Sunday 22 April 2018

Naas nurturing a generation of hurling trail-blazers

Drive and dedication paying dividends for ambitious Kildare club

Naas under 16 hurlers listen attentively to a half-time team talk
Naas under 16 hurlers listen attentively to a half-time team talk

Damian Lawlor

Féilim MacDonncha drove his car through the deserted streets of Naas town, out towards the Sallins Road and stopped off at the GAA club. He walked to the main field and, blocking the early morning October sun from his eyes, peered up at the scoreboard where the result from the day before still read: Kilkenny Under 16 Division One Shield hurling final. Naas 6-12, Ballyhale Shamrocks 0-6.

There was nothing brash about re-checking the scoreline, it was more incredulity that the fruits of 10 years hard labour had finally paid dividends. At training, Naas hurling mentors wear sweatshirts with a logo proclaiming: 'Hurling - it's in our DNA'. And the proclamation rests easy with them.

It wasn't always like this, however. When men like Jim Sheridan, the late Denis Hanley and John Holmes began farming for talent, the terrain was pretty barren. Where they now have 70 youngsters training every Saturday, they struggled to even get 10 during the 1980s. Gaelic football, rugby and soccer all stood ahead of hurling in the commuter town, but Holmes, a former St Vincent's hurler in Dublin, wasn't for standing idly by.

"Back then there were 575 pupils at the local school, St Corban's, and we had to tap into that market," he says.

"The Super Nintendo video game console was massive so we produced a membership card with 10 boxes and got permission to go into the schools. We told the kids, 'if you come to 10 training sessions you get 10 ticks. And anyone with 10 ticks gets entered in a draw for a Super Nintendo.'"

Over the following Saturdays 275 youngsters showed up. Very few had any interest in hurling and most were there for a shot at the Nintendo. Still they were togged and ready.

"We didn't know what to do or how to handle them," Holmes smiles. "But we soon learned."

Gradually, the numbers fell away but a core remained. Holmes, who worked for the Maxol Group, stopped off in Dundalk one day to enquire where he could buy some hurleys to keep the momentum going. He was directed to Kevin Reynolds of NURI sport and introduced to the plastic hurl. With the weather worsening at the time, Holmes brought his new army indoors. They loved it. So much so that, gradually, he began taking calls from irate parents intent on spending their weekends back home in their native counties only to cancel those plans because their children wanted to go hurling training.

"That was another breakthrough, Naas is deep in football heartland so the hurling tradition wouldn't have been here," Holmes continues. "But challenges remained. Even when we got going, youngsters were being asked to choose very early between hurling or football. Many of our best young hurlers would not have progressed further because they were focused on football. That's fair enough.

"So we must build on what we have now. We're dominating underage hurling in Kildare. More importantly we are also developing dedicated lads with a great grá for the game. You can never tell if they will stick with hurling, but there's a better chance they will."

Kildare hurling, if it gets the right help and attention from Croke Park, is a coming force in the game. Leading coach Paudie O'Neill works with them on behalf of the GAA but powering the Lilywhite revolution are those in Naas, men like MacDonncha, Holmes, Austin Bergin, and others working diligently in the background.

Last year was a turning point in their journey. Both of their under 15 teams topped the table and dominated the league to such an extent that there was no final played, nor any meaningful games either. Something had to give.

"The Kildare board knew action was needed and so did we," says juvenile chairman Austin Bergin. "Thankfully they were open to ideas."

In November 2014, Bergin attended the retirement function of his old friend, former Leinster GAA Chief Executive Michael Delaney, who knew all about the fight Naas faced. He referenced Bergin in his farewell speech. "Austin, you have a number of issues at hand in trying to drive the game on in Naas and all the people you need to speak to are here tonight," Delaney said.

Bergin sought out Kilkenny secretary Ned Quinn and floated the possibility of Naas joining the Kilkenny under 16 league. Quinn was enthusiastic and once the paperwork was complete, and approval received from the Kildare board, the wheels turned. The support of their football brethren in Naas was also welcome as 11 dual players are on the current under 16 hurling and football panels.

That night the door also opened for the Naas under 8, 9, 10 and 11 hurling teams to play in the Dublin league. "Things started happening that evening," Bergin says. "Kilkenny really couldn't have been more helpful, so in we went to division one, straight into the lion's den."

They played five games, all in Kilkenny, and won four - against James Stephens, Dicksboro, Erin's Own and Bennettsbridge. They lost heavily to O'Loughlin Gaels but still reached that Duggan Steel Division One Shield final a few weeks back. There was huge novelty attached to making a Kilkenny final but the feelgood factor was enhanced when their opponents, Ballyhale Shamrocks, asked if they could travel to Naas to play the final.

That request gave the Naas hurling fraternity perhaps the biggest day in their history. It was another milestone following a successful year when they reached the semi-final of the All-Ireland Division One Féile na Gael after winning the Division 2 title last season.

Currently, Naas have around 250 hurlers in their nursery and they form the spine of the under 15 and 16 Kildare development squads, both of whom will be with Division One teams next season.

Obstacles remain, however. Ten of the Féile football squad that won the All-Ireland Division One football title recently are hurlers too. And 11 of the current under 16 hurling panel are strong footballers. "Our biggest assets are our dual players and there is great work being done in looking after them," Bergin says. "Without the dual players we are in trouble and if we don't mind them we'll lose them because they're so busy with both codes and Kildare hurling and football development squads too. But the communication between hurling and football is very good at Naas and we have a super relationship with Alan Napier, the juvenile football chairman. We all agree that the lads are our number one priority."

In the last census, there were over 20,000 people living in the town, on the back of a 37 per cent population increase in Co Kildare. Naas has been a favoured choice for young families putting down roots outside of Dublin. With the local economy boosted by the Kerry Group who have set up a €136m research and development division there, the influx will continue. Huge numbers relocate there from Dublin but there are just as many from the midlands and west of Ireland, which makes it difficult to forge a distinct identity.

"But we are a home from home for many people from traditional hurling counties," says Bergin. "People have joined us from Tipp, Cork, Kilkenny, Galway and they were in with us making sandwiches and stewarding the traffic last Saturday. They have made Naas their home and their children are driving us forward.

"The next step is to move up the ladder. Things have not happened for us at adult level yet but that will come, we are not far off. We lost a few games narrowly this year but we won the league. Down the line winning Kildare senior titles and Leinster club championships are targets. That's our vision anyway."

Bergin is asked about the prospect of Kildare one day competing in the Liam MacCarthy championship. Increased funding from the top is required for that but the county has a new manager in Joe Quaid who brings experience and profile after Brian Lawlor's breakthrough years. And Kildare, with its growing population, should surely be seeking a step up.

"I'm not close enough to that level to comment," Bergin says. "But if we start winning county senior titles and competing at Leinster down the line it can't but help them."

For now it's tunnel vision. Naas have applied to take part in the 2016 under 16 Kilkenny league and the gospel continues to be spread - they have played tournaments in 25 different counties this year.

"It's two-fold," he says. "We are developing and also spreading the word that we are a hurling force. Teams from outside are looking to come up here to play us. In the past we'd have to go down to them. But the pride is in seeing lads who couldn't make our under 14 team two years ago out there playing against the best club in the history of hurling last weekend. For most, it was their last day in juvenile hurling and what a way to end that period of their lives."

It will be up to them to take the journey further. Certainly, everything is in place for them.

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