA has would consult the experts before heralding in any new format or rolling out any programme of games, but as this summer has shown, the provincial councils, Central Council and the Central Competitions Control Committee did not.
Hopefully, those bodies, especially the latter under as fine an operator as new chairman Ned Quinn, have the courtesy to sound out the managers and their backroom teams and hear their concerns, experience and expertise.
Yet if Ennis yesterday underlined how the new championship needs some tweaking, it was also a perfect illustration of what has made this new championship so magical.
Yesterday was the fourth time in as many seasons that Clare and Limerick have clashed in the championship but by a distance this was the most atmospheric.
Last year when the two sides met in a Munster semi-final in front of 19,000 down in Thurles, Tom Semple’s Stadium was still only a third full. Yesterday the same attendance wedged Cusack Park. While Thurles was polite, tame, sterile, Ennis was positively primal.
As the sides followed the band around the field in the parade, green mixed amongst the local saffron and blue, neighbour nudging neighbour and rival, the urgings of the crowd louder than anything the Ennis venue has heard in decades, the folly as well as the glory of it hit us: just why had we to wait this long for something like this? It had been 12 years since the two counties met here in the senior championship, 25 since they’d squared off here in Munster. If yesterday highlighted anything it’s that a local derby like should only be in Ennis or Limerick short of a Munster final.
The other big takeaway from this is that Clare, not Limerick, best fit the profile to stop Galway winning another All Ireland. Like Tipp in 2016, they’ve been to the mountaintop before, they know the way and the view – and after years back in the wilderness, they’re desperate to take in that view again. They can all shoot an opponent that thousand yard stare but also what the former NBA great Steve Nash terms ‘the knowing look’, having prevailed in tight jams in big games before, the way a side as green as Limerick cannot – yet.
Their backs are becoming tighter and more cohesive by the game; their use of the ball yesterday was exemplary, especially Jamie Shanahan as the spare man after both teams were reduced to 14. John Conlon at full forward has both reinvigorated the player and his team. The trust in the management and the panel is growing by the day as well.
When Seadna Morey limped off early on, David Fitzgerald came on and soon bombed over two scud missiles from wing back. Enough you would think for him to see out the rest of the game yet the management team of Moloney and O’Connor had the strength and subtlety to spot Fitzgerald’s performance level regressed midway during the third quarter and so before the game’s end they subbed the sub.
You wouldn’t have known Tony Kelly was playing in the first half yesterday, certainly until he made a run towards goal off the ball moments before half-time for a pass that never came; it took until the opening minute of the second half for him to attempt a shot, let alone score. Yet by the time the second half was two minutes old, he had already racked up two points. By the game’s end he had scored four from play while setting in motion a number of frees that were invariably won by Collins and coverted by Peter Duggan. What happens when he finally strings two halves together in the one day?
This team is finding its stride again and reconnected with the Clare crowd in a way it hasn’t since relinquishing its All-Ireland title in 2014. After going only one Munster final appearance in 18 years, they’re now back in a second straight final.
They brought a poor crowd last year and ended up beating themselves as much as Cork did. Judging by the Clare roar yesterday, there’s no prospect of either repeating itself this year.
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