The Allianz Hurling Leagues are subjected to tweaks in format once or twice in every decade, with no system suiting everyone.
From 2012-19, a six-team Division 1A made for some real cut-and-thrust action but wasn’t the most equitable. With a concession given to teams in Division 1B, whereby the top four would be given places in the quarter-finals, it was almost worth an elite county’s while to use the second tier as a testing ground before ramping up for the knockout stages.
There was also the situation where 2017 league champions Galway still had to compete in Division 1B in 2018 as they hadn’t topped the group stage the year prior.
There was also the situation where there were some bad mismatches in the last eight as the top side in Division 1A hammered the team coming fourth in Division 1B, with no way of preparing for the increase in intensity. The new system introduced for 2020, a 12-team Division 1 split into two groups of six, is probably the fairest way of doing things as it gives the sides outside the top stratum a chance for more exposure to the best sides.
At the same time, there is a battle against relegation for those counties and so Laois, with defeats in their opening three games, must take something from this Sunday’s trip to Kilkenny or the clash against Antrim on Saturday week in order to avoid the play-off. From there, they will tackle Wexford in the Leinster championship on June 26.
Laois’ coach is Donach O’Donnell, a native of Mallow in Cork but living in Nenagh. He was drafted in by manager Séamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett when he took the reins last autumn but, understandably, preparations have been limited.
“It’s quite difficult,” O’Donnell says of the situation.
“As a coaching staff, we didn’t really get to meet the players until we started training, a couple of nights before that, we met up ourselves. They did have strength and conditioning programmes and they were doing those and tipping away on their own or in twos and threes but they were doing things off their own bat.
“We did a few Zoom calls but, with 30 guys and then 10 or 15 staff on top of that, you’re very limited in what you can do with it, really.”
A new management team coming in (or returning after a four year hiatus in Plunkett’s case) will look to implement their own tactics and gameplan and such a change in approach naturally takes time, but time isn’t something that is plentiful for sides at present.
“We didn’t really have a choice, we have to try to squeeze everything into what we’re doing at the moment,” says O’Donnell, who was coach with Limerick when they won Munster in 2013.
“We’re getting to know the players and trying to play a system and teach that as well. Even as a staff, we didn’t know each other, so it has been a real learning curve.
“In terms of the training itself, it’s very difficult as you’re trying to manage players’ load and a huge part of that is knowing the player, knowing what he’s capable of and knowing his personality and what way he is coming on to the pitch.
“We didn’t know them so we had to rely an awful lot on the science, talk to the physios constantly, they’re still being screened before training to make sure they’re not below-par. In an ordinary situation, you’d know when a guy comes in the gate if he’s a bit off-form or when he starts to run that he’s a bit slow or a bit hesitant or that there’s something up.
“It’s one thing for a guy to understand the system and to want to play it but when the pressure comes on, that’s when it breaks down, especially in the early stages.
“Then you get to the stage where you’re playing a system and it’s working fairly well and you get to 35-40 minutes and then you revert to type. It takes a while to be able to get guys to do it under pressure for the full 70. We’re still on that journey!”
Come championship, they will find themselves up against a Wexford side who have had Davy Fitzgerald in charge for the past four years. It makes a difficult task tougher, but O’Donnell doesn’t look at it in such terms.
“I think you just have to try to stick to the process,” he says.
“Keep coaching, keep reinforcing, keep talking to guys. Video analysis is very important, because you’re not loading players physically. You’re giving them information and discussion and questioning through video, which helps an awful lot.
“You just have to be so careful with recovery, their sleep patterns, diet, nutrition – they all have to be right. You just try to go through all the steps and be very mindful of the load you’re putting on guys.”
O’Donnell is currently completing a Master’s degree in applied sports coaching at the University of Limerick, under the tutelage of Philip Kearney. As well as that, he is manager and coach of Clare club side O’Callaghan’s Mills. The differences between county and club sides are not marked and he benefits from the familiarity of being with the Clare side last year, too.
“The principles are still the same and the gap is closing all the time between inter-county and senior club, particularly the successful ones,” he says.
“The Mills are an example where I’m going back into a system that I’ve a really good grasp of. They’ve been working away in pre-season and now that we’re in season, we still have time where we’ll go into a league system where we’ll have matches before championship around the end of August.
“We have a nice season ahead of us, plus we have last year behind us, which is a good basis for what we’re trying to do. We’re starting from a totally different situation to where we were last year, the opposite of what the Laois situation is!” CL