There’s no hidden manuscript when it comes to figuring out Kilkenny’s domination of the senior hurling scene over the last number of years.
Ask the players. They’ll tell you the secret is working hard from the second their season starts (and sometimes even before that!).
Paul Murphy is one such player who has been hard at it since the team’s return to collective training. His year started with fun in the Far East sun, but now it’s all drills, tests and more tests.
“For lads who are new to the panel and haven’t done this before I suppose it’s a shock to the system,” he said when explaining the level of work that goes into getting ready for the inter-county game. “You suddenly realise how many tests there are.
“Body fat tests have become so scientific now that there’s no escaping the figures. After that you have the fitness tests. There are so many tests that I don’t think people realise the level the game has gotten to.
“That will be elevated this year in Gaelic games, where drug-testing will be extended to blood sampling (previously players selected at random were obliged to give urine samples) which is another step on.
“This time of year is all about tests,” he added. “We’re used to them, so when the nutritionist comes to you or Mick Dempsey (trainer) comes and asks why your numbers aren’t right you have no excuses. You know what you have to do.”
It sounds severe, but Murphy is someone who relishes the challenge.
“To be honest I enjoy it,” he said. “It gives a fair reflection of where you are. You’re not codding yourself by thinking ‘I’m flying fit’ when there’s a test to tell you if you are or aren’t.
“It gives you a bit of mental strength knowing the work is done, you are fit and the tests are good.”
You get the feeling Murphy isn’t alone in that line of thinking. Given the competitive nature of the game, it wouldn’t be wrong to suggest all inter-county hurlers enjoy comparing results and trying to be the best in the group.
“There is a competitive element to the tests among players,” the Danesfort man smiled. “There’d be a bit of banter in the team’s WhatsApp group; some lads might have better body-fat results while others are better at the beep test.
“Everyone wants to get up to a certain level and there’s very fine lines between them - if there’s any small margin it can lead to some slagging in the group.
“It is competition, but it’s great as it gives you a small goal,” he continued. “If you have such a score in the beep test, for example, you aim to beat it the next time.
“You’re competing against yourself really, which is great competition to have. If you were just going out training and didn’t have any references as to how you’re going you can’t tell if you’re getting faster or slower or fitter.
“By getting constant feedback you can surprise yourself when you get better results,” he added.
“It’s a great buzz to get throughout the year when you find you’ve scored better results in one of the tests.
“It’s a big pick-me-up, but it’s a reflection on the work you’ve put in. Once Brian (Cody, manager) and the backroom team see the results they know you’ve been putting in the effort.”
The hard work is clearly paying off for Murphy. As well as his four senior All-Ireland hurling medals he has been named in four All-Stars teams, but the idea of living off past rewards doesn’t hold sway with him.
Even now, he and his colleagues are striving to get better.
“Usually the backroom team keep copies of all the players’ records,” he said when asked if players kept their records for a personal file.
“Any test we do they’ll have the result, but a player is entitled to a copy of it if they want to keep a folder for themselves.
“Some do that; it’s probably a good way of keeping track of your records, but you’d be aware of your own scores for everything, from how many push-ups you did to your last beep test.
“I don’t think you’d need to write it down anywhere,” he added. “You’ll have it logged in your memory!”
With hurling becoming an almost year-round game now, down-time is getting shorter and shorter. There is greater focus on player welfare - preparations for the 2016 campaign started before the old year was out.
“You do a fitness test before Christmas, but that’s just to see how you’re going,” Murphy said of the preseason plans.
“It’s a reference for the backroom team to see where individual players might need work or if we need work as a group. We weren’t back from the team holiday until January 10, but they gave us a few days off - you don’t just jump back into the hard work.
Know the ropes
“They (the backroom team) eased us back into training as, when you’ve relaxed on holidays you’re not in the condition to come back and train at the top level. The lads know all too well how to train us when we come back, but once the League starts it’s hell for leather.
“You’re back a few weeks and you’re conditioned to a certain level, so you can go that bit harder.”
Much has been said of trainer Mick Dempsey and his tailor-made training for individual players. That in-depth work, Murphy said, is huge,
“I don’t think Mick gets the credit he deserves,” said Murphy. “He’s a genius at it; he’s so in-tune with how players are and how they’re progressing.
“He’s always one step ahead of us. He knows what stage we’re at and what stage we should be at.
“From that point of view you couldn’t get a better trainer.
“You don’t have to worry about where you should be condition-wise or whether other teams are fitter. Once you see what Mick Dempsey has laid out in front of you, you know he’ll have you ready for the League and for the championship.
“Obviously you have to do your own bit as well,” he added. “With Noreen (Roche, the team nutritionist) watching us as well it’s good to know that, as a player, the work is put in place there for you. Wwe have to do the simple thing of putting it into action. Once you do it, you’re in the right place.”
It’s not just the attitude to fitness and conditioning which has changed over the years, Paul insisted. Hurling, as a sport, has evolved so much there are notable differences between today’s game and its equivalent from even 10 years ago.
It’s a point Murphy was quick to highlight, but he reckons the change will be constant.
“It’s a tougher game now,” he felt. “That’s not being disrespectful to anyone who played the game 10 years ago, but the game now is faster and tougher. But in 10 years’ time the lads who will be playing then will be faster and stronger.
“It’s the way the game will go,” he said. “Once the science behind the scenes evolves so too hurling will evolve.
“The game will push on but that’s natural progression. The game may be at a level where you think it can’t go any higher, but it will.
“A lot of emphasis has been put on players’ upper body strength now,” he added. “That’s so important for your speed. People might think hurling speed is all about your legs, but upper body strength is massive for power and your speed off the line.
“With everything we’ve learned now we know that you have to train hard and to work out at the same intensity,” he continued. “As important as it is to be in the ball alley working on your hand/eye co-ordination you also have to be in the weights room as well as out on the pitch doing the running.
“It’s an all-round game,” he said. “It’s not as easy as pucking a ball off the wall and doing a few runs.”
With so much training to do it can be hard to find a work/life/hurling balance, but that too takes preparation.
“You have to sit down and work out a structure, but different players have different work routines,” he said. “There are factors like the distance you’ve to travel to get to your gym, to find a handball alley or a place where you can go running.
“These are the things you have to work out.
“I’m lucky that I’m living in Kilkenny so I can go to the gym in Nowlan Park or Hotel Kilkenny,” he added.
“With less travel time it’s easier to work out my plans. For example, you mightn’t be training with the panel on a Wednesday so you can go the handball alley for an hour and then do my weights and go for a swim. Thursdays it might be a swim, take things easy to be ready for training on a Friday night. If you structure it out yourself you’ll find time to put all the work in.
“It’s harder with some jobs,” he pointed out. “It’s really down to the player to find time to fit training into his own routine. You have to fit it in some way. You have to do it.”
Working as a soldier means Murphy is probably used to routine more than most, but he doesn’t see things that way.
“You don’t feel you’re being regimented,” he said. “Maybe, from all the training, you understand the importance of having things laid out and the timing element. That’s where the two (work and hurling) meet.
“It’s great too being in the barracks (Murphy is stationed at the James Stephens Barracks in the city) as there’s an emphasis put on physical training. We are allowed that time, an hour here or there, to do that physical work so you can get your training in at different times.
“There are days too when you can’t do that but there’s an ethos in the Army of fitness training so it adds to your overall conditioning. If you’re physically fit you’ll be mentally fit too.
“I don’t see it as being a regime,” he added. “I just enjoy doing it.”
With so much work going into the top levels of the sport it’s fair to say that hurling is professional in everything bar name these days. However, despite the demands, he still enjoys everything it entails.
“Absolutely,” Paul insisted. “If I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t do it, because there’s no benefit other than that.
“Any player who goes into that dressing-room is only there because they enjoy the sport. They’re not there because they’re going to be paid thousands!
“Obviously we’re taken care of,” he said. “The backroom team and the support they offer makes sure we don’t want for anything in terms of supplements and medical advice.
“As far as I’m concerned there’s nowhere else you’d want to be,” he said.
“You’re getting a great chance to be as fit as you can possibly be, to train as hard as you can and get the best advice you can. I love the whole aspect of the game,” he added.
“I love going in training, being in there early and going out on the pitch to puck around. The day I don’t enjoy it is the day I’ll step aside.”
Mind you, it helps that the hard work has earned handsome rewards for Kilkenny.
“Sport is all about enjoyment, but that goes hand in hand with wanting to win things,” he said. “We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think we could win honours - Jackie (Tyrrell) wouldn’t be coming back for another year if he didn’t think he could benefit the team.
“It makes it easier when you’ve had brilliant days. We’ve been lucky to have those days and team holidays together too, but if you put in the hard hours you’ll get the rewards.
“And right now?” he finished. “This is the time of year when the real hard hours are being done.”