A MAJOR initiative designed to improve standards in some of hurling's weaker counties to a level which would see them qualify for an All-Ireland quarter-final or semi-final inside 10 years has been launched by the GAA.
Six counties -- Laois, Carlow, Westmeath, Antrim, Down and Kerry -- have been targeted for the project, which the GAA hopes will lead to considerable progress being made over the coming years.
President Liam O'Neill, director general Paraic Duffy, director of games development Pat Daly and hurling development committee chairman Tommy Lanigan met senior officials from the six designated counties on Tuesday night to start the process.
"They have gone back to their counties to assess the needs and when that's done they will put a plan before us," said O'Neill.
"We will help in every way we can. The process of building up counties has to start somewhere and we believe the six we have chosen are ideal candidates for the programme."
The GAA's national hurling and camogie development centre in Waterford IT will play a big role in advancing a plan, which aims to have as many as possible of those six counties seriously competitive at All-Ireland level inside the next decade.
A broadly similar initiative was launched for Dublin after the Strategic Review Committee report in 2002, yielding good results.
"Dublin reached All-Ireland quarter-finals and semi-finals inside 10 years. I know people will say it's very ambitious to take on six counties and talk of having them in All-Ireland quarter-finals and semi-finals, but even if we get one of them there it will be a success," said O'Neill.
"This is not pie-in-the-sky. The counties will be resourced within a well-structured plan and after that it's a question of putting in the hard work."
O'Neill accepts that, as standards continue to rise at the top level, it's getting increasingly difficult to bridge the various gaps further down the line, but he says it can be done.
"Look at where Galway were in the 1950s and 1960s, who'd have thought back then that they would win an All-Ireland title in 1980 and be a major force ever since?"
The six counties involved are starting from various base levels. Laois, Westmeath, Carlow and Antrim all competed in the Leinster championship this year, while Kerry and Down played for the Christy Ring Cup.
Traditionally, Laois and Antrim would be regarded as the strongest of the six, but both had bad experiences this year.
After beating Carlow, Laois lost heavily to Dublin and Limerick, while Antrim were beaten narrowly by Westmeath before losing by 26 points to Limerick.