Life as Meath manager could hardly have gone much better for Colm O’Rourke to date.
Across the O’Byrne Cup and league, he’s been in charge of Meath for five games and is yet to taste defeat. In that time his side have conceded just one goal – in the first half of the first game against Carlow – while they have raised seven green flags in the last two games alone.
They have a perfect record in the bearpit that is Division 2 and can look up rather than down as they head for Derry to play live in front of the RTÉ cameras.
Those in Navan on Sunday said they sensed an optimism around the place. O’Rourke may be one of the oldest first-time managers we’ve seen, but he’s making a decent fist of it.
But after seeing his side beat Clare, he was a new manager facing into an old problem.
Shane Walsh, a celebrated underage talent who was handed his Meath senior championship debut just a few weeks after completing his Leaving Cert, picked up a hamstring injury early in the win over the Banner, joining Mathew Costello on the treatment table. Both men had been trying to mix college and county duty, a calendar clash that irked O’Rourke.
“We were also forced to take off Darragh Campion and Cathal Hickey who also played Sigerson during the week,” an annoyed Meath boss said afterwards.
“It is absolutely ridiculous that Mathew Costello comes back from playing in Cork and less than 48 hours later he is put out in a very important game for his college. The timing of the Sigerson is all wrong, we have six players tied up in it and we had to take off five of them today.
“There are two of them now injured with hamstrings, it is pure overuse injuries, it’s a disgrace, it’s an abuse of players and it shouldn’t be going on at this time. Sigerson is a great competition, I was delighted to play in it myself and winning it with UCD but it wasn’t at that time competing with county football.”
Around this time last year, the same issue was the topic du jour. DKIT, under Oisín McConville, withdrew from the Trench Cup final, citing player welfare concerns. They had asked for the final to be put back due to nine of their players’ involvement in National League panels, but when that request wasn’t granted, they simply pulled out.
“This is disappointing for our management and players but we feel it is the best decision on the grounds of player welfare,” read a letter to third-level chiefs. “We were faced with travelling down to Carlow without up to nine players or asking our county players to play three games in four days.”
Tommy Conroy was also double-jobbing when his knee crumpled beneath him, bringing his season to a premature end and damaging Mayo’s prospects.
“I definitely think that there needs to be something done, especially in terms of playing for lads my age, playing Sigerson and on inter-county panels,” he said last April.
“I think there should be something in place there, where the players don’t really need to think about it, and he doesn’t have to be overplaying in January and February. In terms of scheduling, it probably needs to change, because there is probably too much going on around that period.”
Around the same time Kerry drew criticism when Jack Savage and Tony Brosnan played Sigerson Cup during the day before making an appearance in the McGrath Cup for Kerry that evening.
Savage summed up the pinch on players in that bracket succinctly: “Yerra, we were f***ing eager to get on the Kerry team.”
The split season has been met with almost universal acclaim. A shorter county season means greater certainty for clubs. Replays are all but eradicated. There is a clear blueprint for a season.
It still means that there can be extraordinary cases like David Clifford, Seán Kelly and others, who between Sigerson, club and county were on the road almost non-stop for 2022. But the advantages that come with the calendar switch are undeniable.
But what the split season can’t solve is trying to do too much with too little.
A small percentage of players will face the situation that has irked O’Rourke every year. But perhaps there’s only so much time to play so many games.
Tomás Ó Sé, the incoming Kerry U-20 manager, put it best.
“We have too many competitions in the GAA and we don’t have the time to keep everybody happy.
“I don’t know what the way around that is, you are trying to please everybody and give everyone a fair crack at it. The GAA are obviously doing the best they can with it, but if there was 15 months in the year we’d be way better off.”