Colm Cavanagh: Fear of injury in a condensed season leaves management hamstrung when it come to selection decisions
THE excitement and buzz that a short season brings is tangible - every team going for it, all or nothing, no back door and no reprieve for a bad day at the office, it’s an exciting time for our games.
We are only a few games into the county season and we’ve had some great games and some surprise results along the way. What has really stood out for me, though, is the number of injuries sustained by the players in competitive matches so far.
Management of county teams have the unenviable task of selecting and fielding their strongest possible team for every match but protecting their players at the same time.
Typically, the county training programme is planned with intricate detail so that from December teams are being prepared to peak at exactly the right time for the closing stages of the League and the Championship.
Even at that, there was always the safety that if the team wasn’t quite right for the first game of the Championship, there was always a second chance through the back door. Managers had the option to rotate players in early competitions and manage game time while training at high intensity without putting players at much risk.
The big problem this year is that there has been no time for this with no Dr McKenna Cup competition and a very condensed League campaign.
It has meant that managers have had to play their strongest side back-to-back each week and we have already seen the strain this has put on players physically with numerous injuries sustained across teams so far, predominately hamstring injuries.
We have more science and analytics at our fingertips than ever before. STATSports metrics are used during every training session to monitor workloads and compare workload between sessions.
This allows coaches and management to immediately recognise when an individual's workload is becoming too heavy and when rest is required.
The issue is that we have gone from individual training which, no matter how hard we push ourselves, we can only put so much intensity into, straight into competitive action.
There is no training session that can compare to playing competitive matches. In-house games are a benchmark, a team selection exercise, even they cannot replicate the intensity and demands of a competitive match.
I fully understand the GAA wishing to have a competitive season and how important it is for so many people to have our sports back on our pitches and our screens, however, it is without doubt coming at the cost of injury to our players.
Armagh suffered the loss of four defenders in their match against Tyrone, all serious injuries meaning those players missed a vital game against Donegal. Michael Murphy had to leave the pitch within the first 10 minutes of Donegal’s game against Monaghan, a huge loss for Donegal on the day and going forward.
Fermanagh had to replace Eoin Donnelly at the same weekend to the same injury – a hamstring strain.
The loss of any player to injury effects the team but to lose your defensive structure, your talisman or your captain causes a panicked restructure from the sideline and tangible unrest among the players still on the field. It generally takes substitutes some time to settle into a game and find their role all while the clock is ticking in a must-win game.
Sport is played at such a high intensity; physical exertion is at its maximum leaving teams under serious pressure going forward. Every physio and doctor in Donegal will be tasked with the job of having Michael Murphy ready for their Championship opener. He is pivotal to the success of the team, and they will undoubtedly struggle without him.
Teams cannot afford to sacrifice the League and get relegated as it serves as the best preparation for the Championship, but to play a full-strength squad in the League at the expense of a poor Championship given potential injuries sustained in those first games becomes a Catch-22 for coaches and management.
An option for coaches and team selectors is to use players, specifically key players, less. The new rules for substitutes allow seven substitutes to be used but within five exchanges.
Should management try and set the squad akin to AFL or rugby and exchange a full midfield or half-forward line in one substitution? Do they have to consider using their more experienced (not necessarily older) players in a cleverer way?
Kevin McManamon is the perfect example of a 'super-sub' for Dublin. He is sprung from the bench when a game is in the balance and has never failed to have an impact because he is able to read the game from the sideline and knows exactly what his role is, regardless of what stage of the game he is dropped into.
For the protection of key players do we have to hold them back on the bench and utilise their skills when the game is in the melting pot or is that too late?
Is it better to get a good start and then rest players when fatigue starts to kick in? The problem with all these options is that no-one wants to push themselves 110 per cent in training to be a ‘part-time player’.
I know personally I am either all in or all out and none of these options appeal to me regardless of the injury risks involved. Over the latter years of my county career, I used the pre-season to build up a tolerance for training and was only used late in the McKenna Cup for one half at a time, even though I may have had eight weeks high intensity training under my belt at that stage.
This allowed me to ease myself into peak match fitness so that when the closing stage of the League and the beginning of the Championship came around, I was fully match ready and comfortable with the workload on my body.
The weekly match schedule does nothing for player recovery. Teams are coming off the pitch on a Sunday and straight into preparation for the following weekend, with maximum one night off for recovery. I have no doubt there are players partaking in midweek training not feeling 100 per cent.
This ultimately means come the weekend they are at a higher risk of injury as their bodies haven’t recovered sufficiently from the week before. It is a viscous circle and a relentless schedule; whichever team can get the balance right between match intensity and player preservation will likely go far this year.