Monday 20 May 2019

How success of Munster rugby saved Limerick hurling

Ten of probable starting team have come through the county's academy

Limerick’s Kyle Hayes (left), Dan Morrissey and Mike Casey, celebrate after this year’s win over Kilkenny. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Limerick’s Kyle Hayes (left), Dan Morrissey and Mike Casey, celebrate after this year’s win over Kilkenny. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The GAA president John Horan used the platform of his inauguration speech last February to set his sights on the concept of development squads within the Association, citing an elitism that wasn't healthy, he felt, at such a young age.

His intended review might not go down too well in Limerick, however, especially in the context of the progress of the current senior team.

Ten of their likely All-Ireland final starters will have come through a system put in place at the beginning of the decade that has eventually fed into the two All-Ireland U-21 titles in the last three years and now progress to Sunday's final.

It has given the GAA in Limerick something tangible to offer young players whose heads could so easily be turned by the lure of Munster rugby in a city where the provincial franchise is based and enjoys such a strong support.

The rise of Munster rugby throughout the 2000s, that saw them contest four European Cup finals, winning two, and the traditional strength of schoolboys soccer in the city prompted Munster GAA to employ a dedicated hurling coach in Limerick in an effort to improve penetration.

By 2011, according to the five-year Limerick Strategic plan, some 57 per cent of primary school children in Limerick city were playing Gaelic Games as opposed to just eight per cent five years earlier, a remarkable turnaround in such a short space of time.

Munster star Keith Earls whose team paved the way for the hurling breakthrough. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Munster star Keith Earls whose team paved the way for the hurling breakthrough. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"The GAA was a distant third behind Munster rugby and schoolboy soccer in the city," recalls Noel Hartigan, the county's games development administrator and a nephew of former Limerick defensive great Pat Hartigan.

"But a lot of things were happening around that time. There was a big push on clubs to get more active and involved in schools."

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In 2008, the 'Lifting the Treaty' document identified new competition models at underage levels that saw the divisional aspect at the younger ages done away with and the establishment of the academy and a link with University of Limerick was proposed in the 2011-2015 Strategic Plan.

Jerry Wallace, who was with the county senior team when fellow Corkman Donal O'Grady was manager for 2011 and subsequently went to Antrim, was the first director of the Hurling Academy and was involved with Brian Ryan's Munster MHC-winning teams in 2013 and 2014.

In 2012, some of those players, Seán Finn, Cian Lynch and Aaron Gillane among them, were part of a squad that won the All-Ireland U-16 title under the management of former goalkeeper Joe Quaid, essentially the first team to come through the Academy 'system'.

"I would say the system has worked for Limerick," says Quaid. "With young fellas it's hard to know how many come through. From any group you can get three or four lads and then you build a nice conveyor belt.

"We tried to give them the best coaching possible, we took a holistic approach, we took interest in what they did on the field and off the field. We tried to mould them into better people and better players. There are so many distractions nowadays."

Wallace, who returned to the position on a part-time basis last year after being replaced by Anthony Daly for three years in between, believes the Academy has been a useful tool in helping to sway players away from other sports in such a competitive environment as Limerick is.

"Cian Lynch would have been looking to play soccer when I came across him in 2013. He was heading for Kennedy Cups and getting trials. But he sat down, and being who he is, a nephew of Ciarán Carey, there wasn't pressure on but with the academy, its ethos and the way they were going to be looked after as young men, they were able to make up their minds."

Saturday mornings in UL is the main focus of the academy with U-16s out first, followed up the other grades until early afternoon. Apart from possibly one other session during the week for two months in the summer, the young players are with their clubs. The priority has not been success, rather development at a later date, thus good minor teams became winning U-21 teams some years later.

"We have cycles of work in six weeks," says Wallace.

"We might be focusing on winning the ball in the air for one cycle and every session on a Saturday morning will reflect that. The different groups reflect different levels of where we want to be.

"There might be a focus on core skills of hooking and blocking at the younger ages, U-14, and then it would evolve at U-15 and so on.

"We're not very successful at the tournaments at the end of the year but we are competitive and that's all we want to be. That's the key. When you look at the policy document established from day one, it was to give a platform to lead to the performance at a later age."

In that sense their timing has been impeccable.

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