Tony Kelly proved skillful hurlers can thrive in the heart of winter

Clare talisman was sensational in the 2020 All-Ireland series
Tony Kelly proved skillful hurlers can thrive in the heart of winter

Clare's Tony Kelly and Joe O'Connor of Wexford in action during the hurling championship. Despite being perceived as a top-of-the-ground hurler, he was in the form of his life this winter. Picture: INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

BACK last May, Tony Kelly spoke in an interview on RTÉ2fm's ‘Game On’ programme about the possibility of a winter GAA championship, and how excited he was by the prospect.

At the time, every GAA player was just holding out any form of hope that the championship would go ahead, especially when the GAA had ruled out inter-county games taking place before October.

Public health and safety was the only priority that mattered at the time but not everyone was sold on a winter championship for reasons more than the reality of empty stadiums and a sterilised atmosphere. Many questioned its validity in weather conditions that could potentially be unsuitable to championship hurling.

League hurling in muck and dirt isn’t always the most attractive to watch, especially when compared to championship hurling when the sliotar is ricocheting off a concrete surface like a golf-ball.

Pitches were guaranteed to be in good shape but, outside of Croke Park (until the All-Ireland final) and Páirc Uí Chaoimh, none of the other pitches were conducive for the usual break-neck pace of a summer hurling championship.

Despite the conversation around the sliotar now in hurling, and how it’s travelling too far, the ball travels at a slower pace when played at lower temperatures.

All those elements added to the theory that a winter championship wouldn’t suit certain hurlers, especially those who trade on breakneck pace and skill. It would have been easy to place Kelly in that bracket but he absolutely routed that theory with a series of devastating individual displays for Clare Kelly was in the form of his life. 

On the otherhand, Kelly has played some of his best hurling in the past during the latter part of the year. That has been really evident with Ballyea, who Kelly drove to senior county titles in 2016 and 2018.

An elite inter-county player is always going to stand out at club level but, a few days after Clare’s All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Waterford, Kelly gave an interesting insight into his electric form during the winter campaign.

“I prefer hurling this time of the year, I always have,” said Kelly in an OTBAM interview on Newstalk. “I prefer hurling in the winter. It was born out of Harty hurling with St Flannan’s College. I loved playing Harty in October, November, December, January, February.

“When I go back to the club. I love this time of the year. I don’t know what it is - maybe it’s a myth, maybe it’s just in my own head, but I don’t feel you get as tired playing in cooler or wet or damper weather. Whereas in the summer sometimes, you’d be gasping for air.” 

Nobody had ever thought about it in those terms, but Kelly’s observations made perfect sense. Aside from his own unique preferences for winter hurling, it is certainly easier for players to catch their breath in November than it would be on a hot and humid day in June or July.

It is also easier for the body to adjust to a more moderate temperature when expending the same amount of energy that a player would in a warmer and dryer environment.

Copious sweating places a heavy load on the circulation to provide blood flow to both the muscles to maintain work rate and to the skin for cooling. As the body progressively dehydrates the circulation is further compromised and heat storage exceeds heat removal.

The resultant strain is indicated by increased heart rate, sweat rate, and core and skin temperatures. That’s not to say that players wouldn’t experience those same strains during a match in the winter. But it is certainly less likely than on a baking hot summer’s day.

The other interesting aspect of Kelly’s comments was how his attitude framed and governed his outlook on winter hurling. He felt less tired. Kelly also felt fresher.

Waterford’s Shane McNulty with Tony Kelly of Clare. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Waterford’s Shane McNulty with Tony Kelly of Clare. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

That may have been down to such a unique season, when players didn’t play for close to five months, which enabled some players to get themselves into the shape of their lives. But there still didn’t seem to be the same mental and physical strains for teams as there was in recent years during the Round Robin provincial hurling championships; Waterford produced a devastating display against Clare six days after losing the Munster final; they trumped that level of performance seven days later against Kilkenny.

Waterford were super fit in 2020 but would they have been able to reach such a high standard in three successive games within 13 days if those matches had been played in June? Maybe, but no other team had managed to consistently, and incrementally, do so in such a short timespan over the previous two years.

We are unlikely to see a winter inter-county championship in the future but, with the way the calendar is programmed for 2021 – which may yet provide the template for a split-season moving forward – the playing environment will be different in that future.

The 2021 championship is starting in mid-April, with football games across all provinces that first weekend. The Munster and Leinster hurling finalists will be decided by May 9. The weather was excellent in April and early May in 2020 but it isn’t always that good during that period.

The championships will roll on into July in 2021, with the All-Ireland finals taking place in the middle of the month. The sun will hopefully be high in the sky on those days. But there certainly won’t be as many big inter-county games played on warm mid-summer days as there was in the past.

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