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Tackle the rough stuff head on: McHugh

By John Campbell

Martin McHugh, one of Ulster's most high-profile GAA personalities, today labels the high ratio of heavy tackles in major matches as "downright scary."

And the 1992 Donegal All-Ireland winner, whose son Ryan is a key figure in Jim McGuinness' outfit which will meet Dublin in this year's semi-final, suggests a stronger emphasis is currently being placed on strength and conditioning at the expense of honing skills.

McHugh, who was a creative force in Brian McEniff's successful side of the early 90's, also harbours serious concerns that "dangerous head-high tackles" currently blight gaelic football to an alarming extent.

"Football has changed and not necessarily for the better," maintains McHugh. "I remember seeing a match coming on the television in my home in 2008. I was on the phone at the time and I thought it was a minor match, but when I turned up the television I discovered it was a senior game between Tyrone and Donegal.

"The very fact that my initial impression suggested it was a minor match underlines for me the massive strides that have been made since then in bulking up players, enhancing their upper body strength and equipping them to put in huge hits."

And McHugh pulls no punches in articulating what he feels are genuine fears on the part of parents, wives and other family members when they attend games nowadays.

"As a parent myself, I am very conscious of the risks that players are exposed to in games, particularly those of high intensity," states McHugh. "To tell you the truth, not so long ago you would have gone along to a game hoping to see your son play well. Now you go with your fingers crossed in the hope that he will come through unscathed – and that's the truth."

He supports his theory that conditioning is now viewed as all-important in terms of preparing teams for major championship matches by unveiling one startling statistic.

"Last year my own son Ryan's conditioning level was measured at 14. Today it stands at 28 and that means he has doubled his upper body strength in just a year.

"That's what it appears to take to survive at the top level and it certainly shows the absolute commitment that is needed," points out McHugh.

"Ryan and many of the other Donegal players are usually in the gym maybe at six o'clock in the morning before they go to their university or work and then they might be out again on the training field that night."

McHugh contrasts this with the build-ups that the Donegal team in which he played followed.

"I think the big difference is that we spent almost all our time out on the training ground doing ball-work, but now it seems to be all about the gym," insists McHugh, who is managing director of his thriving MCM drinks company.

And he believes that the GAA could ultimately find itself open to insurance claims from players who might well seek redress in later life in respect of problems arising from injuries incurred during their playing days.

"This is something that is very commonplace in American football just now where millions of dollars are being paid out to former players who have made successful claims because of health issues which arise in later years from having absorbed big hits while playing," stresses McHugh.

Yet while there is undoubtedly a much greater element of physicality within gaelic football, Donegal, while meeting Armagh's vibrant challenge head-on last Saturday, did not incur a single yellow card during the game.

There are, of course, ongoing worries that referees are, on occasions, reluctant to invoke the black card measure – something that is of considerable concern to McHugh in relation to the more dangerous form of tackling.

"I think there is a greater preponderance of head-high tackles nowadays and that's not a good thing. These tackles are made when players are at full tilt and this can add to the dangers they present," he said.

"The whole thing is downright scary and I think that it is important a handle is kept on matters. I know that physical power is an acknowledged sporting attribute, but only when it is channelled fairly and evenly throughout the course of a game."

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