Fightback on for Limerick hurling
GAELIC GAMES has broadened its base among Limerick city schoolchildren by a massive 750pc over the last five years, allaying fears in the GAA that the mid-west's largest population zone would become totally dominated by rugby and soccer.
A 2006 survey showed that the penetration levels for Gaelic games among Limerick schoolchildren had dipped as low as 8pc but a similar exercise last year indicated that figures had zoomed to 57pc.
"By now, I'd be confident that penetration levels are over 60pc," said Limerick county chairman Liam Lenihan. "A lot of work has gone into it and there's more to come. If you drive around Limerick city now, you'll see lots of young lads with hurleys in their hands. Rugby is doing a great PR job but hurling has fought back and will continue to do so."
With peace long since restored to Limerick's senior GAA scene after the 'civil war' of 2009/10, the U-21s ensconced as Munster champions, Ardscoil Ris having won two successive Dr Harty Cup colleges titles and Na Piarsaigh bidding to win the AIB Munster senior club title on Sunday, hurling is enjoying a long-awaited revival on Shannonside.
It's a vastly different world to the one occupied by Limerick two years ago, when the the row over Justin McCarthy's dropping of several players from the senior panel spilled into 2010, a season where Limerick were represented by a second-string outfit.
However, while that bitter dispute, which all but paralysed Limerick at senior level for a whole season, was raging, much good work was going on behind the scenes.
Co-ordinated by the County Board and driven by figures such as Pat Culhane, the hurling development administrator for Limerick city, and Noel Hartigan, county games development manager, the target was to provide coaching for as many children as possible.
"We started a school-club link some years ago whereby the clubs would identify a qualified person to go into the primary schools to coach kids. It's no use having hurling in the schools unless there's a direct link into the clubs. It has gone very well and has led to a huge increase in the number of schoolchildren playing hurling. It's not headline-grabbing stuff but it's working," said Lenihan.
Current county hurling star Gavin O'Mahoney (pictured below) and Ger Downes were appointed as GAA development officers which, according to Lenihan, has been another important plank in underpinning Limerick's development. However, the big test comes when youngsters decide which sports they will pursue into their teenage years and beyond.
"They will play anything and everything up to the age of 10 or 12 but after that they are going to stay with whoever runs the best show. Obviously, rugby is very strong in Limerick right now, as is junior soccer, but we're confident that the GAA can more than compete with them. It's a work in progress but it's being taken on with great energy and enthusiasm by clubs and the teachers who are doing brilliant work in our schools," he said.
Limerick's success in this year's Munster U-21 championship -- highlighted by a win over Cork after extra-time in an epic final -- was a huge boost to hurling in the county, as were the 2010-11 Dr Harty Cup wins by Ardscoil Ris.
"The U-21 final was shown live on TV and the day afterwards you could see more young lads than usual playing hurling. That's what good exposure can do for the game," said Lenihan.
Last Sunday, Effin won the Munster intermediate title and next Sunday, Na Piarsaigh, who won the county title for the first time this year, are bidding to crown a historic double by adding the Munster senior title when they play Crusheen (Clare) in the final in Thurles.
Na Piarsaigh have made phenomenal development, with their seniors now the club's poster boys after making the county championship breakthrough. The future looks secure too as Na Piarsaigh are also dominating at underage level.
"Go down to Na Piarsaigh on an evening they're not training and you'll see lads like Kevin Downes (who captained the county U-21s to Munster glory and enjoyed a great debut season in the senior ranks) and Shane Dowling (who, at 18 years old, scored 1-10 in the county final against Ahane and 1-4 against Ballygunner in the Munster semi-final) pucking the ball around like fellas did in rural Ireland years ago," said Lenihan. "If Na Piarsaigh win the Munster title on Sunday it will be another huge boost for Limerick hurling in the city and beyond."
At senior county level, John Allen has replaced Donal O'Grady as manager as Limerick attempt to build on the progress of this year. The draw hasn't been kind to Limerick, however, pitting them against Tipperary in Thurles in the first round of the Munster championship.
Indeed, the odds seem stacked against them winning their first game in Munster since 2007, but with the entire county feeling so much better about itself than it did a few years ago, they will travel with real optimism.
"At long last, Limerick hurling is a good news story and hopefully it will get even better," said Lenihan. "It certainly won't be for the want of trying."