SO Mike McNamara, the famed and feared head of the Spanish Inquisition's Department of Physical Fitness, is ready to descend on Offaly, armed with his rack and thumbscrews. And people chortle about round holes and square pegs. And Simon Whelahan wonders aloud if his brother Brian will be bothered to return to the fold next year. And from some smoke-wreathed barstool in downtown Birr, the ghost of a laugh is heard as Johnny Pilkington congratulates himself on having got out at the right time.

An old dog with old tricks? It's easy to view McNamara in that light following a season in which Waterford won silverware after doing such limited physical training that the players had felt impelled to voice their concerns to management, where a thirtysomething returned from a year-long sabbatical to shine in the All Ireland series and where Wexford's bellyflop in the second of two championship matches on successive Sundays made one speculate about what was the point of their winter training programme to start with. Easy and not necessarily correct.

First things first. For all the tut-tutting about his SAS training methods, it can't seriously be doubted that the lengths McNamara pushed Clare to were, given the county's starting point, necessary lengths. "He isn't a guy who goes out and flogs players for the sake of flogging them, but that's got lost along the way, " Jamesie O'Connor insists. "Mike trained us mentally as well as physically, working on our minds while pushing us very hard. If a fella gave up in Crusheen on a December night, it meant he'd probably give up when push came to shove in Semple Stadium or Pairc Ui Chaoimh in summer."

Furthermore, adds O'Connor, a large segment of Clare's preparations in 1997 consisted of winter weight training and a "huge amount of stretching - there were sessions that were solely devoted to stretching". Or as McNamara puts it in his autobiography To Hell and Back, freshness wins at the end of the day.

"Fitness is only wonderful when it can be combined with freshness."

The current Munster champions may be inclined to agree.

After coming together as a group in mid-January, Waterford were soon hurling under lights, upping the tempo as the evenings lengthened. The players had been expected to individually keep themselves in shape during the winter, so physical work was confined to the closing 15 or 20 minutes of sessions.

That they temporarily feared for Justin McCarthy's sanity is readily understandable, Colm Bonnar says. "Players don't feel confident unless they're satisfied they've been taken to the edge, that they've done as much hard physical stuff as the opposition.

Our lads just didn't realise for a while that they were doing intensive training, in the shape of the hurling drills.

"Timing and skill is what it's all about. You can have players as fit as fiddles, but if they lose control of the sliotar with their first couple of touches, their heads can go down and may not come back up. And then some players don't have a hectic first touch anyway, the ball may squirt off to the right or left, which means they have to have the pace to run after it and regain possession. So there will always be a place for fitness in hurling as well as for skill."

Or take Kilkenny, whose campaign began last November.

Unprecedented for the county, as one pundit claimed? Not so, according to team trainer Mick O'Flynn, who recalls the 1992 championship preparations commencing with a couple of gettogethers in November 1991. The one big change O'Flynn has found in the meantime is the attitude of the players towards looking after themselves outside of training. "Nowadays the awareness of the importance of diet and lifestyle is far greater."

Much of the credit for Tipperary's 2001 triumph was given by Nicky English to their trainer Jim Kilty, a proponent of the SAQ (speed, agility, quickness) system. SAQ theory ordains that field games require reaction, speed off the mark, acceleration over 15 metres, the ability to change pace and direction and, above all, the capacity to repeat these bursts consistently throughout the match. Consequently, multi-sprint stamina sessions rather than the long slow laps of yore are the key to basic training.

In hurling and football, Kilty points out, the average distance run is 30 metres at a time. To see players through, what's needed is effort repeatability: running 10 metres here, sprinting 20 metres there, tackling, turning, blocking, clearing. Blend ingredients and bake for 70 minutes.

Exercises with ladders and hurdles last year sharpened Tipperary's footwork and inculcated quicker turning, handy attributes when players needed to make space to strike the sliotar. For hydration, before and during matches they sipped a Kilty-concocted isotonic potion consisting of five litres of water to one litre of lime cordial and a pinch of salt. And they ran barely a single lap of the field at any stage of the season, the trainer being adamant that slow running would not be allowed interfere with their skills and reactions.

"Hurling is based entirely on speed of movement, speed of thought, " Kilty says. "Too much endurance training kills that.

Players shouldn't finish a training session on their knees except once in a blue moon, when the management want to test character and build squad spirit."

His view of Mike Mac? Much the same as O'Connor's. "Clare had had talented hurlers down the years, tough hurlers, but not able to win an All Ireland.

Because of that, Mike had to roll up his and their sleeves and indulge in a regime never seen in hurling before. They had to overcome a huge psychological and physiological wall."

Maybe the old dog will have some new tricks in him.