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Back to school time for also-rans

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to contribute a piece to the programme for the Kilmacud Crokes All-Ireland Sevens. My brief was to centre on the role colleges hurling plays in the development of younger players.

Obviously, given my day job in St Flannan's, I am reasonably familiar with this scene, but when I did some further research into the last 15 to 20 years, the results made interesting reading, particularly in light of events over the last two weekends.

In the wake of the heavy defeat suffered by their hurlers at the hands of Kilkenny in the first All-Ireland semi-final a fortnight ago, there has been much discussion and analysis in Cork as to the reasons why they have fallen so far behind their Leinster rivals at senior level. The lack of underage success, where they haven't won an All-Ireland minor title since 2001 and an under 21 title since 1998 is obviously one stand-out reason, particularly when you look at Kilkenny's record over the same period.

But something else that knowledgeable hurling people have alluded to as a contributory factor in Cork's demise has been the lack of success in recent times at colleges level. On Newstalk's Off The Ball roadshow in Cork last Monday night, a couple of the texts that came in during the show raised that very point. In my own playing days, Thurles CBS, De La Salle from Waterford, and Limerick CBS were all regarded as strong opponents. But the benchmark for success in Munster invariably came when you found yourself up against Cork opposition.

I have great memories of hard-fought matches against the traditional Cork powerhouses: St Colman's, St Finbarr's Farranferris, North Mon and Midleton CBS. To achieve success, particularly in the Harty Cup, they were the teams you had to beat.

You only have to look at the last Cork team to win the All-Ireland back in 2004 and '05, and the number of players on it who had success through the colleges system, to see the contribution those schools made to hurling in the Rebel County.

Brian Corcoran with Midleton in 1988; Seán óg with the Mon in 1994; Donal óg Cusack, Joe Deane, Mickey O'Connell and Diarmuid O'Sullivan with Midleton in 1995; Timmy McCarthy and Neil Ronan with Colman's in 1996/1997; John Gardiner and Tom Kenny with Farna in 2000 and Brian Murphy with Colman's in 2001 all played in Harty Cup finals and had established themselves as potential stars of the future long before they went on to become household names.

With Farna closing in 2006, and the Mon no longer the power they were, Midleton and Colman's will continue to fly the flag for Cork, but the balance of power in Munster appears to have shifted away from the Rebel County. While it's certainly not the root of all Cork's problems, it's probably a contributory factor, especially when you make a similar comparison with the current Kilkenny side.

Henry Shefflin and Michael Kavanagh in 1996, Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan and Jackie Tyrrell in 2000 (in a side that also included Tipperary's Eoin Kelly), John Tennyson and Michael Rice in 2002, Richie Power and Cha Fitzpatrick in 2003, Paddy and Richie Hogan in 2004, and TJ Reid in 2005 all contested All-Ireland colleges finals with St Kieran's in those years.

When you factor in that Kilkenny CBS and Castlecomer CS have won Leinster colleges titles in the five years it took Kieran's to get back as All-Ireland champions which they did this year, it's no great surprise that Brian Cody has such a steady conveyor belt of talent coming through to pick from.

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One county where the importance of the secondary schools hasn't been lost is Waterford. De La Salle have won Harty and All-Ireland titles in the last four years, Blackwater CS in Lismore, who won the Dean Ryan (under 16 1/2) competition this year, look like becoming a major force and three of the four semi-finalists in the Munster senior B competition this year were Waterford schools.

In that regard, the future mightn't be as bad for Waterford as people think, even if there seemed to be a good deal of disappointment coming out of Croke Park last weekend. Understandably, there's no getting away from the fact that with Dan Shanahan (pictured) announcing his retirement, Tony Browne almost certain to follow, and Ken McGrath likely to be giving serious consideration to it as well, Waterford are losing a calibre of player that's likely to be very hard to replace.

The fact that the Waterford side of the last decade, the most flamboyant, entertaining and enjoyable side I have ever seen, failed to win an All-Ireland is a real shame and one that will leave the aforementioned trio, as well as the likes of John Mullane, Eoin Kelly, Seamus Prendergast, Brick Walsh, Eoin Murphy among others with plenty of regrets, especially given some of the hurling they played when they were at their peak from 2004 to 2007.

While they were often criticised for some of their antics, you couldn't deny that they wore their heart on their sleeve and the character of the team was reflected in the way they played. It's worth remembering too that Waterford have won nine Munster titles in their entire history and there are seven or eight players on the current panel who have won four of them. That's no mean achievement in a county outside the three traditional powers.

In a way, given how much better Tipperary were last weekend, Waterford probably overachieved this year by winning the Munster title. Tipperary had their homework done and won the tactical battle hands down. Their half-backs were content to sit back and let the Waterford half-forwards up the field. As a result, Waterford never really presented much of a scoring threat, never looked like opening Tipperary up and, effectively, John Mullane was ploughing a lone furrow up front.

At the other end, deploying Noel McGrath at centre-forward was a shrewd move, as he has an innate ability to read the game and find space. With McGrath scoring five points from play, and John O'Brien hitting a further six from play -- one more than the total accumulated by the starting Waterford sextet -- and Lar Corbett and Eoin Kelly getting the crucial goals, the Tipp attack looked closer to finding the rhythm and fluency they had last summer than at any other time this season. That it was a much improved defensive display as well was another positive to take into the final in three weeks' time.

So with Cork and Waterford exiting stage left with some rebuilding to do, the two best teams remain. In any championship, that's a desirable outcome and leaves us with much to look forward to.

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