ARE INTER COUNTY PLAYERS BEING PUSHED TOO HARD?

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When Darach Honan was a young man he seemed to have the hurling world at his fingertips. Blessed with inordinate physical stature, as well as no little hurling prowess, he towered over everyone on the field and scored 2-2 in the Munster under 21 final, on the way to Clare winning their first All-Ireland title ever in that grade in 2009. In 2013 that promise was fulfilled on the senior stage, when he came on in the dying stages of the All-Ireland final replay against Cork, to score that decisive fifth goal, and give Clare their first All-Ireland final victory in 16 years.

But ever since, his career has been on a slow, downward spiral. 2 weeks ago he retired from the inter-county game at the tender age of 27. He became the fourth Clareman this Autumn to retire from inter-county duty after the further withdrawals of Pat Donnellan, Colin Ryan and Brendan Bugler.

When Honan mentioned that he was retiring, it seemed inevitable that persistent injuries were the core of it. And when he spoke to journalist Marie Crowe after the announcement, he indeed confirmed that that was the case “I was only 26 and the surgeon told me that if I kept playing hurling, I would need a hip replacement in two years”

Honan went on to offer a theory as to why he had suffered all these injuries “I put it down to poor load-management and all the training that we were doing. It’s worrying and it is something that needs to be addressed in the GAA. Some of the training regimes are not good for the teams and there has to be more responsibility taken by people in charge.”

Reading between the lines, it’s not difficult to see that a finger may be pointed in the direction of the man who was in charge for the majority of Honan’s senior inter-county career. Jackie Tyrrell’s recent book detailed some of what went on during his time in university in LIT when Davy Fitzgerald was their Fitzgibbon Cup manager. Early morning sessions were the norm, and commando type training was fashionable. Anyone who has ever watched Ireland’s Fittest Family, will know that Davy has never taken a laissez faire attitude to people’s fitness. It’s always been a case of Faster, Stronger, Harder.

Now, with all due respect to Davy, his methods yield results. No other Clare manager has won an All-Ireland in the last 20 years. But as Honan’s retirement, and the retirements of others have proven over the last few weeks, there comes a human toll with such levels of intensity.

Then again this is not a trend that is exclusive to Davy Fitzgerald, Clare or hurling in general. A look through a roll call of the players who have had hip surgeries in the last few years (Cillian Buckley, Karl Lacey, Richie Power, Maurice Shanahan and Darran O’Sullivan) is a lengthy one. And it begs the question: Are we pushing our players too hard?

The fact of the matter is, whether we like it or not, the modern inter county player is practically a professional now. Whether that be paid or not is another thing. But if you are asking players to make extraordinary sacrifices, it doesn’t necessarily translate to extraordinarily long careers. Just look at how the All-Ireland winning teams over the last few years have been composed.

No outfield player in the Galway All-Ireland winning team this year was over 30. That compares with 1988 when they had 3 (Sylvie Linnane, Conor Hayes, Brendan Lynskey) 30+ players on their team. It was the same with Tipperary last year. The Kilkenny team from 2015 included a few veterans, but pretty much all of those, with the exception of Michael Fennelly, have since retired. Two more Kilkenny players left the stage last week in Kieran Joyce and Shane Prendergast. Both men are still only 30 years old.

The problem isn’t just extended to players retiring early, as others may not want to enter into the camp if they think the training regimes are too intensive. For instance, Galway football manager Kevin Walsh was turned down by 52 players in the first 18 months of his tenure. There is a reluctance to get involved in something that is going to take up a large portion of your life, when the rewards that a player may get at the end of it are few.

Now if you’re the manager of a Dublin or possibly Kerry or Mayo senior football team then you can maybe sell the idea of being an inter-county GAA player better. There’s the possibility of appearing in Croke Park in August and September, big crowds, promotional opportunities, stardom. But you can imagine how difficult it is for the likes of Turlough O’Brien in Carlow and Dennis Connerton in Longford to convince prospective footballers in those counties to come training in the depths of winter. Because they need to work every bit as hard, if not harder, than the Dublin’s of this world, to reach their level. And yet that still may not be good enough.

Last year renowned orthopaedic surgeon Patrick Carton was interviewed on Tipperary’s mid west radio station and detailed the extent of the problem that faces the GAA (http://www.the42.ie/hip-injuries-gaa-patrick-carton-3068419-Nov2016/). He said that 75% of his patients were GAA players and that the average age for hip surgeries had dropped from 31 to 26 in recent years. Carton worked on Honan earlier on in the player’s career and had first hand experience of how dire the situation had become.

So what’s the solution? Well, it’s difficult to find one. Obviously with increased games and television audiences there’s an increased demand for our players to be fitter. On the one hand, you can denounce management teams for over training players. On the other, without those immense sacrifices would the likes of Donegal or Clare have won an All-Ireland in recent years? There is a race to the bottom where, even if, certain management teams are mindful of the physical wellbeing of their players, other ones will push the boundaries to get that all important edge.

And as for the decreasing age profile of players, it’s certainly a concern, but managers would be wise not to discard their veterans too early. Waterford reached the All-Ireland hurling final this year, and two of their best players on the way there were Kevin Moran and “Brick” Walsh, both over 30. The fact that Andy Moran won footballer of the year also shows that there is still a value in having an experienced head on the pitch.

So for lovers of our game, it’s reassuring to know that the likes of Andy, Brick and Kieran Donaghy can still use their considerable gifts at an advanced age. But if managers keep pushing players the way they are doing, then the shorter inter-county career is going to become the norm rather than the exception.

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