Dermot Crowe: Hurling's high-intensity new world still searching for the balance between fitness and fatigue
On Sunday last, soon after losing to Tipperary in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, John Meyler peeled off his 'game face' and put on his 'next game face' with impressive haste. That is the way of the hurling championship now. Win or lose, there is no time to brood.
In various arguments on the imposition of a high-intensity round robin system on amateur players, comparisons are made with other sports and their coping mechanisms. Last year Meyler's son David, a professional footballer, was able to lend his father some advice on going week-to-week. "Forget about it the minute it is over," he recommended.
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Long before their hour of defeat, Cork knew they were heading to the Gaelic Grounds a week later to face the All-Ireland champions Limerick. Losing a championship match to Tipperary at home at any time is a large cross to bear, but the proximity to their next challenge was too short to dwell on it.
"It's seven days, but that's the beauty of the Munster Championship," said Meyler senior. "The match is over. We just need to reorganise and focus on Limerick. Away to Limerick and we need to get a win and that's basically it."
In 2016, Cork lost to Tipperary in the Munster Championship on their first day out by nine points and had a fortnight to recover before facing Dublin in the qualifiers. They had the match in Páirc Uí Rinn but barely made it out alive. A week later, they lost to Wexford in the championship for the first time in 70 years and were eliminated.
The hurling championship is less gruelling this year with no county playing on four successive weekends. But it is still a bit of a lottery and Cork have landed the worst possible draw a week after losing the first match. For Tipp, who had to play four times in 21 days last season, the picture is brighter; the opening-round win over Cork is the perfect start ahead of hosting Waterford in Thurles today.
After losing to Limerick in the opening round last year, Tipp had draws with Cork and Waterford before losing to Clare, their lead overturned in the home straight. "I suppose the question about last year was whether we managed it well or not," says Ciarán Keogh, who was part of Tipp's strength and conditioning team. "But I think the biggest thing is that you need the guys to be ready going into it. Normally the four games in four weeks shouldn't make all that much of a difference. It is that step-up compared to the previous championships. The intensity of it is so much higher.
"People will compare it to soccer where they play week in and week out, but the physicality is not there in soccer, the hits and the contact. If you go into the dressing room after a championship game or even a league game in hurling, some of the lads' bodies are destroyed from whacks and all the rest of it. Now it is difficult but I wouldn't go so far as to say it is nonsensical. It is somewhat manageable. You could argue that Munster - well certainly last year - would have been the worst of the lot in terms of both the calibre of the teams and how evenly matched they were."
Dublin hurlers have spent the last week picking themselves up from an opening-round defeat to Kilkenny which places enormous pressure on them to get a result at home to Wexford today. Last year they also lost the first round to Kilkenny and had to travel to Wexford Park the following weekend needing a win to stay in realistic play-off contention. Johnny McCaffrey was part of that campaign, retiring in the off-season.
"You are well used to it in the league," he says of the quick turnaround, "but in a league week you would be working on things, you are still doing two sessions and maybe a gym session, whereas this week it will maybe be only one decent session and one light session after that. They are all so fit now that unless they have an injury or knock they should be raring to go. Last year it was more mental than physical.
"If you are on a losing streak, mentally it can be harder to get going. Last year (after the opening round) everyone had their own recovery to do on the Monday, be it the gym or pool. You would meet then on Tuesday or Wednesday, it could have been a Wednesday-Friday thing, because the match is on a Sunday."
For Tipperary, according to Ciarán Keogh, they stepped off the gas almost completely. "Even if we compared it to the previous season (2017), I know we lost to Cork in the first round, but you knew we had a very definite lead-in and you knew one way or another you were going to have another couple of weeks off after that. You are hoping you are completely ready and raring to go at the start of the four weeks, you are trying to get them to peak as much as they possibly can because, particularly in Munster, you can't really afford to maybe second-guess any opposition and presume you are going to get past them.
"You are trying to have the athletes recovered. Most of the sessions were pretty short. I was trying to advocate that maybe Tipp would change the structure of training that we did last year. But they didn't; they went with the tried and trusted: Tuesday and Thursday. But my argument was, 'Look we know that it's going to take them more than 48 hours to recover from the match on Sunday. So if you play Sunday and are on again Tuesday, well the players are not in any condition to do any intensity whatsoever'. I was proposing that because it was four weeks in a row that they would take the Monday and Tuesday off as complete recovery days and meet on a Wednesday and Friday or something like that."
In Tipperary, Keogh worked closely with the fitness coach Gary Ryan, a former Olympic sprinter, and they regularly conducted jump tests and groin squeeze tests to estimate fatigue levels among the players. "Both (mid-week) sessions over the four weeks were fairly light, they'd come in, they'd have a puck-about, a fairly standard warm-up, there might be a little bit of tactical stuff. But that would be pretty much it," says Keogh.
From McCaffrey's experience with Dublin, it was a slightly different emphasis. They were more fortunate than Tipp last year in that after two rounds they had a break before the last two rounds, a more ideal frequency of matches. "We'd have one main session," says McCaffrey. "You would probably do 50-60 minutes. The whole idea of it would be that you are not increasing the load but you are keeping the intensity high, it would be good sharp hurling and then you might play a match for 15-20 minutes at the end depending on what the manager thinks."
In 2013, they hurled five weekends in a row on the way to winning the provincial title. But, a week after defeating Kilkenny in a replay, they blew Galway off the field in the Leinster final. During that run they still had a high-intensity session mid-week.
"It would have been a proper 50 minutes of everything, flat out," says McCaffrey. "It is important to keep that intensity and sharpness up. Within the week if you do two sessions and they are not that intense and you are going through the motions, it does not do you any favours."
Pádraic Maher, in an interview with this newspaper last year, spoke about the challenge of working long shift hours as a garda in Limerick at a time when Tipp faced a daunting schedule of games in Munster. By the end of those matches they had failed to qualify. Work is another component some players have to put into the mix.
"Some of them take time out but some are not in a position to do so," says Ciarán Keogh, who is now involved training the Cavan footballers based in Dublin. "I think the majority of the Tipp panel were either students or teachers. A smaller minority of them had separate professions so Paudie (Maher) would have been a good example. I think last year it was difficult for someone like Paudie being a guard, in terms of having different shifts, working long hours, he could be working nights on 12-hour shifts, so it is very difficult for him to manage during the four weeks. Now obviously it is different this season - they have a few more breaks.
"And of course we can't really compare it to rugby players who play week in, week out, because they are full-time, the strength and conditioning is at a bit of a different level. They can train, they can rest, they have no other working responsibilities."
After today's match, Tipperary have a two-week break to the third-round trip to Ennis, then another fortnight's rest before they finish with a match against Limerick in Thurles.
Keogh admits there is divided opinion on the merits of some recovery methods like ice baths and cryotherapy, with research showing conflicting data, but adequate sleeping time is paramount. "Sleep is probably the universal thing that you will get agreement on in terms of the research, in terms of the impact that it has," he says. "The body recovery processes really originate when we sleep. This is where your recovery takes place when we have good quality sleep."
Making adjustments to his work schedule was also a challenge for Johnny McCaffrey, a sales rep who travels around the country. During last year's round robin he worked five-day weeks but on training days he tried to arrange his schedules more locally.
But teams are at the mercy of injuries, as Waterford found out last year with a crippling list and no recovery time, having to play four weeks running. "We were lucky enough ourselves, injury-wise, it was not had," says McCaffrey. "If you did get an injury, even a small hamstring injury, you could be out for two weeks and miss two or three games.
"In the previous system you would probably have two or three weeks through to the next game. I think Conal (Keaney) had a shoulder injury in the Kilkenny game and he missed the next game to be back for the third game - I think he was the only one. If you do pick up a knock, even a small knock, you could miss two games with that. That is the only problem."
Wexford come fresh to Parnell Park today for their first outing, but McCaffrey would prefer to have a game under his belt. "Over all my years playing I would have said that the first game wasn't always your best game, you are always finding out things after a long break from the league. You haven't played a competitive game and you don't know between all the training and practice matches whereas with a match you will find out a lot more. Dublin will have a fair idea where they are after last week and if they can improve on those areas they will be confident that they can get a win. Definitely playing the game is an advantage."
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