Tuesday 20 February 2018

Hurling to gain from O'Neill's bravery

Historically, it has long been fashionable for incoming GAA presidents to mark out a patch of turf and declare: this is going to be my cause. For Joe McDonagh it was the delicate task of removing Rule 21 from the official guide book and the GAA doing its bit for the peace process. For Seán Kelly, it was the historic opening up of Croke Park, an achievement he wasn't shy in using as a launch pad for election to the European Parliament.

And when Liam O'Neill of Laois assumes the reins in April, a key pillar of his three-year term will be the spread of hurling in weaker counties, a more modest but still hugely ambitious undertaking.

Such a plan isn't ahead of its time, of course. It's nearly 20 years now since Nickey Brennan made his famous Congress speech warning of a dire future for the game and the ruthless manner in which the big three reasserted their dominance over the past decade after the thrilling democracy of the 1990s served as a timely reminder that the hurling was beset by a number of deep underlying issues that needed to be urgently addressed.

Under O'Neill's stewardship of the Hurling Development Committee, the plan was three years in the framing and the sheer wisdom and imagination contained in the proposals makes them worth the wait. Take the Táin League, for example, an inter-county club competition incorporating 13 development counties, a neat idea that solves a couple of thorny problems at one stroke.

O'Neill oversaw a similar initiative in Leinster where they found that such competitions didn't just give club players more structure and more games, but more games away from the hinterland of their own parishes where they tended to play the same clubs with cloying regularity. In counties where there tends to be a limited number of hurling clubs, the Táin will be a godsend.

So too with the mentoring system, loosely based on the American model where successful business people offer guidance to young entrepreneurs. A few years ago, the GPA devised a well-meaning initiative where top hurlers developed links with weaker counties, but unless you can pump serious resources into such schemes and give those involved a clear sense of purpose there's a limit to what you can ultimately achieve.

The quality of those involved is seriously impressive: among them Eamon O'Shea, Paudie Butler, Michael O'Grady, Dermot Healy and Jim Ryan. But it's more than that too. While they have a mandate to work with county boards and implement their own plans and structures, there are still clear guidelines set down and standards they are expected to meet. Mentors are not simply appointed and left to their own devices.

By the criteria laid down, each mentor is expected to visit his appointed county at least six times a year and to report back to the HDC with minutes of their meetings and details of the work they have done. That's not those in Croke Park constantly looking over their shoulders, merely a way to give the process a clear structure that everybody understands and by which progress can be constantly monitored.

That work has been ongoing for several weeks now and the initial anecdotal evidence from counties like Meath and Carlow is that they are already making a difference. Nobody is under any illusion that we are likely to see widescale benefits any time soon, but the hope is that a few green shoots might soon become evident: a Meath under 14 side winning a Leinster title perhaps, a Fermanagh schools team making a little splash in Ulster.

The truly encouraging thing, though, is the simple reality of hurling people not afraid to show vision or make bold statements about where they want the game to be within a certain time frame in the future. That is what the best and bravest sports administrators do. Nobody believed Gary Keegan when he predicted 10 years ago that Ireland would have five boxers at the Beijing Olympics, but that was exactly what happened.

And if it seems widely optimistic that a tier-two county might contest an All-Ireland semi-final within 10 years, then what of it? A decade ago, Michael O'Grady was laughed at when he suggested Dublin could win an All-Ireland hurling title within 10 years, but even that impossible dream seems achievable now. If the right people believe it is possible, then it truly is.

Whatever happens, it's hard to think the game won't emerge all the better for it. O'Neill is surely to be applauded for having the vision and the bravery to push an agenda that isn't likely to win him too many headlines but will do his association a great service long into the future.

Sunday Indo Sport

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