Christy O'Connor: Cork have depth to cope with tricky preseason balancing act

Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cup action close to the start of the league puts pressure on some managers
Christy O'Connor: Cork have depth to cope with tricky preseason balancing act

Cork's Colin Walsh shoots from Tipperary's Pauric Campion. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

BEFORE the National hurling league even began last February, Colm Bonnar already found himself talking about pressure and having to deal with it before his tenure as Tipperary manager had even warmed up.

Much of that heat had stemmed from Tipp’s defeat to Kerry in the Munster league in Tralee a few weeks earlier. The team was largely a development selection. Nobody was going to get carried away with a Munster league loss but it was a setback.

It also applied more pressure on Bonnar than he needed, especially when it was already going to be a difficult enough rebuilding job considering all the experienced players – including Pádraic and Brendan Maher – that Tipp had lost after the 2021 campaign.

Tipp never really got off the ground in 2022. By the end of the Munster championship, they had lost all four games by an aggregate margin of 31 points.

In their history, Tipp’s longest losing streak in championship had been four losses, which were spread across four years. That kind of a background, combined with Tipp’s 12-point hammering to Cork in Thurles in mid-May heavily contributed to Bonnar’s controversial sacking a few weeks later.

Considering his immense service to Tipperary over the years, Bonnar certainly deserved better. But results and performances had left him exposed. 

And, it could be argued, the rot really set in after that defeat to Kerry in January.

HASSLE

The counter-claim is that such an argument is overly simplistic across a five-month competitive season. But did Bonnar need that hassle before the league even began? If Tipp had lost to Kerry in a challenge game, would anyone have known it had even been played?

Over the last few weeks, some inter-county managers must surely have been asking themselves similar questions after some ropey results in pre-season competitions across the country.

After Donegal lost their two games in the Dr McKenna Cup, there were some headlines that Donegal, and new manager Paddy Carr, could have done without. Donegal had heavily experimented in both matches but, still, successive defeats heaped an additional level of focus on Carr that he didn’t need.

Managers and players always try and insulate themselves from any negativity, especially before the league even begins. On the other hand, any public heat adds another strand to the ongoing debate about the need for pre-season competitions anymore, especially when the championship season – especially in football – will never be more hectic.

Last week, GPA CEO Tom Parsons called for those competitions to be scrapped. Leinster's O'Byrne Cup was undermined by a series of match cancellations and Offaly's withdrawal while Roscommon manager Davy Burke argued that the FBD Connacht League should be done away with.

Are they necessary anymore? The Cork hurlers and footballers would certainly say they are, with both sides winning the McGrath Cup and Munster hurling league last weekend.

Robbie O'Flynn on the move at Páirc Uí Rinn on Sunday. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Robbie O'Flynn on the move at Páirc Uí Rinn on Sunday. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

The Cork hurling public want much more than a Munster Hurling League but, while it was a positive start to the year, it was more satisfying again for Pat Ryan and his management given how much of a delicate balancing act it was for them in January considering Cork have over 20 players involved in the Fitzgibbon Cup.

The footballers also have a raft of players involved in the Sigerson, especially with UCC, who were involved in a crucial game against ATU Galway in Pearse Stadium last week just two days before the McGrath Cup final.

On the other hand, Cork have plenty of players to choose from in both squads, unlike some inter-county panels that don’t have that depth. In that context, the scheduling of the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson in January so close to the leagues makes it easier for some managers to claim that the pre-season competitions are completely unnecessary.

Their argument is even more valid when inter-county teams have a short pre-season to get ready for such a hectic upcoming schedule.

Parsons outlined how the GPA has been very vocal in lobbying both the Central Council and the GAA that the pre-season competitions no longer work from a player welfare perspective.

 The Cork team who started against Tipperary in the Co-Op Superstores Munster SHL final at Pairc Ui Rinn. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
The Cork team who started against Tipperary in the Co-Op Superstores Munster SHL final at Pairc Ui Rinn. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Pre-season games are easier to regulate, control and police than challenge games, but managers and players see them in a different light to the GAA authorities because it grants them more licence to experiment around more than just personnel.

LUXURY

That luxury of playing four quarters, for example, allows a management team and an S&C coach to alter their team more to suit and monitor their players’ load much more so than what they could do in an official 70-minute game in front of a large crowd.

The GAA have prohibited challenge games taking place until after January 1 but Offaly and Tipperary were fined for playing a hurling challenge before Christmas.

The fine of €250 was even more laughable when a host of other counties were playing challenge games all over the country. The main challenge – excuse the pun - in those exercises before the New Year is not to get caught.

Managers and S&C coaches are even more on edge around trying to build up players’ loads to ensure they don’t get injured when there has never been a longer break between the end of last year’s championship and the beginning of this season’s league.

Context is everything for managers, but the supporters certainly want to watch their teams in January. 

There were 5,113 people in Armagh last Saturday evening for the Dr McKenna Cup final between Derry and Tyrone. There was a good crowd in Páirc Uí Rinn too on Sunday.

There is clearly an appetite there for these competitions but the balance around their scheduling – especially with the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson running at the same time - still needs to be fully assessed and addressed.

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