IT’S during these unprecedented times that experts can make a difference to teams.
Cork football manager, Ronan McCarthy, pulled a couple of rabbits out of the bag in coaxing the experienced Cian O’Neill to coach his charges in the nuances of the modern game.
And Kevin Smith, a highly regarded strength-and-conditioning coach, who spent seven years at top French rugby club, Stade Francais, passed on his considerable knowledge.
Remote working with an inter-county panel would never have entered their thinking until Covid-19 changed everything. Instead of man-to-man exchanges, it was now via laptops and a different way of implementation.
But for the past couple of weeks, it’s been hands-on again and with the championship about to start on Saturday, every minute has been precious. In nearly every county in the four provincial championships, it’s about catching up and trying to get players up to speed.
It’s something McCarthy is conscious of when deliberating on the final two games of the promotion-winning league season: Against Louth, which resulted in a runaway victory; and Longford, a game that was conceded by the Leinster county.
“One of the things, though, is that while players were playing and training away with their clubs, it would still be well off inter-county requirements,” McCarthy said at the time.
“That’s why the week before the Louth game was a Godsend because you can’t go straight into it; rather, build up gradually. The danger is that if you go in too hard, too early, players will break down quickly.
“There’s a deficit, but every county has the same issues with players coming back, but we’ll get them to the required level gradually. That’s where Kevin’s expertise comes in, pushing players enough to move them forward, but ensuring they don’t break down, either.
"That’s a very fine balancing act and both he and Cian get that spot on. Players found it very challenging the first week back, but they did their bit,” he added.
Monaghan and Cavan kick-start the championship with a preliminary-round game in Ulster at lunch-time Saturday.
Twenty-four hours later, an abridged Connacht equivalent gets underway without London and New York (for obvious travel restrictions), as Mayo enter the fray against Leitrim in Carrick-on-Shannon.
The final week of the protracted Division 1 season must have felt like a roller-coaster ride for those long-suffering Mayo supporters. One day, they catch fire and douse great rivals, Galway, with a whopping 3-23 in a 15-point filleting, and the next Mayo lose at home to Tyrone, conceding three goals and are relegated to Division 2.
It’s a snapshot of Mayo: One week, they’re talked up as potential All-Ireland champions, the next they’re slipping down the rankings once again.
Yet, in a way, Mayo are much better off going into the championship with low expectations, instead of having even more pressure heaped on their already over-burdened shoulders.
Luckily for manager, James Horan, Mayo should have few problems in dealing with a Leitrim side that slumped to Division 3 relegation, having had Covid-19 outbreaks in the camp.
Roscommon, the Division 2 champions, who pass out Mayo on their way to the top tier next season, await in the semi-final and this will present a much different challenge for Horan’s charges, assuming they take care of business against Leitrim.
On the other side of the draw, there’s just one game: Galway host Sligo in a game under-pressure manager, Padraic Joyce, will welcome after a difficult closing league spell. While they improved against All-Ireland champions, Dublin, whose two goals made the difference, it was a second defeat on the bounce for Galway, and their confidence is sure to be a touch brittle.
Still, you’d fancy them to reach the final on November 15, but who’ll be their opponents?
Connacht SFC: Quarter-final: Leitrim v Mayo. Semi-finals: Leitrim or Mayo v Roscommon, Galway v Sligo.
Betting: 8/11 Galway, 7/4 Mayo, 11/2 Roscommon, 80/1 Sligo, 150/1 Leitrim.