Counties must absorb the lessons of 2018 to prosper
Teams who’d to play their four matches back to back had a desperate record
Kilkenny’s Padraig Walsh and Conor McDonald of Wexford during last year’s Leinster Championship. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
It got lost in the fog, what with everything. Here’s a short list of everything else from the last weekend in May 2018 that was worth talking about.
Tipperary came back from nine points down at half-time to grab a last-minute equaliser against Cork. Galway squeezed the living daylights out of Kilkenny. Carlow beat Kildare in football, the Dubs made their first appearance of the summer, Leinster completed the double and Loris Karius lost the Champions League final.
If anyone referred to Clare’s win over Waterford in Cusack Park at all, they talked about the walk-under-ladders luck cursing Derek McGrath’s side. That was the day Waterford lost Tadhg De Burca, Noel Connors, Brick Walsh, Darragh Fives and Barry Coughlan – all to injury and all before the 45th minute. They had Kevin Moran sent off too so all in all, a nine-point defeat was probably the best they could have hoped for.
When the year was done and the numbers got crunched, however, that game was notable for something else. The new format in the hurling championship had thrown up plenty of trends, the headline one of which was the desperate record of teams who had to play their four matches back to back. But on a more granular level, Clare did something that day that nobody else managed all summer – they won after losing the previous weekend.
It might not sound like much but it was unique in the new reckoning. Across Munster and Leinster, there were nine occasions on which beaten counties had to dust themselves off and go again the following weekend. Of those nine, Clare’s rebound win from their opening day defeat to Cork was the only victory recorded anywhere.
Tipperary drew with Cork on the same day, a week after losing to Limerick. Waterford’s draw with Tipp came a week after the Clare defeat. The other six times it happened, the losing team lost again straight away. It happened to Offaly three times, Dublin, Waterford and Wexford once apiece.
The sample size is small, of course. But still, one win from nine is a trend that will concentrate the minds of everyone going into this year’s round robin. The buzzword all through last summer was recovery but there has been a necessary evolution in precisely what that entails this time around. It’s more than just sore limbs that need to be refreshed after a defeat.
“It was a big, big ask for players,” says Wexford selector Seoirse Bulfin. “More the mental side of it than anything. Getting up psychologically week by week is so tough. You put so much into these games physiologically and psychologically that it takes a day or two to come back down before building yourself up again. That was the biggest challenge.”
Wexford started their campaign last year with victories over Offaly and Dublin but then had to play Galway at home and Kilkenny away on successive Saturdays. After losing to Galway, they barrelled into Kilkenny in what was a de facto Leinster semi-final. They led by 1-11 to 0-7 at half-time and pushed that lead out to nine points soon after the break. Brian Cody made three substitutions at half-time, removing Richie Hogan and Colin Fennelly with two of them. Wexford had them.
And then they didn’t. Kilkenny were coming off the back of a defeat too but they’d had a fortnight to process losing to Galway. Pádraig Walsh and TJ Reid thundered into the game, Joey Holden loped forward for a hen’s-teeth score. Meanwhile, Wexford hit 10 second-half wides. Tired wides, mentally-shot wides.
“There was no major issue getting guys up for the game,” says Bulfin. “But it was keeping them there that was the problem. It’s such a special fixture for Wexford people that they were all motivated – that was no problem. But we ran out of road and it was psychological road rather than physical road. They got a run on us in the second half and it was like running through quicksand at times. We just struggled to get ourselves out of it.
“It was a bit like Cork in the semi-final against Limerick – one more point would probably have done it and got us over the line or got us the point that we needed. The margins are very, very fine at this level. One more score either way would probably have done it but when we didn’t get it we started snapping at half-chances and losing our composure. If you weren’t as mentally drained, that composure might have been there and that one score might have been there.”
This time last year, everyone was flying blind. Guessing at what might work, hoping against hope that it would. Some counties used as few as 25 players in the league in preparation, others played as many as 34. One county decided as a group that everyone would book all four post-match Mondays off work in advance.
Did it work? Not all of it, not for everyone. In Dublin, they found that although they were competitive in all their games, they were falling back into bad habits down the stretch – a clear consqeuence of not having been able to get their full panel together until the start of the championship.
This time around, Mattie Kenny has had access to all his players for significantly longer than Pat Gilroy did. They have had more time to bed in a system and work out their go-to plays. They will surely be a more potent unit over the coming weeks than they were 12 months ago.
By contrast, Kilkenny look to have acquired some of Waterford’s luck from last year. Playing Dublin on Saturday night without Eoin Murphy, Conor Delaney, Holden, Cillian Buckley and James Maher is a huge ask. Richie Hogan hasn’t been Richie Hogan for almost three years at this stage.
The teams that prospered in the new format last year were the ones who could spring serious replacements when they had to – Limerick had Shane Dowling and Tom Condon, Galway had Niall Burke and Jason Flynn, Clare had Aron Shanagher and Ian Galvin. Not just good subs, trusted starters if and when it came down to it. Can you say that about Kilkenny in 2019? Not yet you can’t.
“The only thing is that we’re all a bit more informed now as to the intensity of it,” says Conor Fogarty. “Last year it was new to us. But you just go with it, really. You have the matches week-on-week and you just go with it. You’re in the moment and you don’t actually think about it too much. I presume this year will be the same.
“It was challenging but you get on with it. Recovery is very important but when the ball is about to be thrown in, you’re not thinking, ‘Oh Jesus, I’m tired from last week.’ That’s the last thing that’s going to be on your mind.
“You need to recap on it but at the same time you need to be looking forward straight away. There’s no time to be sitting around feeling sorry for yourself after a loss. You have another job to do the week after.”
The games are slightly more spaced out this time around – nobody will have to play four games in 21 days like last year. But just as important is the fact that everyone has a feel for the rhythm of it all now. Flying into turbulence is still difficult the second time you do it but at least you know what’s going to happen. How you deal with it comes down to the depth and quality of your preparation.
“Every team after last year has a better idea of how to go about it,” Bulfin says. “I think it has probably meant changing your training night a little, either going back a night or forward a night. You’re more versed now as to how certain guys react to playing regularly.
“It’s sometimes a good thing to get back on the horse within six or seven days. But that depends on the nature of the defeat too – whether it was demoralising, how many injuries you picked up, that kind of thing.”
Variables everywhere. The teams that sheepdog them best will be the ones who last longest.