Brendan Rogers is fully tuned into Sleacht Néill’s upcoming Ulster Senior Championship hurling final and he explains how being a dual-star has plenty of plus points, writes Shaun Casey
IN a few days’ time, Brendan Rogers could well be named as the 2023 Footballer of the Year for his performances in the red and white of Derry this season, and he wouldn’t look out of place on any of the teams competing for the Liam MacCarthy either.
That’s just the talent of the Sleacht Néill dual star. Whether it’s with a size five football in his hands or a hurling stick, Rogers is one of the best sports stars that Ulster has to offer and he’s only getting better. Very few players can do what he can at the level he does it at.
His move out to the middle of the field was revolutionary for the Oak Leaf footballers this year as they claimed the Anglo Celt trophy for the second season in succession and were a kick of the ball away from a first All-Ireland final appearance in 30 years.
Nowadays, his head is entirely focused on hurling as Sleacht Néill aim to reclaim their Ulster title and book their spot in the last four of the All-Ireland race. But they’ve had a long wait. And continue to wait. It’ll be 77 days between their Derry decider and the Ulster final.
“In reality it’s a bit shorter because we still had the football championship after the hurling,” said Rogers. “We had three games to play so it’s not just as if we were hurling for 77 days and we’re less than a month away now.
“It’s not too bad, we’re used to a fairly hectic schedule so when you get back to just one code, in many ways it’s a change, but you get to change your focus as well.
“Usually, you’re juggling from going from one or the other and you heads in two different hats depending on whatever night of the week it is.
“When you’re juggling both you’re not mindful about how you’re recovered from your last game and that sort of week-on-week stuff is certainly hard. So, when you get to focus on just one your preparation changes in that you can earmark the big sessions and the down sessions.
“You’re not wondering ‘how’s Tuesday’s session going to be after a football game, are boys going to be hurt or sore? Are you going to get the most out of it?’ Ultimately that’s always a big factor for us.
“So not having that as a thing makes things a lot easier for us in terms of managing loads, managing players and ultimately focusing on the skills of what is a highly skill-based game. Hurling, you sort of have to have your eye in all the time.”
Getting to touch up on the skills of the game is a big thing. For lots of people that spend their lives playing hurling or football, perfecting the skills of the game is not easy, never mind having to concentrate on two codes on a consistent basis.
“We’ve had a few years now where we got a good gap from the football to focus on skill work and we all felt that we were a lot sharper,” added Rogers. “We do all notice, you do become sharper as a result of it.
“As much as it is a negative that we’re out of the football and we are disappointed, we do see it as an opportunity to get a lot better at hurling, you know what you can get out of yourself.
“It’s refreshing in that way that we do get to go after it properly. It’s not that you don’t before but you’re hampered by time, it can be an issue so it’s nice to get to focus on the finer details of the game.”
The different positions Rogers plays for both codes has been well documented. In football, he was a man-marking full-back under Rory Gallagher before moving out the field. But when hurling in the maroon and white of Sleacht Néill, Rogers is their free-scoring full-forward.
And Rogers makes it sound so simple. He uses the defensive nous taken off defenders picking him up when he’s the one shadowing the opposition’s best player and vice-versa.The movement of the footballers he marks has helped develop his hurling game.
“There’s a lot of similarities in that you’re still playing inside but I think playing at full-back in football and getting the privilege to mark good footballers has lent itself to helping my hurling game,” explained Rogers.
“The experience I get from being marked is what I can use in my football game so that’s kind of what the trade off is. I would always looked to have improved my hurling game based on what the movement of other good forwards is like.
“You get an appreciation of separation and space, how they evade, how they get a yard or how did they get themselves in a position to get the ball when they’re maybe on the half turn as opposed to square on.
“How if you’re marking them tightly, do they get that yard at the right time? How do they setup plays in terms of using the people around them? How vocal they are?
“A lot of good football forwards have a bag of tricks, it’s not just one, and everybody has a different way of doing it. So, you’re always thinking about what you can try – you try and find what works.
“On the flip side of it, it does make me do different things and I’m thinking about how I can apply that to football when I’m marking somebody. What is the right level of pressure in the right zones in order to deter people, my body shape and things like that.”
And that’s just without the ball. On the ball, Rogers does admit it’s a bit more difficult to carry over the skills of football to hurling and hurling to football, but that doesn’t mean he can’t trade off in some circumstances.
“There’s a lot of things to learn but then when it gets to being on the ball you have to have that experience of playing that code and that’s where it’s different. But there are the small things that you try to take away.
“They are ultimately Irish sports so there’s going to be a lot of similarities in them and there is a lot of athleticism that can be used in terms how you use your body to shield the ball, There’s a lot of fielding in hurling so that helps for football in what it’s like taking contact in the air.
“There is a lot in it but it’s so different too, you don’t get ruck balls in football like you do in hurling and how that can affect your energy capacity in a game.
“If it’s a dirty, rough game and there’s a lot of knocks and a lot of hitting, it’s not comparable to what a running game of football would be like.
“You have to consider styles of play too in terms of how teams can transition back in swarm defences and the speed at which a play finishes in hurling.
“Even in a slow play build up, it’s still going to be over within 20 seconds.
“Whereas football, you could have 16 seconds to get up to the far 45 and then you have to start working your play, it’s like a game of chess.
“You can’t say that everything is the same but ultimately there is a bit of crossover between the two games. If you were to start assessing what you could and couldn’t pick up from the other, you’d be surprised how much you can pick up.”
Rogers and his Sleacht Néill teammates have an Ulster hurling final to look forward to as they await the winners of Antrim’s Cushendall and Down champions Portaferry, and the men in maroon are enjoying the advantage of getting to watch their next opponent in action before taking them on.
“It’s the first time that we’ve got to the Ulster final without having to play in a semi-final. In 2013 you had the likes of Lisbellaw entering the competition, Middletown were in it for a couple of years as well.
“This is our first time in that position, so you do really get to focus on them without focusing on our own semi-final opponent.
“You get the chance then, given the gap, to go to their county finals and semi-finals and getting to watch the teams.
“Those wee things are different, but you get to appreciate the value you can get in being in those places so it’s different but it’s a good different.
“It’s a new experience for us but it’s one we know we can get the most out of and that’s the positive out of it.”