Kildare captain O'Neill slams early start to Christy Ring defence
Published 30/04/2015 | 02:30
Given the decline in their football fortunes recently the current joke locally is: What do you call a Kildare player who has won All-Ireland and National League medals in the past 12 months?
The answer? A hurler.
Kildare bounced back from relegation last year to win the Christy Ring and have since won six from six to win Division 2B, securing promotion and beating Meath in the final.
They are captained by Eanna O'Neill, 24, a strength and conditioning student at Limerick IT (based on their Thurles campus) who has rubbed shoulders with hurlers of all hues.
O'Neill has played in an LIT Fitzgibbon Cup team that included Tony Kelly and was managed by Davy Fitzgerald, a man, he says, who didn't care where you were from as long as you could do the business on the field.
Kildare and 19 other counties - including last year's beaten Christy Ring finalists Kerry, who have since beaten Antrim to earn a place in Division 1B next year - have an early championship start this Saturday.
Kildare start their title defence with a tricky trip to London and one boost for those vying for the Ring, Rackard and Meagher Cups is that TG4 will show all three finals for the first time next month.
Yet it still feels like their competitions are rushed through before the main event starts.
Four rounds will take place over the next four weekends before a week's break ahead of the finals on June 6 and they're not the only ones with a hectic schedule. The first round of Leinster's round-robin preliminary group also takes place this Sunday, at the exact same time as the Allianz HL Division 1 final is live on TV.
Last summer, a week after winning their trophy, Kildare had to play Westmeath for a place in Leinster's round robin this season.
"That came as an awful disappointment," admits the Coill Dubh wing-back.
"We thought the GAA might have re-fixed it or had a look at it. To ask boys to play six weeks in a row is an awful toll on the body.
"We had to celebrate winning the Christy Ring because if we held it off to a week later and lost we'd have had nothing worth celebrating, we'd have been on a downer," he explained. "It was also down in Westmeath so we were fighting an uphill battle from the start."
That play-off, at least, has been scrapped. This year's Christy Ring winners will automatically join Leinster in 2016, a major carrot for the defending champions, but O'Neill, like many colleagues, remains puzzled by the undue haste to get their games out of the way.
"We train the exact same as any other inter-county panel," he stresses. "We set up in October or November, put in all the ground work but then it's all over five or six weeks into the summer, when you're only getting into the good weather, and good ground, for hurling."