The Cork college open their title defence away to NUI Galway on Sunday (4pm) and are second favourites behind UCD with the bookmakers. UCC bid to retain the crown for the first time since 1995 but O’Keeffe admits preparations haven’t been ideal as players struggled to train due to club and county commitments.
This year sees the introduction of a format change with a straight knockout employed and the final scheduled for January 29.
O’Keeffe has no problem with that, but a congested fixture list makes it difficult to get access to players.
“I always think that it makes for a better championship with no back doors,” he says, “and it’s over and done with fairly quickly.
“The problem for us this year is getting players together, it’s just been impossible.
“In terms of congestion, this is the worst year I’ve ever experienced in the Sigerson. The pre-season competitions have eaten into whatever preparation time you’d have because fellas are going to prioritise the chance to get involved in an inter-county set-up.
“That is coupled with the congestion at the tail-end of the club season so it’s all had a knock-on effect. I don’t think we’ve had a full panel out together once. I don’t know what the experience has been for other Sigerson teams but we’ve certainly struggled hugely. It has been really frustrating.”
The earlier start for the U20 football competitions only adds to the gridlock.
“We’ve a few lads involved with Cork and Kerry U20s and it’s difficult to get them out training when there’s the pull of the inter-county set-up,” O’Keeffe says.
“I didn’t see any great need for the U20s to be pulled back into this time of year because it is causing a great squeeze on demands.
“I think the Sigerson is being put at the bottom of the pecking order in terms of having any priority at all and it’s a shame, because it’s a premier competition in terms of looking at the new elite players coming through.
“Even looking at younger player welfare, there’s no need for them to have such a heavy load at this time of year and that’s an issue going forward.
“My opinion would be that it’d be better to go back to the old format of playing over the two-or three-day weekend. You’re condensing down the fixtures, I know there might be complaints about welfare but if you ask the players who’ve gone through it, they really enjoy it.
“I think it would help to solve the fixture problem, on the one hand you’re dedicating January to the Sigerson but you’re not getting a clear run at it.” UCC do boast strong options, with Cork’s Mark White, Seán Wilson, Seán Powter and Liam O’Donovan available along with Kerry stars Seán O’Shea, Killian Spillane, David Shaw, Diarmuid O’Connor and Graham O’Sullivan as well as James McEntee of Meath.
The league campaign before Christmas wasn’t successful but O’Keeffe is still looking forward to the start of the Blue Riband.
“It was our first time not qualifying for the latter stages and it was down to not being able to put out our strongest team,” he says.
“We got a fair drubbing up in UL but we were under-strength, we got a win below in Tralee but we never got going, Garda College beat us as well. It was the business end of the club season so we just had nobody.
“That’s the squeeze the colleges are under now, we didn’t have the players. It was the first year we didn’t come out of Munster in the league and you suffer for not getting one or two more quality games before Christmas.
“We’ll be competitive but it’s hard to judge when they haven’t been up and running together.”