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Shaping Rebels to go the distance

HE never expected to be doing it as part of the Cork hurling back-room team but, as a Kildare man, travelling to Croker to play Dublin tomorrow will have David Matthews' blood stirring.

When the phone rang last October and a voice said: "Hello David, this is Jimmy Barry-Murphy, you might have heard of me," he presumed it was one of his friends messing and replied: "Ah yeah, I have of course! And I'm Bill Clinton... how are ya?"

But it really was the legendary Cork dual player, now back in the Rebels' managerial hotseat.

JBM had read an article in which Matthews, a two-time Olympian and the only Irishman to ever break one minute 45 seconds for the half-mile, posited his radical theory that what the modern GAA player needs is the fitness of an 800m runner.

The boffins now tell us that top Gaelic players run between 8-10km in a match and many equate their fitness needs to that of a long-distance runner.

But Matthews is convinced that 800m training will provide top-flight GAA players with the perfect combination of speed and 'speed endurance'.

Cork's three-goal defeat of Waterford the first day out certainly indicates that the Rebels are on the right track.

With Matthews on board, there should certainly be plenty of laughs because to describe him as outgoing is like saying Dolly Parton has had a little work done.


He dramatically retired after the Sydney Olympics, 'burnt out' at just 26 after running in 13 major championships in six years and he didn't even run socially again until last year.

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Donal Og and Co have probably already been regaled with his eye-popping tales of life as a world-class athlete, training in London and Australia with his great buddy Sonia O'Sullivan and the emerging Kenyans, and competing around the globe in the '90s, including in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in '96 in the nation's first post-war international event.

The athletes all waived their appearance fees and the IAAF was so chuffed that they later invited them all to the ultimate freebie, the World Sports Awards in Monte Carlo. "Some tennis player won it," Matthews recalls vaguely, before elaborating on the quality of the fluffy bathrobes in Monaco's Ritz Carlton.

But as the Cork hurlers have no doubt quickly discovered, when it comes to training, he can be deadly serious.

Matthews likes to paint himself as a complete hurling ignoramus -- "John Gardiner, I'd never heard of him!" he guffaws -- but Cork's new fitness trainer is not a complete GAA novice.

He played some minor football and hurling in his native Leixlip before he became a protege of the legendary Noel Carroll in UCD, where he studied commerce.

Life and sport have taken him down many paths since and when he and wife Niamh moved back to her homeplace a few years ago, he took up Gaelic football again, to assimilate socially.

"I was like Forrest Gump flapping around in midfield but, look!" he exclaims, pulling out a photo of Robertstown's 2011 Kildare junior champions. "The feckers. We lost two county finals by a point and, soon as I quit, they won it."

Matthews also trains the Irish Olympic handball team and is not the first top Irish athlete to work with an elite GAA team, but he brings some unique ideas and works closely with Cork's trainer Ger Cunningham to try to completely integrate the players' fitness and skills work.

"Ger phones me with his plan two weeks in advance and I decide how long and at what intensity we'll do things," he explains. "We want them all to have a turn of pace as well as the ability to keep going. I don't have any magic potions, but I've been there and I do know what it takes to last 75 minutes.

"Even now, at 37, I reckon I'd beat most county players over 20 yards and could run them down over three to five miles. For them the key is about getting the balance right between speed and speed endurance."

But is this a one-size-fits-all situation? Hurling and football are two completely different games and surely there are differences too in the fitness demands of different positions?

"You'd think it's the ball that travels in hurling, not the player, but that's wrong," he insists, pulling out the GPS-led statistics he's produced on Cork.

"I'm a great believer that magnolia doesn't suit everybody and yes, a corner-back and midfielder wouldn't do the same thing, but you'd be surprised at how much ground a corner-back does cover."

Last Christmas Matthews immersed himself in five years of Cork hurling DVDs, not to assess their skills, but to study their movement.

Hurlers, he noted, never go from a standing start, not even full-backs, and certainly not midfielders, so training must meet that challenge, especially as "the middle eight could be going from 10kmph to 30kmph in three to four strides".

Cork have access to elite-standard training facilities at Cork IT, which the Munster rugby team also use, though he only uses the track for testing purposes. Matthews has also introduced player diaries which are monitored monthly to see what else might be affecting their performances.

In the early season they did hill intervals, but the longest period of running they do is two to three minutes and they don't do beach running or endure 6.0am starts.

"Dublin probably do it for geographical and traffic reasons and as a professional athlete I've done it. It's fine if you can go back to bed and rest afterwards, but if you're going into work after it, that's very difficult."

The hardest thing, he's found, is getting GAA players to embrace the need to rest. "Jimmy's their Arsene Wenger," Matthews chuckles. "He surrounds himself with guys he trusts and people who can cover all the bases. He's an absolute god down there, but there's no ego with any of them.

"We'd all have opinions, but we dovetail well and make compromises. I'm surprised at that because, with my backround, I'd be very selfish. In athletics it's all about me, me, me. Athletes can be obnoxiously selfish, but you have to park that here. I'd absolutely no preconceived ideas on any of the players. I'd never bought into any of that striking mullarkey. I genuinely didn't know who won what, or who was best, until I had two months under my belt. The only ones I'd heard of were Donal Og (Cusack) and Sean Og (O hAilipin) and I only bought Cusack's book recently.

"Will what I'm doing put the ball over the bar and make Cork win? Definitely not," he accepts. "You can have a fella covering 10km in a game, but he mightn't have got a puck in a fight.


"You have to collate this with other factors, like how many hooks, how many blocks, how many strikes or strokes. All that goes in tandem before you can rate your players, but with this, and Jimmy, Ger and the team, you're giving them the right foundation.

"No disrespect to them, but if it was Laois or Offaly and they were in the shape of their lives, they still wouldn't win the All-Ireland because they don't have the same skill or tradition. Cork have that and it's just about getting their physical ability and mental attitude right."

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