ON the day the new Round-Robin hurling championship was launched in 2018, Dublin played Kilkenny in the opening match in Leinster in Parnell Park, which Kilkenny narrowly won.
When Chris Crummey was interviewed on TV afterwards, the consolation of winning man-of-the-match did little to assuage the disappointment.
Crummey spoke about the “absolute devastation” in the dressing room but Dublin did not have the time, or the inclination, to feel sorry for themselves.
They had to travel to Wexford Park seven days later.
So, the Dublin squad went straight to the 40-foot on the southern tip of Dublin bay for their recovery session.
Recovery has become a recurring theme for all modern GAA inter-county players, but it has become far more important since 2018; it had to be after the Round Robin Hurling championship was introduced, along with a much more condensed football championship, including the Super 8s which was added to the calendar.
The strains of the new calendar were obvious in 2018; three of the four teams in the Round Robin hurling championship which had to play four games in 21 days – Tipperary, Waterford and Offaly – were eliminated in the provinces.
Wexford did survive but they lost their last two games in the group.
The calendar was changed in 2019, where teams didn’t have to play four games in successive weekends. But teams which played three games in 14 days still struggled, with no side managing to win three weeks-in-a-row.
Recovery has always been a fundamental part of elite sporting performance but GAA players everywhere have faced an increased challenge now in the new reality.
For a start, players drive to championship matches, which is a whole new mental and physical challenge before the game even begins. For players carrying muscle strains, those soft tissue injuries can be aggravated from driving long distances.
Players have to manage their own recovery individually too after games, especially when there are none of the normal avenues open; swimming pools are closed; with dressing rooms effectively out-of-bounds on match-days, and players togging out under the stand, ice-baths afterwards are a non-runner; if players do live close to the sea, it’s not really feasible to go for a dip in the dark that evening.
It’s even less of an incentive to try and cool the lactic acid in the muscles when players have already driven a long way home alone after a mentally and physically draining match.
So much of the normal post-match routine has been abandoned; players either swallow their post-match food under a cold and empty stand, or eat it alone in the car.
Players can’t stretch their legs on a bus or unwind on the way home through engagement with their team-mates.
Optimal performance is primarily based on optimal training and optimal recovery.
But optimising recovery in such an intense and condensed period is all the more difficult again in the current climate.
In theory, most players should be physically recharged within three days of a championship match. With the three physiological systems, the central capacity (heart and lung) recovery is generally within 24 hours, the muscular skeletal system is normally a 48-hour recovery period, while the nervous system — which takes the most stress in a game — takes 72 hours.
Players are so well monitored now that training logs help to identify early warning signs of under-recovery.
Yet noting, and accounting for, player wellness information updates after matches is also just as important, especially when the format is so intense and mentally challenging.
The championship to date though, has also shown how adaptable, durable and resilient modern players are. They have never been better conditioned. It may be a winter championship, but players are used to bad weather, and sticky pitches, from the league.
Many players are also used to stretching themselves from their early-season involvement with Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cup teams.
Squad depth was always going to be critical under such intense championship demands but careful planning is even more important when not every player is starting from the same base.
The load of squad players is different to players consistently playing championship matches.
That requires careful management and planning because if those squad players are suddenly required to play two or three games in three weeks, the dramatic increase in the demands on their body heightens the risk of injury.
One of the dominant topics of debate leading into this weekend’s All-Ireland semi-finals is the advantage Kilkenny and Limerick may have ahead of Galway and Waterford from having a two-week break, especially when Galway and Waterford are playing their third game in two weeks. Because no team has managed to win three successive games in two weeks in the hurling championship.
In his column last Monday, Nicky English wrote about being at every championship match featuring teams playing for the third weekend, and noting a clear trend.
“All showed signs of fatigue,” wrote English. “Dublin against Cork, Cork against Tipp and Clare against Waterford.
“That’s going to be the challenge for Galway and Waterford now.”
It is a delicate balancing act. On the other hand, momentum is often the best fuel for the long haul.
No team has proved that theory that more than Cavan, who played – and won – their fourth championship game in 22 days last Sunday.
Moreover, it was Cavan’s sixth successive weekend in action, after playing two league games prior to the championship.
The physical demands are extremely high in this championship, but the intravenous injection of good vibes from winning games is one of the best ways to flush fatigue and aches out of players’ systems.
Because a win has always been the best form of recovery.