Tuesday 16 July 2019

How a quiet Polish strength and conditioning coach became a key part of the Galway hurling revolution

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On some level, Galway's size has become a trick of the mind, a gentle psychological swindle.

Maybe we've all been guilty of fictionalising Micheál Donoghue's men, painting a picture almost of giant cartoon characters stepping out of a book. Up to 4pm last Sunday, the narrative ran that they were too big, too strong to be subdued by anything less than military hardware. Then Kilkenny (who else?) injected a little realism.

How? By swamping the middle third with bodies and trusting their full-back line to win any 50/50 battles.

It wasn't science so much as stubbornness. Brian Cody has built his reputation on challenging populist assumptions and that idea of Galway's physical impregnability would have become a bee in his bonnet.

Galway strength and condition coach Lukasz Kirszenstein. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/ Sportsfile
Galway strength and condition coach Lukasz Kirszenstein. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/ Sportsfile

Even in his newspaper column last Sunday, Henry Shefflin was inclined to note the size of the Galway U-21 team that beat Kilkenny in this year's Leinster Championship.

Remarking that the teams had been "very closely matched" as minors three years ago (when Galway won by two points after a replay), Henry reflected that "the gap between the teams has grown and what struck me was how much bigger Galway were."

Yet Galway's winning margin in Tullamore on June 20? Two points.

To be fair to Henry, he was seeing what the rest of us were seeing. A big, well-conditioned side in maroon winning again. On Wednesday night, that same Galway team collected the Leinster title in Portlaoise, yet they didn't do it on the back of any conspicuous physical advantage over opponents Wexford.

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On the contrary, it took a goal right at the end of extra-time to edge the verdict in an extraordinary contest.

So maybe, just maybe our recent pre-occupation with the place of the pituitary gland in Galway's story has served to obscure a reality that they might simply have hit upon a generation of eminently decent and well-managed hurlers here.

Organisationally, they have seldom been in a better place with the pathways and connectivity between all age-groups now ensuring a conveyor-belt of professionally developed athletes representing Galway hurling at all levels.

Connectivity Central to that connectivity is Polish strength and conditioning coach Lukasz Kirszenstein. Donoghue stresses endlessly the importance of legacy in this Galway story and the securing of Kirszenstein on a three-year contract, working with all of the county's teams from U-17 up, is seen as a major part of ring-fencing a more consistent future.

It was seen as a massive coup by the Galway manager to bring Kirszenstein on board within weeks of the Limerick-based coach having helped Tipperary win the 2016 All-Ireland.

Tipp players were uniformly effusive in their praise of the Pole with Pádraic Maher emphasising how Kirszenstein's personalised programmes brought greater focus on individual mobility rather than unquestioningly increased bulk. He'd been brought into the Tipp camp by Eamon O'Shea in November of 2012, Maher describing how the gym exercises prescribed by Kirszenstein proved "a lot more explosive" than what they'd been accustomed to.

The Pole had worked that summer with Limerick's under-21s, albeit the experience had been one he almost certainly found a mite disheartening.

He'd been brought in by manager John Fitzgerald in the hope of developing an S&C programme that would prepare those U-21s for the step up to senior level. But the bulk of Fitzgerald's team was already involved with Limerick's seniors that year, meaning the U-21 management got little or no access outside of games to key men like Shane Dowling, Declan Hannon and Kevin Downes. And, by extension, Kirszenstein never saw them either.

Ollie Moran, a selector with Fitzgerald, reflected this week: "The intention had been that the lads would do a session one day a week in UL with Lukasz and one hurling session a week. But that day in UL never really materialised because of player unavailability. So, after a couple of months, Lukasz was - to all intents and purposes - surplus to requirements.

"There was no-one turning up and what was the point of him doing programmes for seven or eight fellas who were peripheral?

"So we didn't really see the best of him which was an awful pity. I think he got very, very disheartened because he was coming along and working only with guys he knew and we knew were never really going to be in the shake-up."

Kirszenstein had, by then, been working in rugby with the Munster Academy too, but his GAA profile then found serious traction when O'Shea recruited him to work with Tipp's senior hurlers. With one of O'Shea's selectors, Paudie O'Neill, related to John Fitzgerald, it's fair to say that - for all the brevity of his work with Limerick - the Pole had still made a positive impression.

Brendan Cummins has spoken of doing more gym work over the next two years with Kirszenstein than he'd done in maybe the previous 18 as a Tipp hurler. And he remains unequivocal in his view that the Pole brought huge positivity to O'Shea's dressing-room.

"He definitely added 10 per cent to the overall set-up in the way he conducted himself around the place," Cummins reflected last year.

"His level of professionalism and the straight face he has, the way he looked at you if he thought you were telling him lies.

"He'll have a laugh with the players, but you know where the line is with him. And if you're not toeing the line, he'll bark. It's seldom he does that, which makes him more powerful. He's not into screaming, roaring and going berserk. He's very measured in his approach, but he's assertive."

All of which suggests that Kirszenstein fits perfectly into the Donoghue style of firm, understated management. The Clarinbridge man has stated that Galway's thorough pre-season work was absolutely fundamental to last season's journey to the All-Ireland crown.

And the stability of having Kirszenstein for the long-term now enables Galway to monitor more accurately the "gym age" of all hurlers in their care today.

Around the time he was signing that three-year deal in February, the Pole was also said to be interesting new Munster rugby coach Johann van Graan.

He'd worked with the Irish women's' rugby team that won the 2015 Six Nations and, earlier this year, set up his own company, LK Performance Ltd. In fact, Kirszenstein is also known to have begun broadening his understanding of grassroots GAA by working with some clubs, among them South Liberties in Limerick.

But it is his work with O'Donoghue's Galway that has really transformed his profile, particularly the fact that his name is now aligned with the last two All-Ireland hurling champions.

Conor Whelan recently revealed that he'd become much leaner from working an individualised programme with Kirszenstein, the Pole insisting he'd been "carrying too much muscle mass".

So the reality patently contradicts the myth. Maybe it isn't that Galway have become bigger hurlers after all. Just better.

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