BEFORE Tipperary played Derry in Round 3 of the league in early February, Tipperary manager David Power spoke about the difficulty of his side’s challenge, particularly with the long trip north to Celtic Park.
“It won’t be easy but the draw is gas,” said Power. “Cork have Down and Derry at home. That’s a huge swing. If they’re away to those teams, it’s totally different.”
It was a fair point, especially in such a competitive division. Derry may have come out of Division 4 last year but, with Rory Gallagher in charge, Cork would have targeted the Derry and Down matches as pivotal games in their quest for promotion.
And their pursuit of four points from those matches was much more attainable with Cork having home advantage.
Cork have been ultra-professional to date in this league, with ten points from five games, the only team in the four divisions to do so. A draw against Louth on Sunday will be enough to secure promotion back to Division 2.
Cork have done what was expected off them, but the draw was certainly a help, especially having four home games.
Cork’s two away games to date were also the kind that any team would have hoped for when trying to stack points on the board; playing Leitrim in Carrick-on-Shannon was a game Cork would have always expected to win; going to Thurles to take on Tipperary was never going to be easy but the venue was just a short trip up the motorway, while Cork have plenty of experience of playing in Semple Stadium.
The trip to Tipp was all the more manageable again with it being a Saturday night fixture, meaning that the players – despite some having to travel over an hour after arriving back in Cork City – were still in their beds at a reasonable hour.
On the day before their game against Leitrim, Cork travelled to Athlone, where they had based themselves. It was certainly a far handier spin than having to trek up to Down or Derry. And then turn and face home after the match on a Sunday afternoon.
The GAA affords counties a per-mile allowance for road trips but overnight stays are not cheap for counties – on average, the cost is anywhere between €10,000-€12,000.
With players already committing so much time to the inter-county game, an away trip is also an extra night away from their routine and families.
Some counties get lucky on a given season. Cavan in Division 2 are a good example. They may have had four away games but all four trips were manageable – Armagh, Laois, Fermanagh (already played) and Kildare (who Cavan play this Sunday). Portlaoise was the longest haul from Cavan town but it’s still only a four-hour round trip.
Other counties have a whole different level of road to travel. Donegal and Kerry are prime examples in this season’s Division 1; Kerry have already had to travel to Dublin, Tyrone and Mayo, while they head to Monaghan this weekend. Meath and Tyrone are manageable trips for Donegal but having to go to Dublin and Kerry is a whole other level of long-haul travel.
Along with the cost, the road also impacts on recovery, especially when the games are coming hot and fast during the spring. Research has shown that effective recovery benefits athletes both cognitively and physically, while poor recovery can increase the risk of injury, add stress to the body and, ultimately, lead to poor results.
A couple of years ago, Tomas Westerlund of the Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences looked into this issue. His study on Finnish Hockey players measured their heart-rate variability throughout a full season.
The paper provided valuable insights on how well players recovered during home and road game stretches, in terms of length of overnight recovery and how long it took for recovery to begin after games and training sessions.
The duration of overnight recovery followed a similar pattern, regardless of playing at home or away, but the data showed a marked difference when it came to the onset of recovery after games.
After home games, it took, on average, six hours and 20 minutes for recovery to begin. That figure shot up to nine hours and 15 minutes for away fixtures. The travel schedules of road teams almost certainly played a part in the disparity.
Traveling long distances home after games, or to reach their next destination, delayed the body’s ability to enter a recovery state.
That level of insight can also affect travel protocol itself. Some teams now prefer to travel the morning of a game, stay overnight, and then travel home the following morning to speed up the onset of post-game recovery. That was the route Galway chose for their league game against Kerry in Tralee last month.
Players are so well monitored now that data from clocking individual wellness logs allows coaches to spot those players who consistently struggle with recovery on road trips or, conversely, begin recovering more quickly after games than their teammates.
That information can then influence decisions made regarding training loads and even playing time as the season progresses.
It’s all far easier to manage though, when players are spending less time on the road for away matches. Having to go to Longford in their last game is a tricky challenge for Cork, especially when Longford may still be in the promotion hunt by then.
But Cork will hope to have their ticket back to Division 2 already stamped by then.