Fennelly using Swans mission to help Cats take flight again
Kilkenny star hopes knowledge gained in 10-week spell with AFL full-timers can pay dividends, writes Colm Keys
Michael Fennelly can be forgiven for sensing trouble ahead. He knows the time of year it is.
For the last two years, his season has taken a turn on the back of a couple of serious ankle injuries.
In 2012, at the peak of the form that earned him the 2011 Hurler of the Year award, he turned badly on one in the league final against Cork to knock a sizable chunk out of that summer.
Last summer, while on duty for Ballyhale Shamrocks in a club league game, he turned on the other and chased the rest of the season, until it ran out of road in Thurles in late July.
"Two years in a row, two serious ankle injuries that took out three or four months," he reflected.
"I just went completely over it. I really did a bad job.There were so many problems there. Things were only showing up a few weeks afterwards, then something else would show up so it made the whole thing more complicated."
He admits that 11 months on, he's really only getting out on the other side of it now, returning to action for Kilkenny in their recent league quarter-final win over Wexford and seeing out a full 60 minutes in a club game last weekend.
Two and a half months observing AFL club Sydney Swans in pre-season training during the height of the Australian summer should have helped his rehabilitation.
Fennelly completed a masters in sports performance in UL last year – having left a position with Ulster Bank – and through Tadhg Kennelly was able to link up with the 2005 AFL premiership champions from early December until the middle of February, when he returned home.
The trip was self-funded and offered a rare insight into how a professional sports team go about their business.
"I always wanted to get into the sport side of things," says Fennelly of his career change. "I went back to do a masters last year. I like training and why we train. Whenever we do something with Mick Dempsey, our fitness coach, I always wonder in my head 'why are we doing this?'. Going to Australia and seeing what they do was interesting."
The most striking contrast between what he does on a regular basis and what Sydney did was the concentration on running. Everything else, from nutrition to gym work, he could identify more easily with.
But the high volume running was "frightening to watch in one sense."
"The amount of running they do is pretty big. They do 350-metre sprints, 400-metre sprints. They tend to vary it a bit. They could do 10-minute runs, they could have a massive hard training session for two and a half hours. That evening then they could be on the bikes for half an hour and it would be at good, high intensity.
"Plus it would be in an altitude room, so there would be less oxygen, making it tougher again. Doing that on the same day that you train for two and a half hours, I found that extreme.
"They are running 12,000, 13,000 metres in a game whereas hurling is about 9,000, 10,000 metres. On the gym side I don't think they are doing anything majorly different.
"Their pre-season is three months and they train Monday to Friday. Normally Monday, Wednesday and Friday are quite similar, they do outfield training, some yoga and altitude training as well. Tuesday and Thursday is more gym work.
"I got to see all sides of it, got to see skills, the physio side of things in relation to preventing injuries. These lads do a lot on wellness so every morning they come in they weigh themselves, they do a few tests to see if there are any muscles tightening up. Muscle soreness is a key one as well so they do all this work in the morning to see if there is anything to be looked at.
"It's very interesting for me to see to bring some of the stuff back to Kilkenny to incorporate it some way.
"Obviously these lads are at it full-time, they are at it five days a week, so time is not an issue for them like it is for us."
In Sydney he observed Tommy Walsh recuperating from a severe hamstring injury that is threatening his AFL future. After five years in Australia, Fennelly gets the sense that Walsh is ready to return home.
"I think he'd love to come home because he does miss it. His contract is up this year. He'd be happy to come home or stay there. It's a big year but maybe it's an uphill battle for him. I think he'd be fairly content to come home, he misses Kerry and his family and that," says Fennelly.
Fennelly doesn't hide the fact that he would love to pursue a life as a professional hurler but knows it's not going to happen.
The advent of a broadcasting deal with a subscription channel may open more doors to international commerce, he figures, but not in a way that will flush the current landscape with enough money to sustain a paid game.
"I don't think it's going to happen in the immediate future, maybe down the line if there's more money coming in to the GAA," he says.
"Sky are an international company. With them coming into the GAA and maybe other sponsors, it could head in that direction slowly.
"I think every player would love to play hurling or Gaelic football full-time, but it's just not financially viable. The Sky deal is a hint of international companies coming in with sponsorship.
"We'd all love to not have jobs and be playing the games full-time. I think lads would get stronger, fitter. Every aspect of the game would go up. Management would have so much time with players that everything would go up. Nutrition too could be looked at. Maybe 13-a-side would be a better job then. Hypothetically it'd be great to see what a player could do with his body. "
Fennelly has returned to a much changed Kilkenny set-up, with new selectors.
"There's a lot of new faces – last year we under-performed and maybe didn't use the bench as much. We seem to have a stronger team at the moment and a lot of the younger guys who have played during the league have done well," he says.