O’Con­nor pre­pares Clare for a sea­son like no other

With the new Cham­pi­onship for­mat com­ing into op­er­a­tion, teams must hit the ground run­ning

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - GAELIC GAMES - Malachy Clerkin

You’re go­ing to be us­ing much more than the 19 or 20 that you re­lied on last year. You will be call­ing on num­ber 24, 25 and 26 on your panel far more reg­u­larly than was pre­vi­ously the case

“An Ir­ish so­lu­tion to an Ir­ish prob­lem,” laughs Gerry O’Con­nor, Clare co-man­ager, when the sub­ject of to­mor­row’s Mun­ster Hurl­ing League fi­nal comes up.

Their game against Lim­er­ick was down in the fix­ture list as a round-robin en­counter but since they’d both made it to the de­cider any­way, the de­ci­sion was taken to call this the fi­nal and have done with it.

It has the dual ben­e­fit of giv­ing both sides a bit more breath­ing space ahead of the start of the league and avoid­ing a pull-and-drag next Sun­day when the first round of the Fitzgib­bon Cup is to be played. The sec­ond week of Jan­uary and al­ready the game is be­ing squeezed un­til the pips squeak.

O’Con­nor and Donal Moloney won’t cry over an un­ex­pect­edly spare week­end. At train­ing the other night, Moloney re­minded ev­ery­one that if the league goes well and they reach the fi­nal, they’ll have to play eight games in nine weeks, which will add up to them hav­ing played 11 out of 13 week­ends be­fore the end of March. This is a sea­son like no other and ev­ery­one is hav­ing to ad­just as they go.

“I think if we’re be­ing hon­est, we’re all fly­ing blind a lit­tle bit here,” O’Con­nor says.

“I think we’ve got to use the Na­tional Hurl­ing League and try to repli­cate the con­di­tions we will face in the cham­pi­onship. The ground con­di­tions will dic­tate that, the pace of the game will change in the sum­mer but the re­cov­ery as­pect of it all will be the same.

“It has fo­cused us a lot more to be in tune a lot ear­lier in the sea­son than we would have been. And that’s a good thing be­cause you can set out your goals a lot ear­lier and you can plan with a lot more in­tent. And I think the play­ers are look­ing for­ward to it more than any­body be­cause they have been cry­ing out for more games and less train­ing.”

Win­ter slog

No kid­ding. Es­pe­cially in 2018 when the an­nual win­ter slog has started ear­lier than ever for squads na­tion­wide. The Mun­ster Hurl­ing League fi­nal might only be a glo­ri­fied chal­lenge match but ev­ery player will take it over the al­ter­na­tive.

“The big­gest sin­gle dif­fer­ence is that this time last year, we were prob­a­bly gen­tly go­ing into the Na­tional League know­ing there were enough gaps built into the sched­ule to con­tinue to do some pretty heavy train­ing in be­tween games. This time around, we have done more con­di­tion­ing work in De­cem­ber and Jan­uary than we would have 12 months ago.

“Ev­ery man­age­ment team in hurl­ing and foot­ball are go­ing into this now with an un­known fac­tor hang­ing over it so I’m not say­ing we have got it right. But look­ing at it, I don’t be­lieve we will have a lot of op­por­tu­nity to do heavy con­di­tion­ing work through­out the league when it starts and there cer­tainly will be no op­por­tu­nity to do it in May or June.”

One off­shoot of the new sched­ule is in­creased panel sizes all across the coun­try.

O’Con­nor says Clare were al­ways go­ing to freshen up over the win­ter any­way but a com­bi­na­tion of re­tire­ments (Bren­dan Bu­gler, Darach Ho­nan and Pa­trick Don­nel­lan), in­juries (Aron Shanagher out for the year with a cru­ci­ate) and the likes of Cian Dillon and Colm Galvin go­ing trav­el­ling means they’ve added 11 new faces since the end of the 2017 cham­pi­onship. When they get ev­ery­one back, they’ll be work­ing off a panel of “30-plus” play­ers, he reck­ons. Which bring its own chal­lenges.

“I think that’s go­ing to be­come a huge fac­tor for all teams this year. It’s al­most uni­ver­sally ac­cepted now that you’re go­ing to have to have a large panel – you’re go­ing to be us­ing much more than the 19 or 20 that you re­lied on last year. You will be call­ing on num­ber 24, 25 and 26 on your panel far more reg­u­larly than was pre­vi­ously the case.

“If those guys haven’t fea­tured on a Sun­day but you ex­pect them to play at a high level the fol­low­ing week­end, then you’ve got to have them on a dif­fer­ent strength and con­di­tion­ing regime and a dif­fer­ent hurl­ing train­ing pro­gramme to ev­ery­one who ac­tu­ally has played.

“We’ve talked about this among the man­age­ment team – the league re­ally is go­ing to be a pe­riod of work­ing through things like this and mak­ing sure that when the sum­mer comes, we have a pro­gramme in place.”

Key to that will be us­ing the com­ing weeks to gauge how best to fill the time be­tween games. The cham­pi­onship sum­mer is go­ing to be rat-a-tat stuff. Clare play back-to-back games against Cork and Water­ford to start in Mun­ster, then skip a week­end be­fore fin­ish­ing off against first Tipp and then Lim­er­ick.

In 2017, they played three cham­pi­onship matches in seven weeks; in 2018, they’ll have at least four games in five weeks. The key, reck­ons O’Con­nor, is get­ting used to it now rather than when it hap­pens.

Re­cov­ery

“The big­gest op­por­tu­nity to im­prove week on week is go­ing to be in re­cov­ery. You’re not go­ing to be do­ing con­di­tion­ing or hurl­ing train­ing of any great sub­stance from one Sun­day to the next when the cham­pi­onship starts. The op­por­tu­nity we’re go­ing to have in the league is to learn what you can about what it the op­ti­mum method of re­cov­ery from game to game, par­tic­u­larly when there’s a week turn­around.

“I do be­lieve that the man­age­ment, coach­ing staff and play­ers that learn the most about how to re­cover for the play­ers that played and how to keep a train­ing pro­gramme go­ing for the play­ers that didn’t play will be the ones who per­form best. I think it will be a deter­min­ing fac­tor head­ing into the cham­pi­onship.

“We are ef­fec­tively play­ing two Na­tional Leagues this year, ex­cept the ground con­di­tions are go­ing to be a lot harder for the sec­ond one.”

In­ter­est­ing times ahead. For ev­ery­one.

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