'It's a manly game but how far do you let the manly go?'
Colleges, referees, penalties – Wexford boss Liam Dunne has views on them all, writes Marie Crowe
Liam Dunne looks ready for action. He rubs his hands together, clearly ready to get some things off his chest.
The president of the GAA Liam O'Neill has just announced at a media event to mark the start of the Allianz Hurling Leagues, that plans are in place to begin discussions on how the game of hurling can be improved and this has got Dunne thinking.
The Wexford manager is animated, and penalty-taking is first on the agenda: "Years ago at training sessions in Wexford, I wouldn't go into the goal when Damien Fitzhenry was taking them," says Dunne. "In a game I wouldn't mind; I remember in the semi-final against Galway in 1996 going back in and saying to the lads that if we stop this penalty we'll win the game. But it is different in a training session.
"It will be harder to score a goal if the free has to be taken from outside the 21-yard line. If you leave it the way it is I would have no problem with it. But I would fear that somebody is possibly going to get seriously hurt if the ball hits them."
The ongoing issues of player burnout and dual players are also on Dunne's mind. He doesn't think serving two masters is possible and was fairly relieved when Lee Chin opted for football this year as it took the pressure off
him to deal with the dual player scenario. As for the hectic GAA calendar and player burnout, Dunne feels that colleges hurling contributes in a major way to these problems.
"I honestly think that the colleges are the biggest problem of them all. I don't believe that they should be let into any competitions like the O'Byrne Cup or Walsh Cup. I'm sorry I didn't say it to the president there but I suppose it's the Leinster Council. If you take a year ago, with UCD, we had four or five players on their team, they played in the first round of the Walsh Cup and then they gave a walkover. We couldn't have the players then."
Dunne isn't in contact with the managers of the college teams and admits he doesn't know what level of training they are doing; however, he has heard some worrying stories.
"When people are talking about burnout I just laugh at it because the burnout comes from the colleges. I hear these lads are training twice a day and two or three times in a row and then they come down to us and we let them off, we don't train them. That is going on for a number of years, it is crazy stuff."
He feels that the scholarship system turns the players into pawns and puts pressure on them to play.
"It affects some teams more than others because some teams have a bigger pool of players. The players are the ones caught in the middle."
Last week Kilkenny manager Brian Cody endorsed Eddie Keher's proposal to remove red and yellow cards from hurling, and which sparked Liam O'Neill's decision to instigate a discussion on the game. It's a move Dunne welcomes and additionally he is happy that people like Cody are being vocal about how they feel.
"Thankfully, what we are hearing is that the hurling people are going to get their voice now and if the likes of Brian Cody is going to talk who is not going to listen? They are all for the good of it, you saw what happened with Henry Shefflin last year, it was crazy. Ryan O'Dwyer was another terrible decision and in fairness there was a Wexford man refereeing it and he had done a good job on the game up to that decision and it ruined it [the game]."
Last year Wexford came under the spotlight after they played Dublin in the Leinster championship and several of their players were pulled up for overly aggressive play. A number of pundits including Michael Duignan came down hard on them in the aftermath of the game. Dunne doesn't think there was a big issue with his side's play and agrees with Cody's view that the game doesn't need cleaning up.
"It's a manly game played by men but how far do you let the manly go. I think they are trying to take the men out of it too and that is why it has become a game for a lot younger men. Ones who are only coming out of being very, very young men and that can come to play the game because the physicality is going out of it."
Dunne is the type of manager who will leave no stone unturned in his quest to bring Wexford back to a competitive place. When he took over two seasons ago he felt that Wexford were holding their own but at the same time other teams were moving ahead and he recognised that he needed to move with them.
He appointed Gerry Fitzpatrick and Paudie Butler to his backroom team and also used the services of performance consultant Enda McNulty.
Dunne looked at the overall picture and recognised areas where Wexford could make substantial gains and catch up with their counterparts. One of the steps he took was to go to Croke Park for help and was given access to the facilities at Waterford Institute of Technology.
"Without giving much away, I will give you one example: the body fat of the players at the start was 22.8 per cent; two-and-a-half weeks before the Dublin game in the championship last year, it was down to 11.5 per cent. That was the average.
"When we got beaten by Cork in Thurles in 2012, we had been holding the tests previous and Gerry Fitzpatrick told us that the players wouldn't last 45 minutes with the levels they were at. Put it this way, the Dublin guys had their tongues hanging out in Wexford Park last season until Mark Schutte dropped his hurl and they got the goal out of it to bring them back into the game and you could see that."
The changes Dunne has made are evident in the size of his players. The majority of "small handy" players have been replaced by bigger, stronger athletes who can hurl.
Wexford are in Division 1B of the Allianz League and they start their campaign today in Antrim. Dunne believes that for the players it's important to take a big scalp early this year.
"The top four teams in Division 1B will have the opportunity to play the top four in Division 1A. Obviously you don't want to be fourth and have to play the top team in the other group but you'll be playing a big team in a good game and that's what you want. We have a bit of hurling to do to get to that level, but if things work out our last league game will be against Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh which is a great game to get."
A year ago Dunne couldn't get a team like Cork to play against them in a challenge but before Christmas they had four tough pre-season games against Division 1A teams. Progress, indeed.
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