Managing the break until the semi-final is crucial for the Cork hurlers

Managing the break until the semi-final is crucial for the Cork hurlers
A dejected Mark Ellis after the 2014 loss to Tipp. Picture: Daire Brennan/SPORTSFILE

DESPITE the huge explosion of emotion after Cork’s Munster final win, and the massive collage of colour it created, Anthony Nash still had one eye on the bigger picture afterwards.

"We’re one step closer,” said Nash. “We’ve got one massive game coming up in five weeks. "We want to make amends for 2014, but we’re going to be ready to go.” 

Kieran Kingston also made a similar point afterwards because Cork’s 2014 All-Ireland semi-final appearance clearly left a scar with everyone.  In his Evening Echo column last week, Seánie McGrath was clearly buzzing from the performance but he also sounded a note of caution at the end. “Cork need to keep their feet on the ground,’ said McGrath.  “I remember 2014 well.” 

McGrath was a Cork selector and the management team were convinced the team were primed to perform. 

They had won a first Munster title since 2006. After winning three games, Cork had real momentum again. 

There was a sense that the empire was finally striking back but Tipperary took a flamethrower to Cork’s ambitions. 

It was their biggest win over Cork in the championship since 1965. Cork left Dublin charred and blistered from the scorching. The scars ran even deeper because nobody saw it coming. Cork were going so well in training that management pulled up a couple of internal matches.

Seamus Harnedy and Patrick Horgan tackle Tipperary's Brendan Maher in 2014. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Seamus Harnedy and Patrick Horgan tackle Tipperary's Brendan Maher in 2014. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Cork’s collapse was a huge disappointment but the result was also part of a trend.  Since the hurling qualifier era began 15 years ago, dealing with that five-week break has been a constant issue for the Munster champions. 

In nine of those 15 seasons, they have fallen at the All-Ireland semi-final stage. Interestingly, on two of those five occasions when the Munster champions did advance to the final, they had only a three-week break because there were quarter-finals (which included the provincial champions) between 2005-07.

After Dublin and Limerick won breakthrough provincial titles in 2013, Anthony Daly met John Allen at a media event in Croke Park. Daly was quizzing Allen on Limerick’s approach. 

Allen was curious to know how Dublin were planning their preparations during the layoff. They both seemed to agree that less might be better than more but neither was quite sure. In any case, Dublin and Limerick lost their semi-finals.

The stats are even more pronounced when compared to how Kilkenny have mastered the five-week run-in. Of the 15 All-Ireland semi-finals Kilkenny have won in 17 seasons under Brian Cody, 11 were secured after at least a five-week lay-off. 

Kilkenny had the best players but being able to expertly manage that extended layoff - and being able to replicate it before the final – was crucial to Kilkenny’s modern success. Kilkenny mastered the art because they were so annually accustomed to it. 

In Munster, no one has enjoyed that privilege because no one has been that dominant. 

Dublin’s emergence as a force, and Galway’s arrival into Leinster, made Kilkenny’s life more difficult in the province but they were still consistently able to get their timing right. 

When other teams were entering August in that ideal groove of a game every two to three weeks, Kilkenny were still always able to withstand that surge.

“Brian Cody has a template in place which he knows works,” said former Kilkenny player, Eddie Brennan, in 2015. “Guys go back to their clubs for a week, and then they build it back up again. It’s all about repetition. Everyone knows the drill. Psychologically, there is great comfort for everyone in knowing that it works.” 

After Mick Dempsey arrived on the backroom team in 2005, Kilkenny’s preparations became more measured and scientific. 

Training schedules were given six weeks in advance, with the proviso they were always subject to change. They rarely did. And once Kilkenny won Leinster, they had the routine off to perfection.

Players were given their down time the week after the Leinster final. If there were club matches, players were encouraged to fit in a couple of gym sessions to maintain the programme. And then they ramped it up again.

In the early years of Cody’s management, training weekends were a rarity. Yet after Dempsey came on board, those trips were routinely built into Kilkenny’s schedule before All-Ireland semi-finals and finals. 

In 2006, they travelled to Monart Spa outside Enniscorthy in Wexford. For a couple of years afterwards, they went to Seafield in Wexford and trained in the Buffers Alley pitch. 

Yet since 2010, they located more to Carton House in Kildare. It’s where the Irish Rugby team train but Cody favoured that base because the pitch was on site and was similar in size and surface to Croke Park.

Kilkenny had the formula that the Munster champions were desperately searching for. 

When Tipperary defeated Galway in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, it was the first time since 2011 that the Munster champions advanced to the final. 

Yet they only scraped over the line by one point, in a game that Galway could, and probably should, have won. Tipperary had the experience of having contested the previous year’s semi-final too but the formula is harder to discover for teams totally unused to dealing with that five-week layoff.

“Looking back on it, the five-week break was a major factor (in that 2014 semi-final),” said Jimmy Barry-Murphy before the 2015 League final. “If we were ever in that position again, I would use the time far differently. We had too much time together. 

"We were doing the same thing over and over again. The players would have been far better off going back to their clubs for two weeks.” 

Kingston coached that 2014 team and already seems to have absorbed those lessons. The Cork players are with their clubs now for two weeks before turning their focus to mid-August.

And then, Cork will try and find the right numbers to a code that only Kilkenny have really been able to crack.

Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash celebrates the first goal of the Munster final. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash celebrates the first goal of the Munster final. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

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