First Fitzgibbon final a big reward for DCU's approach to small ball
Historic recognition is already assured for DCU's hurlers even before a ball is struck in next Saturday's Fitzgibbon Cup final against University of Limerick. A comfortable win over DIT in Parnell Park last Tuesday, following their thrilling victory over holders, Mary I, in the previous round, earned them a place in the final for the first time.
According to the bookmakers they haven't great prospects against a UL side littered with star names. They defeated UL in an historic first Freshers All-Ireland success a year ago under the guidance of Eoin Roche, a Limerick native who has since transferred his talents to the DCU senior side. In no time at all DCU has become a force in Fitzgibbon hurling, a college previously acclaimed for winning the Sigerson Cup four times since 2006.
At the turn of the decade DCU were nowhere near that orbit. In 2010 they reached a Ryan Cup final, higher education hurling's second tier, losing to Carlow IT to a last-minute goal. On the same day they also lost the services of a still relatively unknown Walter Walsh due to an inter-provincial rugby commitment elsewhere. Both Walter and DCU have come a long way since then. On moving up to Fitzgibbon grade in 2011 they took time to acclimatise to the higher altitude, waiting until 2015 to experience their first win.
Last year they made noticeable progress in qualifying from the group stages before losing to UCC in the last eight at the Mardyke. They have big names like Waterford's Patrick Curran in attack and Paudie Foley of Wexford in defence, and a sprinkling of hurlers from Kilkenny, but they are backboned by hurlers from Dublin clubs. The city's influence on Fitzgibbon hurling, which was virtually non-existent ten years ago, is now deeply embedded.
Crumlin's Paul O'Brien, previously a manager of the DCU team, became DCU's first games development officer in 2013, with special emphasis on hurling, camogie and handball. He has been with Dublin minor hurlers in the past and is the current manager of the county under 21s. "I suppose Michael Kennedy (director of DCU's Gaelic games academy) would have put a fair amount of structure in place and support - to enable me to focus on the hurling and drive it, giving a lot of the same support that the football had got," says O'Brien.
"There is a myriad of things. The addition of the two floodlit pitches over the last three years has made a phenomenal difference. The incorporation of St Pat's (teaching training college) has made a difference. The strength of Dublin northside clubs in providing players between 18 and 22 is also a big factor. For a lot of years before that it would have been the southside that was very strong."
Na Fianna, Whitehall Colmcille and St Vincent's, clubs within close proximity of the Glasnevin-based college, provide several players on the current team, including Eoghan O'Donnell, Donal Burke and Rian McBride.
"We put a focus on developing links at Leinster school level," explains O'Brien. "We worked with the likes of St Kieran's and St Peter's, and we have players who went to those colleges on the panel. The Munster colleges have dominated the competition for so long and it is about creating a strong hurling academy where hurlers from Kilkenny, Wexford, Dublin and Westmeath and other Leinster counties are getting the opportunity to play."
Irrespective of what happens next Saturday, O'Brien says DCU are here to stay. "I wouldn't envisage DCU getting to a final this year to be just a blip, I would expect us to be at the latter end of the competition going forward. We have gone from a ground-up perspective. We haven't a single post-grad on our panel. Every single player is an under-grad student."
O'Brien recognises the benefits of a vibrant college sector. "It creates a culture of hurling all year round at a high level. With the Fitzgibbon final against UL, like how many chances are guys going get to play against the likes of Tony Kelly, John McGrath and Jason Forde? You might get the chance once a year."
UL pose a huge test for the newcomers. "We would be very much up against it but that said it is the level we want to be at," says O'Brien. "We want to be competing against UL. I have seen them hurl twice this year. They are good and they are operating at a high level and for all the stars they have on paper they are very much a team, they are lads playing for each other which isn't always the case. But we have a good set of players, I wouldn't fear them. We are looking forward to the game."
Fitzgibbon Cup final, UL v DCU Mallow, Saturday February 24, 3.0
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