Christy O'Connor: SHC format proving tricky to negotiate for managers

Galway have got back on the horse and managed to overcome their gutting Leinster final defeat. Pic Philip Walsh
Galway have got back on the horse and managed to overcome their gutting Leinster final defeat. Pic Philip Walsh

When Liam Cahill first took over Waterford in late 2019, the squad underwent a torturous winter training programme. On a hill beside their training base in WIT, Cahill and Mikey Bevans drove the players up and down the steep incline like husky dogs. Again. And again. And again.

After failing to win a championship game over the previous two years, Cahill repeatedly whipped the players up that hill with the lash of his tongue, constantly roaring that the team had lost their respect and the only way of getting it back was to keep climbing.

Waterford certainly did, reaching a Munster and All-Ireland final in that first season in 2020. That progress underlined just how far they had come under Cahill. But the beating Waterford suffered from Limerick in the final also showcased how far they still had to go.

Losing to Clare in the 2021 Munster quarter-final was a setback that the team never really recovered from that season, as they were forced to play four games in 21 days before running into a Limerick machine which chewed Waterford up and spat them back out.

When Waterford resumed training again at the end of that season, Cahill and Bevans drove them hard again. And again. Waterford won the league but, during a three-week break in the middle of the 2022 round-robin, Cahill took out the needle again and administered more pain over a 10-day period by pushing the Waterford players through some of the hardest training they’d ever done.

That was always going to be a gamble in the middle of the season and it backfired spectacularly. Waterford lost to Cork and blew up against Clare. It was obvious that the players had lost faith in the Cahill project.

As soon as Cahill and Bevans returned to Tipperary, they immediately adopted the same template which served them so well with Waterford and the Tipperary U-21s and U-20s, initiating a brutally tough training regime designed to harden bodies and minds and, more importantly, to physically equip the players to carry out the game they wanted to play.

Cahill’s teams have always been a reflection of their manager and coach (Bevans) in how they play with an edge, and a relentless hard-running/hard-working/attacking style. After such a poor campaign too for Tipperary in 2022, Cahill needed to deposit a lot of fuel in the tank during the winter to rebuild confidence and restore faith.

Tipp were impressive during the league, reaching the semi-final. They started the championship in a whirlwind with a brilliant display against Clare before playing out two gripping draws with Cork and Limerick. 

Yet Tipp capitulated against Waterford in their last match, which cost them a place in the Munster final and almost cost them their place in the championship. They wiped the floor with Offaly but Tipp looked a totally different team against Galway in last Saturday’s All-Ireland quarter-final, completely devoid of energy.

“The level of performance has gone in the wrong direction and looks to be on a downward curve,” said Liam Sheedy on ‘The Sunday Game’. Sitting beside Sheedy, Donal Óg Cusack was in total agreement.

“I’d say he (Cahill) will have a lot of sleepless nights over that,” said Cusack. “You’d have to wonder, why did Tipp go so flat? We saw Waterford peter out last year. Liam Cahill will know that something has gone wrong there in terms of their ability to peak.”

That is an equation Cahill needs to balance between his coaching, S&C and medical personnel, especially when the new format has never been more attritional and demanding.

It wasn’t just Cahill who found that out this year. Another new manager in the Liam MacCarthy Cup, in his first season, privately admitted that there is no way his side will go as hard next year as they did during this winter. 

Limerick and Kilkenny reached the league final, but Limerick didn’t alter their training programme. The Tuesday before they played Tipp in the league semi-final, Limerick had one of their hardest sessions of the season. They still went on and won the league anyway. 

Kilkenny are Kilkenny, who will always try and win the league, but they were able to go all out for the competition when they were playing Westmeath in their opening match in Leinster.

Clare and Galway – the other two teams to have reached the All-Ireland semi-finals – showed little or no interest in the league. Limerick may have bucked the trend by winning the league but, given how poorly they started the championship – narrowly beating Waterford and losing to Clare – will they show any interest in the league next season? Most of the other teams certainly won’t.

The CCCC are currently reviewing the structure of the league with a means to making it more competitive. It remains to be seen if they will link the league to the championship like in football.

John Fogarty reported in the Irish Examiner how the GAA have written to the six Joe McDonagh Cup counties for their thoughts on jettisoning the competition’s current year's link with the All-Ireland preliminary senior hurling quarter-finals.

A number of McDonagh Cup counties have expressed concern that the intense McDonagh Cup in the late spring/early summer is doing little for the promotion of the game. Management teams would also prefer more time between games.

Disbanding the preliminary quarter-finals may free up more time and take the steam out of such an intensely hot round robin, especially in Munster. A reconfiguration of the league, with possibly more groups and less games, may also make the league more competitive and attractive.

In his Irish Examiner column after Tipperary hammered Offaly in the preliminary All-Ireland quarter-final, Anthony Daly suggested that the preliminary quarter-finalists could include the Joe McDonagh winners and the highest ranked team in the league that didn’t come in the top three in Munster and Leinster? “It would certainly make the league more competitive,” wrote Daly. “It’s worth thinking about.”

It is. It’s not easy when the round robin is so intense, especially in Munster. Yet whatever happens, this championship will force teams into assessing how they can try and peak better when it matters most.

Especially Cahill and Tipperary.