Saturday 18 November 2017

Spreading hurling's appeal beyond the heartlands

Innovative competition will involve teams from every county

Kerry's Mikey Boyle celebrates scoring his side's first goal against Laois Photo: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
Kerry's Mikey Boyle celebrates scoring his side's first goal against Laois Photo: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
John Greene

John Greene

On those rare occasions when hurling produces a shock result there is a tendency to welcome it as a glimpse of what is possible. Viewed through this prism, Kerry's win over Laois last weekend is an endorsement of not just the county's work over the last few years, but of a wider mission to develop hurling and strengthen its footing.

Kerry have clearly been on an upward curve, winning the Christy Ring Cup and earning promotion to Division 1B of the league but, realistically, have they now reached the summit of their ambition? Isn't it more likely that - like others before them - Kerry will sink below the radar again to be replaced, briefly, by another county?

In The Irish Times last Monday, Malachy Clerkin outlined the scale of the challenge facing Kerry: "The hurling pocket of north Kerry is notoriously small. Of the 30-man panel, there is a small knuckle of blow-ins - one a Corkman living in Killarney, another the Clareman Pa Kelly - but otherwise everyone grew up within a four-mile radius of each other. They train in Tralee some of the time but so bad has the weather been over the winter that they spent much of it travelling to the University of Limerick."

This is a scenario repeated all over the country and a few good days in the winter sun won't change that. The real truth is that the current structures of the game are not allowing for proper development of players, at least not outside its traditional areas of strength. A new competition which begins in May has been specifically created as part of a concerted effort to address this problem in a meaningful way.

The competition, known as the Celtic Challenge, is the first initiative arising out of the most recent action plan for hurling, a three-year strategy published last December by the Hurling Development Committee. Yes, there have been other plans but the sense is that this latest one has moved in a different direction, more in keeping with the more recent, and more enlightened, approach in the GAA to player development. So its basic premise - to increase the number of opportunities for people of all ages and in all counties to play hurling - already sets it apart.

And this is where the Celtic Challenge comes in. It is a competition running from May 4 to June 18 for players aged 16 and 17, although anyone doing State exams in June cannot take part. The key to it, however, is that every county is taking part, with the stronger ones entering more than one team divided into regions, including three from Dublin.

The principle behind the tournament is that young players will firstly, stay with the sport if they get the right number of games, and secondly, improve if those games are at regular intervals and if the training they are doing is appropriate to their age and to the number of games they are playing. Teams will be allowed to organise one training session per game during the competition, and two per week - challenge games will count as one session - from March 16.

Speaking at the GAA's recent coaching conference, HDC chairman Paudie O'Neill said that in the current system of minor B and minor C championships, 13 games are played but that this new competition will provide 110 matches and increase the number of players involved in game time from the current level of 240 to 912.

He pointed out that as a developmental competition, and because there will be unusually strict rules around how it is run and how it impacts on club activity in each county, there will be tangible benefits to the needs of each player, to each club, to each county and to the game of hurling.

Among the innovative concepts underpinning the competition are interchange substitutions and so-called 'respect' armbands worn by one player on each team which allows them to communicate with the referee. Each team will also be expected to have a social media manager. Furthermore, the league will have a new scoring system with points on offer for a win or a draw, but also bonus points for scoring two goals or more or finishing within five points of the winning team.

Ulster teams will start their section of the competition in early March because of the different exam schedule, but once the group stages are complete, all the teams will be graded on their performance and assigned to five separate divisions where they will compete against teams of a similar level for a cup.

After so many false starts, this looks like a move in the right direction. "Change is happening all around us and if don't respond and adapt we're dead in the water," said O'Neill at the coaching conference in Croke Park last month.

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