The CIAN edge

A season’s work for 70 minutes. How often has it come down to that? Tipperary’s preparations for Sunday began last November, and every step along the way to Croke Park has been measured and minuted. DIARMUID O’FLYNN is offered a forensic insight by Tipp physical trainer Cian O’Neill

DID IT all start with rugby, the advent of professionalism? Where previously Ireland never had top-class professional teams, competing with the very best at the highest level, suddenly we had four, all winning big games all over Europe (and Connacht, by the way, were the first Irish team to win a competitive game in France).

All those teams were home-based, and as their stock rose on the playing fields of Europe, so did their levels of expertise off-field, and Ireland began to breed its own top people in the areas of sport science, PE, physical conditioning, nutrition. The results are there now for all to see, Munster and Leinster having just exchanged Heineken Cup and Magners League titles, Ireland as Triple Crown and Grand Slam champions.

One of the very positive spillovers from all that success has been the cross-pollination with other sports, with Gaelic football and hurling especially. Now, where once you saw Munster in Thomond Park engage in those intricate fast-moving four-cornered ball-handling warm-up drills before games, intense action in confined space in double-quick time, you now have those same drills on display in big days in Croke Park and Semple Stadium, modified and adapted for hurlers and footballers.

Behind the scenes also, in the weeks and months of slog and preparation, there have been quantum changes on the GAA scene, the jargon of sport science and PE quickly becoming familiar to hurlers and footballers. SAQ training – that’s Speed, Agility, Quickness, with all its attendant hurdles and ladders; BMI, that’s Body Mass Index, a measure of the fat ratio; Functional Screening, where players are screened, individually, measured on a variety of tests to see just how fit/fat/functional they are as athletes. And there’s more.One of those overseeing such progress is Cian O’Neill, trainer to the Tipperary team that takes on Kilkenny in Sunday’s All-Ireland hurling final, and a lecturer in PE and Sport Science in the University of Limerick. We met in the Arena café, and out on the field, coach Tony McGahan was putting the Munster squad through their paces, pre-season preparation continuing in advance of this weekend’s start to the Magners League, and the first question for Cian was pretty obvious – how much of what he does with Tipperary is influenced by what he sees with Munster?

“As a coach or trainer you take your influences from a variety of sources, you'd be very naïve to think that any one person, or even any one sport, has all the answers, be it technical, tactical or physical influences. I'd look at rugby, yes, would often sit down with some of the trainers involved and discuss things; I’d throw things at them, and vice versa, they’d ask what we were doing. There’s a transfer of knowledge between all the different sports – I’d also look at Australian Rules, Rugby League, American Football to a degree, basketball.”

Part of that knowledge, reckons Cian, is that while the various sports can indeed learn from each other, it’s imperative that each sport also adapts whatever is learned specifically for each its own sport. The SAQ regime is a case in point: “SAQ is now integral to hurling training at the top level, but I think it should only be a small part. What happened with SAQ was that when it first came out it was marketed very well, and it was used and conducted by coaches and trainers in different sports all over the world – all of a sudden you had your hurdles, you had your ladders and so forth, which was all very nice and tidy as a package, but my concern is that a lot of people thought this was the be-all and end-all, that their whole training needed to be based around speed, agility, quickness. It’s a large part of it, yes, but it should not take over the training cycle. It’s used in UL, but only as part of a balanced programme, relative to the demands of the individual sports. And that’s critical, what the needs are for that sport, the needs of the individuals on the team, the needs of the individual positions – you have to strike that balance.”

SO, how did Cian O'Neill, a former footballer with Moorefield in Kildare, career shortened by serious back injury, go about striking that balance with Tipperary? How did he go about setting up a training programme for an ambitious hurling county? Science, dear boy, science. “You have to break it down into cycles, over the season; you have your general preparation - in pre-season, you have your functional screening to see what level players are at, to check if there’s any residual injuries from the previous season, or from club championships. Once you have that done, and that would involve myself, John Casey our physio, and the doctors, Kevin Delargy and Peter Merchant, you have your baseline data, which enables you to press on with the programme. It would be quite generic early on, to bring everyone up to an acceptable level, to the point where we could increase the intensity – that’s where it begins to become very specific, in terms of designing programmes to suit the needs of the players. And that’s a word I keep coming back to, the ‘needs’ of the players.

“The testing is all based here in the university, I’d have a crowd of sports scientists working with me and we’d get very detailed information on each of the 35 players on the panel. This ranges from cardiovascular endurance to strength endurance to speed, agility and body composition. Once you have that information you have a snapshot of every individual at a particular time and you can then design your programme accordingly. When you bring them back in after eight weeks, you can then see any significant changes that have taken place. So it does become very specific, but it all depends on the time of the season.

“We started last year, the first week in November, brought them in for their pre-season screening. There was a closed season last year, so the programmes had to be very carefully designed; I wouldn't be there on a regular basis to oversee the programmes, they would be working on their own, or in little groups – Tipp is such a huge county you have the lads in regional groups. You had to be very specific, the lads had to buy into the programme so that everyone knew what was being asked of them. You didn't want them to overtrain, to push themselves too hard, and you didn't want them doing things incorrectly.”

This is important, especially in the gym routines; an exercise done incorrectly, far from improving an athlete, can actually do damage.

Working very closely with Cian was team trainer Eamonn O'Shea, a very solid partnership. “Eamonn does all the hurling-specific coaching, in terms of technical work, tactical work, and he’s absolutely fantastic at it. We would talk when appropriate and when relevant, because 95% of what I do is done with the ball, so outside of any specific movement pattern, where I might do a bit without the ball first to get the movement right, everything is done with the ball. So, I’d knock off Eamonn, Eamonn would knock off me, and we’d see how we could integrate the training as much as possible. All my work now, this close to the championship, is modified games, contextual games, which is Eamonn’s domain as well. So you'd never see us running in a straight line, or from A to B at top speed; it’s always small modified games. From a tactical perspective that’s what I’d lecture on in UL as well, that’s a strength I’d have, even though it’s not hurling-specific; it could be soccer, basketball, any other sport, but the principles are the same – space, depth, width, communication. They’re all the same requirements, and that’s where we can really gel together, but as a coach, Eamonn is second to none.”

All very professional then off the field, but has it reached the stage now where GAA players are almost at the same level as professionals, as those Munster players down on the field, for example? No way, says Cian. “Off the field, yes, we’re very close to it, and I think it’s really important that the people who are overseeing the training are professional, with a professional understanding of what their role is, the context in which they’re working. In terms of the demands on the players, however, I don't think they are anywhere close to what the professional players are doing. The major challenge facing GAA players is they have to work to earn a living, then they have to go to training. On average we might meet the players for five and a half hours a week – that’s two training sessions and a match. A professional rugby player could do that in one day, every day they train. It won't all be high-intensity work, but that’s the amount of contact they have with each other – sometimes they’d have three sessions in one day. And of course they get a chance to rest, which is also very important.

“It’s perhaps more a misunderstanding than a myth, that GAA players are now training like professionals, and certainly if you add in the hours that GAA players have to work before they go training, then they are working as hard. But in terms of hours spent in training, the severity of stress and pressures on the body, there is a huge difference. But, to do an eight hour working day, then drive maybe a couple of hours to training, train for a couple of hours, that probably feels worse, more demanding, than what a professional player goes through.”

IT wasn’t a short conversation with Cian O'Neill, and it was certainly illuminating, so much more that he said that doesn't make it in here – how they have nursed both Lar Corbett (hamstrings) and Eoin Kelly (back) through this season, for example, each of those injuries chronic, but both of those players playing crucial roles in Tipp’s advance to this final. What shone through, however, was Cian’s love now for hurling, and for this team particularly – what began as simply a professional role has evolved, become emotional attachment.

“I couldn't but become attached. The first time I ever got involved with hurlers, having always been involved with football, was with the Fitzgibbon Cup team here with Ger Cunningham – a fantastic coach – and that year I fell in love with the game, to an extent I never dreamed I would. I always loved to watch it, but this was different. I think hurlers approach their training in a way footballers don’t, and I don't mean that in any negative way about footballers. But the nature of hurling, the fact you have a stick in your hand, it’s so fast, it’s so ferocious, that I think the way they approach their training is a little bit different. And I love that; I’d be a warrior at heart and I think hurling is a warrior game, hurlers are warriors. Then, there’s this Tipp squad – they’re the most genuine, most honest, most committed bunch I’ve ever worked with or played with, and it’s hard to detach yourself from that. I mean, when those players cry, I cry, when they laugh, I laugh, when they celebrate a win, I celebrate, when they’re elated, I’m on top of the world. I’ve got all that from my time with them, from being with Eamonn and Mick (O'Shea and Ryan, trainer and selector) especially, from Liam (Sheedy, manager), sharing the same dressing-room as them, separate to the players – three great Tipp men, listening to their old war stories. They’re all so passionate, so enthusiastic, so infectious, it’s hard not to become emotionally involved.”

Shining through also, a massive respect for Kilkenny, Tipp’s opponents on Sunday: “I've looked at the coaching structures in Kilkenny - phenomenal. What they're doing there, at a regional level, all the underage structures, the championship development squads – they haven't just sat back on their laurels, patted themselves on the back, they’ve actually developed year after year, been very proactive in ensuring their own success. Full credit has to go the county board for that.

“On the field, I see a very formidable package, they have it all. Their hurling is fantastic, of the very highest level, something you get in several other counties as well, but strength is something they’ve also added, and they have a serious will-to-win. They hunt in packs but when the overlap is broken they’ll have another two men ready, in position; their work-rate is increasing all the time and I like that about them. For big men that’s not easy – to give a basketball example, most small teams will play a press offence, keep the ball in play at a very high intensity, because they’re small and they’re fast, whereas a big team will play a normal transition game, the big guy holding the ball up.

“Possibly the biggest threat they have is speed up front; every ball they attack, especially from the half-forward line cutting in, they attack at 100 mph, and that’s almost impossible to defend, no matter what the game – the right ball at the right speed at the right angle, and any defence is in trouble. They seem to have that, naturally, it doesn’t look as if it’s coached.”

Given all that package then, can he see Tipp winning? “I can to be honest, I can’t see them losing. It wouldn’t matter who they were playing, I'm not thinking of the opposition, I’m just focusing on our capabilities, on what we can do, and I cannot envision us losing.”

What odds the Tipp players having the same attitude?

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