Monday 18 December 2017

Provincial final hangover is a very real issue

Before Meath's semi-final against Kildare and again in preparation for last weekend's Leinster final against Dublin, the residents around Pairc Tailteann in Navan were treated to some unusual sounds emanating from inside the stadium.

There was no traffic to suggest there were games being played there, but the distinctive noise of a crowd through the public address system suggested otherwise.

It was a novel ploy devised by the Meath management to simulate the experience of a large crowd for some of their training sessions.

The Munster rugby team has, in the past, used a similar device to try to recreate the atmosphere of Stade Ernest Wallon or Stade Aimé Giral, the home grounds of Toulouse and Perpignan, considered two of the more intimidating venues on the European rugby circuit.

Some of the Meath players were short on such familiarity and it creating the impression of a full stadium and the audible experience that brings.

As they pick themselves up off the ground this week after a Leinster final defeat to Dublin, the decibel level is likely to be much lower on the tannoy than it has been on recent weeks.

And therein lies one of the problems of the dreaded six/seven-day turnarounds that beaten provincial finalists sometimes have to face. How do you go from playing in front of 70,000 on a Sunday to probably less than 10,000 the following Saturday?

The record of losing provincial finalists having to face such a sharp turnaround is well documented.

From 13 teams who have had to readjust in that period of time just one, Dublin in 2001, have recovered sufficiently to win.

It could be that Dublin were somewhat lucky with the draw and the venue. They had contested the two previous Leinster finals as well and were still considered a top-six team at the time, despite their failure to deliver provincial silverware since 1995.

Sligo were not at that level and, with Croke Park the venue, the prospect of an ambush diminished.

The potential for a six/seven-day turnaround is being removed, thanks to the work of a fixtures work group who reported to Congress in April and have come up with a mechanism to avoid it in the future.

But, for now, it remains one of the great anomalies that has tripped up so many teams. The Meath manager Seamus McEnaney described it on Sunday as a "myth," but the results show just how real it is.

Scanning that list of casualties since 2001, it is not difficult to decipher a trend, however. In each case, with the exception of Galway in 2009 and possibly Cork in 2001, who had lost to Kerry, there were no real expectations of winning their provincial finals.

Limerick had the misfortune to have to play on the weekends after both their Munster final defeats against Kerry. That their opponents were Armagh, reigning All-Ireland champions in 2003 and Derry, eventual All-Ireland semi-finalists in 2004, compounded their misery.

"We hadn't a chance. It was an impossible task," their then manager Liam Kearns reflected.

"For four or five weeks you are building to a provincial final and the talk is nothing only Kerry, Kerry, Kerry.

"After that you are just shattered. It's not a physical thing at all. It's mental.

"I know I was down myself and it's the manager who has to get these players going. It was my responsibility, yet I was down as much as the players were."

They lost to Armagh in Hyde Park and when they drew Derry at the same venue 12 months later, having forced a replay out of Kerry, Kearns knew it was over.

"Back to Hyde Park again. We called it our graveyard! We actually lost three years in a row in the qualifiers there."

Kearns believes McEnaney's attempt to hit the ground running was a good policy, but it was something he doesn't feel he would have been able to do himself in 2003 and 2004.

"We had just put so much into winning the Munster title," he recalled.

McEnaney delivered fighting talk in the dressing room on Sunday and again in his post match media conference and as Tommy Carr, the only manager to engineer a successful six/seven-day turnaround, recalls they too addressed it in the immediate aftermath of their 2001 provincial final defeat.

"We didn't even tog in after that game. We spoke about it in the dressing-room, stayed in our playing gear and headed for the Total Fitness gym on the Malahide Road for a swim and recovery session.

"There was a post match meal, I think out in Jurys in Ballsbridge, but we cancelled it.

"We said we can either whinge about what was in front of us or we can address it it and react to it it. I think by the time we finished our recovery session we all had a feeling, that feeling that you know has you on the right track again. You can always sense it," he said.

Carr dismisses any idea that physically six or seven days is not long enough.

"You will hear talk of hard knocks last weekend for Down and Meath players and the physical toll there was, but these guys are athletes and in the physiological sense they should have recovered between 48 and 72 hours," he said.

Kearns feels he will be more convinced than ever that the "myth" exists if both losing provincial finalists lose on Saturday.

"I would expect this Meath team to beat Laois. Down, I wouldn't be so sure about.

"But, if both lose, then really it will have been an impossible psychological barrier."

Irish Independent

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