Conor Whelan: Galway have to up it again
It's been quite the journey for Conor Whelan.
These days he's a household name. After playing a key role in the Galway side that ended the county's 29-year wait for Liam MacCarthy, the Kinvara youngster is an All-Star and reigning Young Hurler of the Year and generally considered one of the most exciting talents around.
His new status is far removed from when he first arrived on the inter-county stage in 2015. Back then he was unknown to most outside his own county when he was pitched into an All-Ireland quarter-final.
He was still a teenager when thrown in against Cork. He had been parachuted in from the county's intermediate team and hit the ground running, helping himself to 1-2 from play.
"It was kind of fairly crazy how it all happened," Whelan reflected at the announcement of the GAA's 5 Star Centre Initiative for Primary Schools which aims to get children exercising for 60 minutes a week.
"I just got kind of thrown in at the deep end. You had to just adapt at the time. It was kind of a shock. Then in 2016 when that kind of unknown factor was gone and you had to adapt your game.
"I suppose that was a massive thing this year that you had to make the transition from being a future talent to actually fulfilling some of your potential and that was a massive thing to me, that I was anxious to put that right after a fairly disappointing year in 2016."
So he soon learned inter-county hurling wouldn't always be as kind as his first day out against Cork. The hits were bigger and the focus more intense. By his own admission, the second season didn't go to plan.
"It was difficult in that you didn't have the experience of having a pre-season behind you the previous year. I had no league experience either. I was trying to factor all these things in but I had never done them before.
"I had to go through my first league campaign and some could argue that I possibly peaked too soon and I took the league as if it was the championship and then when it came to the championship maybe I burnt myself out.
"That was just something that I had to learn from 2016. I factored that all in for 2017 and I was happy enough the way things went. But there's still loads of areas to improve on."
After such a stellar debut, he admits he had a false impression of what hurling at the top level would be like.
"It can be deceiving enough in that I came in and was thrown in at the deep end. I had nothing to lose. If I played well, great, and if I didn't well, 'It was his first day out', whereas when you're into your second or third year that kind of unknown factor is gone and the sympathy is gone too. If he's not playing well, then it's, 'Take him off'. So it can be a bit deceiving.
"It gets harder and that's just something that you have to learn to deal with as a player, to develop your game.
"That's something for 2018, every Galway player is going to have to up it again a notch or else any of the six or seven teams will be pushing up a level as well."
Whelan looked a physically more imposing player this year but he revealed he actually stripped back in terms of his weight. Whelan tipped the scales at around 84kg during his debut season and had put in an extra 5kg in bulk for 2016.
However, with the aid of Galway's Polish-born strength and conditioning coach Lukasz Kirszenstein, he shed some weight for 2017 to deliver his best season yet for the Tribesmen.
"Everyone wants to get bigger and stronger but it is not the be all and end all… It's important for young hurlers, everyone thinks you have to be bigger and stronger, but if you are leaner and more agile maybe you can go around them rather than through them
"(Lukasz) has great knowledge of everything really, any little piece that you ask about or exercise that can develop you, he has the knowledge so he's really helpful.
"From a personal perspective, for me he felt I was carrying too much muscle mass and he helped me become leaner and I felt that made a small difference to my agility and to my stamina in that I could stay going longer in games," Whelan added.
"This year I was able to finish every game but last year I was being taken off on 60 minutes and maybe I was gassing out.
"He helped me transform my body completely and I think he has helped a third of the panel so he is a massive influence and a great guy to have."