Cork GAA teams return to official training tomorrow with new season looming

In Munster hurling, two of the five teams could find themselves gone from the championship before May has even warmed up
Cork GAA teams return to official training tomorrow with new season looming

Niall Cashman drives up field with the sliotar in a Cork hurling training match at Páirc Uí Chaoimh last summer.

FOLLOWING Central Council approval 10 years ago, in November 2011 to be precise, the GAA first introduced a staggered return for inter-county teams to training, which was subsequently backed at Congress the following April.

Teams were then allowed to return to collective training in accordance to when their championship season ended. Prior to that move, November and December were supposed to be closed months but that rule was being routinely broken. The withdrawal of league revenue money was the penalty for breaking the ban, but it was never applied to a miscreant county.

Imposing restrictions on pre-season training has always been light-touch regulation, which has resulted in a world of breaches and only a handful of successful prosecutions.

Lengthy suspensions were imposed on the managers of the Cork, Dublin, Monaghan and Down footballers earlier this year after those teams were found to have breached the ban. Yet it’s unlikely those penalties would have been as severe (many felt they still weren’t hard enough) if they hadn’t occurred during a pandemic.

There wasn’t any sympathy for those counties amongst the public, but even in a pandemic, some counties still felt that some of the old rules applied. Teams were looking to grab an edge wherever they could.

For many of those counties which had faithfully followed the guidelines in 2020, but had paid a price with their fitness and their general readiness for the championship, they felt foolish and sure not to be caught again. Yet for those willing to take the brazen risk during the third lockdown earlier this year, the one golden rule was don’t get caught.

It was only recently that the GAA decided that December 8 is the day that inter-county teams can return to collective training. The original plan was that the closed season wasn’t supposed to expire until January 1, but deep down, the GAA knew that wasn’t going to work.

It was better to just fix a date than having to continue to either turn a blind eye to the anecdotal evidence, or punish more blatant breaches that might only be exposed in print or online, as happened earlier this year.

In any case, enforcement across the board would have been nearly impossible. Privacy has a different status now in this technological age, especially with smartphones. The PR damage of a breach can be irreparable but a lot of counties would still have been willing to take that risk if the original return date had remained at January 1.

It would have been wholly unrealistic to expect county managers, especially new managers, to just gather their squads together for a first collective session four weeks out from an opening league game.

A minimum pre-season of four weeks was built into that original January 1 date to allow teams be ready for a league starting later that month, but there was an instant demand for an extra month’s training when Central Council decided to return the pre-season provincial competitions to their traditional January slot.

That further eats into inter-county players’ downtime, but this was also one of the inevitable costs of the split-season. Club championships will start and finish earlier, which will give most players more time off, but some inter-county set-ups will still feel entitled to a lot more preparatory time with their squads by the end of next season.

 Brian Hurley blasts in a goal for Castlehaven against St Finbarr's. He's due back to Cork training this week. Picture: Larry Cummins
Brian Hurley blasts in a goal for Castlehaven against St Finbarr's. He's due back to Cork training this week. Picture: Larry Cummins

For example, three of the six teams in the Leinster Round Robin hurling championship could find their season effectively over in 2021 before the summer even begins; the first three rounds are fixed for the last three weekends in April, with that third round taking place over the weekend of April 30-May 1.

The last round doesn’t take place until May 21/22, but the focus for some Leinster teams during those three weeks will be on avoiding relegation to the Joe McDonagh Cup.

In Munster, two of the five teams could find themselves gone from the championship before May has even warmed up. So if teams aren’t allowed to return to collective training for 2023 until early December next year, a handful of the 11 teams in the Liam MacCarthy Cup could go more than seven months without properly focussed collective training in 2022.

Some teams will naturally be looking for a way to get back earlier. There have already been signs of that this year with some counties — Tipperary and Wexford for example —running tournament-type trial games. In Tipp, Colm Bonnar revived the Miller Shield, where four divisional teams played out games over three weekends. Wexford did something similar with a four-district league. Those games enabled Bonnar and Darragh Egan to try and find new players, but the slog and grind will begin all over again on Wednesday for the whole group.

Some players who are not long finished their club season will be given more time off, but they can’t be given too much leeway either with the league starting at the end of January. 

Moreover, many won’t want it because of a fear of losing ground.

So, while the inter-county season may be finishing earlier from now on, the knock-on effect is an extension of that season by a month at a stage of the year when time off is needed more than ever.

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