Tuesday 28 February 2017

Waterford site a bridge too far for Ulster sides

JOHN O'BRIEN

With an announcement expected in the coming weeks that the proposed national hurling centre of excellence is to be located in Waterford, GAA officials are bracing themselves for a storm of opposition, particularly from Antrim and other northern counties where anger has been expressed at the apparent decision to develop the centre in a hurling stronghold at the opposite end of the country.

The development will form the centrepiece of the GAA's ambitious plan to redevelop the game and has been more than a year in the planning under the Games Development Committee chaired by president elect, Liam O'Neill.

It will be located at the Carriganore Sports Complex on the outskirts of the city, a joint development between Waterford Institute of Technology and the GAA, which was completed in 2009 and cost €22m to build.

Already opposition has been voiced about the project, however. At the launch of the Ulster hurling championship in Armagh recently, the issue of the national centre of excellence was a keen topic of discussion with several in the province of the firm opinion that the interests of the weaker hurling counties had been overlooked. "It's a long way from Ballycastle to Waterford," said one Antrim official.

When O'Neill first raised the subject during a briefing session with reporters at last month's Congress in Mullingar, Antrim was one of the counties he singled out to benefit most from the development of a national centre of excellence. There was some speculation at the time that a Midlands base would be favoured, with Athlone IT mentioned as a likely location.

"It seems surprising they'd put it in Waterford," said Antrim hurling co-ordinator and former manager, Dominic McKinley. "Just speaking for myself, I'm disappointed. I thought it would make sense to have it in the Midlands or even in Dublin. It seems to be defeating the purpose to set up something like that and then move it there. With the cost and the distance, who could dream of an Ulster county going down there?"

It isn't the first time this year that the GDC has raised the ire of weaker hurling counties. In February, O'Neill unveiled radical proposals that would entail a number of counties drastically reducing their inter-county hurling programmes in order to concentrate on developing the game at a grassroots level. The proposals have been greeted with fierce opposition from most of the counties involved and remain subject to further discussion before being implemented.

Yet there is no suggestion that any opposition will deter the GAA from proceeding with its plans for Carriganore. The original concept was always to align the centre with an academic institute and, while other locations were considered, it was felt that there was nowhere in the Midlands with the requisite facilities while Dublin City University, the most suitable location in the capital, was already providing a similar service for Gaelic football.

The centre in Carriganore is a multi-purpose venue in which the GAA is believed to have invested €1m and the development of a national centre of excellence will help generate a greater return for that investment. "Listen, we knew all along that this was a sensitive issue," says a senior GAA official. "It's hard to please everybody. No matter where you put it someone won't be happy."

The GDC will further argue that the centre, at least initially, is intended more as a research and academic facility than a physical base where counties can bring teams for training camps. It will seek to allay fears of long and expensive trips by pointing out that the expertise developed in the centre can also be taken out on the road and brought to those counties where it is most needed.

As of yet, no formal decision has been made, but according to the official, Waterford "are well out in advance." The GDC, which includes former hurlers John Fenton and Sean Silke, will act on advice from O'Neill and the GAA's head of games, Pat Daly, and their decision will be brought before Ard Chomhairle for ratification next month.

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