A few years ago I vividly remember taking part in a 'bonding session' with the Tipperary hurlers that was facilitated by some members of the armed forces. It started with a one-hour physical training session including sprints, tug-of-war and wrestling. I thought this might be the height of it, but we were only getting started. 

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Paddy Stapleton: It’s time to completely separate club and county seasons

A few years ago I vividly remember taking part in a 'bonding session' with the Tipperary hurlers that was facilitated by some members of the armed forces. It started with a one-hour physical training session including sprints, tug-of-war and wrestling. I thought this might be the height of it, but we were only getting started. 

We then spent the next several hours running all around the roads and hills of an island for what seemed like an eternity, and at one stage I even saw a fellow player lying in the ditch exhausted. When I asked how far we had run that evening, the trainer said “approximately 17km”. Ironically, it was one of the most scenic places I have ever been, and possibly the most extreme training conditions.

 

I suppose this might be a typical tough training trip getting ready for an All-Ireland semi-final a few weeks down the line, the only problem is we had a knockout match with our club less than 48 hours later. I can actually remember a panel member going out to warm up for our opponents two days later: each calf strapped, limping on both legs. He was that team's best player at the time and his condition certainly contributed to our win. Although this is a severe example and has not been repeated, it best highlights in my head the way club and county championships are run simultaneously and how it just does not work. It’s time to have separate seasons in the one year.

 

I remember a few years ago trying to manage an osteitis pubis injury. It needs a lot of rest and rehabilitation but I felt I could not give it that, as I badly wanted to help out my club, Borris-Ileigh. Yes, that may be stupid but if I could play at all I wanted to do a job. Each time I would play for my club it was setting me back for Tipperary; yes, partly my own fault but it shows what goes through players’ minds when there is a conflict of interest. Even last year, Tipperary club matches were being fitted into nooks and crannies. I pulled my hamstring after a full week of gym work and training at county level, missing a club championship game that weekend with another teammate pulling his hamstring too. I am not blaming county management or coaches for this, I want to be clear about that.

 

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Although it seems a long year, there are different fitness checkpoints that need to be hit on the way to peak performance. Be it strength, endurance, power or agility. Every management outfit thinks that their team is the most important, but the big thing is that every player is getting the chance to enjoy their hurling as much as possible - and enjoying sport usually means you are playing at your best.

 

I can remember playing the All-Ireland final against Kilkenny in 2014, and then the week after playing club knockout. Mentally and physically I was just not prepared or pumped up enough to give my all. As much as I tried to talk myself into being more fired up, it just wasn't there. I was drained in mind and body.

 

On the flipside, I can also remember when Tipperary were knocked out relatively early in 2013 and we had all our players available to train with the club for three months consecutively. It was a fantastic year where our group got further in championship than we had before, but where us county players also got to feel more part of it than any other time.

 

I have been on all sides of this spectrum: as a club player, a county player, a college player, as well as a schools and club team manager. I've been the GPA rep for Tipperary over the past few years and my only real concern is all players enjoying our games to the highest possible level. Right now though, this is not happening at club or county level and there is a lot of frustration.

 

You have all levels of GAA tugging out of players, especially the most talented ones. No one is really at fault for this as the amount of fixtures and intensity of training has increased over the past decade. It is like a pot of water boiling, it was slowly warming up and no one realised how hot it was getting until suddenly it was bubbling and overflowing. Now that it has overflown, something needs to be done and for me it has to be a total reform of the fixtures calendar. (Note an U-20 championship replacing U21)

 

CALENDAR YEAR SUGGESTION (BASED ON 2017 DATES)

January

July

18th - Fitzgibbon Cup Begins

16th - All-Ireland Final

February

August

11th - Fitzgibbon Cup Final

18th - National Hurling League Begins

20th - U-20 Championship begins

Club County Championship

March

September

Inter-county league all month

26th - U20 All-Ireland Final

Club County Championship

April

October

2nd - League Final

9 - 23rd - Leinster Preliminaries

30th - Munster & Leinster SH Quarter Finals

16th - County Finals

23rd - Provincial Club Quarter Final

30th - Provincial Club Semi Final

May

November

14th - Leinster & Munster SH Semi Finals

21st/22nd - Round 1 - Qualifier

27th - Round 2 - Qualifier

28th - Leinster SH Final & Munster SH Final

6th - Provincial Finals

13th - All-Ireland Club Semi Final

27th - All-Ireland Club Final

June

December

11th - All-Ireland Quarter Finals

24th - All-Ireland Semi Final (1)

25th All-Ireland Semi Final (2)

Fitzgibbon Cup League

 

 

 

As you can see from the above table, I would favour all competitions running smoothly one after the other. The biggest plus for this is that all management teams know the exact times their competitions will run, and you can actually train correctly for it. So you would not be training hard midweek with the county team for a championship match in three weeks, while still trying to be fresh for next weekend’s club match.

 

What it takes is a drastic change of attitude and at the minute we are institutionalised into thinking that mixing and matching our teams and competitions is an acceptable way to move forward. This is not done in any other sport. In Rugby Six Nations or international football,for example, if players are playing in another competition, they will go away and train exclusively to peak for that team’s  matches. They then get back to their club to recover and train for the next competition. We need this in the GAA by breaking the seasons up.

 

Yes there would be a lot of games, but I think that the biggest thing with burnout is touring around to different places training with different trainers, not being able to focus on one tournament at a time. If each training was tailored for the next game or set of games coming up, then the player is getting trained accordingly.

 

The Fitzgibbon Cup is first up, starting in the middle of January and ending the middle of February. The Hurling League and U-20 championship will then run side-by-side with all U-20s ineligible for the league until it is finished or their team is knocked out. The reason for U-20s is that it is not too often that a 18-, 19- or 20-year-old will be advanced enough for senior so it should be appropriate to hold them back a year. People will say that a 19- or 20-year-old may be needed for an inter-county team, but you can’t please everyone — and the U-20 championship would provide huge development for the players in question.

 

In any case, the fate of an inter-county team should not be decided on a small number of 19- and 20-year-olds, the same way clubs have gotten used to not using 15- and 16-year-olds to bolster their adult club teams. There will be dual players too, which is never easy to balance, but as the championship will be shorter there will be less dual training involved and therefore more enjoyment of the games themselves.

 

I would put ten teams in the top division of the NHL across two groups, play four group games and one final. We are elongating our competitions to the detriment of the rest of the calendar when we play needless quarter- and semi-finals. The Leinster preliminaries can then be played in April before the Leinster and Munster quarter-finals are held in the first week of May. There are then 12 weeks to play the full championship.

 

cuala

 

Week

Game

1

Quarter Finals - Leinster SHC & Munster SHC

2

Bye-week

3

Semi-finals - Leinster SHC & Munster SHC

4

Qualifier - Round 1

5

(Saturday) Qualifier Round 2

(Sunday) Final - Leinster SHC & Munster SHC

6

Bye-week

7

All-Ireland Championship - Quarter Finals

8

Bye-week

9

All-Ireland Semi Finals (Saturday and Sunday)

10

Bye-week

11

Bye-week

12

All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final

 

The club championship will then have from the start of August to the middle of October to get to county final stage, at the latest. It is pleasing to hear that they GAA are already putting plans in place to finish the All-Ireland club series before Christmas which is a step in the right direction

 

Finishing the year then would be the Fitzgibbon league, which inter-county players should be omitted from as many have been on the go all year. Pre-season training will be commencing and it is only fair to deal with one element of training at a time.

 

A few considerations to make. The first rule is, no replays! Okay I would have two exceptions: for the All-Ireland final and county

finals after extra-time, but that is it. Get rid of the uncertainty.

 

For inter-county, there will also be many fixtures on Saturdays and Sundays with both hurling and football. It would probably be easier with television stations in mind if they were more spread out but it will really only be an issue for the first few weeks of the championship. During this time there are 'bye-weeks' too, these are intended to give players a rest between clusters of games, but also to give football free weekends for their fixtures.

 

The GAA may point to a loss of revenue with matches being on together, and I know they do a fantastic job of pumping that revenue back into grassroots. However, I would take a small dip in revenue so that all players playing the game can gain the maximum enjoyment possible. I know it is important to have great facilities for kids and adults to train in, but it should not be at the cost of playing the games themselves.

 

The gaps between matches are unjustifiable at the minute with the big sufferer being the club player. My calendar suggestions mean that players are still mostly getting two weeks before each match, which should be enough. It would mean that management teams will put together a thorough pre-season plan and include less volume for in-season training knowing that players are playing regularly. Of course there is the potential for increased injuries but my own opinion is that the overtraining currently being done is doing more damage mentally and physically.

 

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This leads me back to the frustrated club player who is training hard in the hopes of having a game coming up sometime in the near future. A whole summer can go by - which is supposed to be part of the season - and only one, two or even no game is played. This would be fine if you knew there would be no championship game, as is the case in counties such as Dublin, but generally it is an unknown. The result of this is needless volume and focus on training which leads to huge issues with players’ hunger and enjoyment.

 

Players are also missing out on so many occasions and fun because of their commitment. Even before I played county I couldn't tell you how many weddings, holidays, birthdays and nights out I missed because we might have a match coming up in a week or two. A lot of the time you would then find out you won't be playing for a couple of months. Many times leading into a Tipperary match, my clubmates did not know if they had a match the following weekend as it would not be decided until the Monday night. All of these factors are not good for the training program of management teams or the social life of the player. He doesn't know if he can head away early for a weekend away or, God forbid, even have a drink.

 

I have seen issues in clubs where lads have been frustrated not knowing the fixture list, then travelled to the Tipperary game and had a few pints only to find out Monday night after a fixtures committee meeting that they do in fact have a game. That’s a huge issue for coaches too.

 

At the minute you have many students and teachers sitting around all day during the summer, waiting to train in the evening for a match that might not even happen for weeks or months. Even if people do not want to go away, knowing that no club championship is taking place allows for a meaningful club league campaign like what Dublin have. This ensures that players are getting good games and the ratio of training to matches is not skewed. The club player can then make all his plans for the year without being told he lacks commitment.

 

If the American hurling championships were brought in line with this proposed All-Ireland inter-county championship, then a player could easily do pre-season with their club, go to America (Trump permitting!) to have a good summer and also hurl away, before coming back in time to play the full ten-week club championship.

 

Everything on my proposed calendar is not ideal, as trying to obey multiple masters in the GAA is one of our biggest challenges. The only alternative would be to drop the U-21 grade or omit U-21s from playing senior so there will always be hard decisions to be made. No adult player, no matter his level, is fully able to enjoy his hurling at the moment and, more importantly, his life.

 

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Well thought out worth serious consideration
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