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Old order under threat in new colleges landscape

A s a spate of GAA autobiographies hit the shelves, most carry a mention of time spent playing colleges hurling or football. But while reminiscing about great schools and the legends they produced, it is difficult to ignore the fact that the success of the traditional nurseries is dwindling fast.

The Dr Harty Cup is arguably the most recognised colleges competition in the country and men who have gone on to win the highest honours in the game will still reference a winner's medal.

St Flannan's College in Ennis have won the Dr Harty Cup 21 times -- more than any other school -- but the last five years have seen a changing of the guard. This year, for the first time in the school's history, Limerick's Ard Scoil Rís claimed the Harty Cup, Thurles CBS were champions last year and De La Salle Waterford won back-to-back titles in 2007 and '08 having never won before.

The hurling production line at St Flannan's has slowed for a number of reasons. Firstly, its boarding facility closed five years ago, meaning they no longer attract young hurling stars from surrounding counties.

Another factor is that sending children to a Diocesan school is no longer as big a priority for parents. St Flannan's benefited greatly from this practice as the diocese of Killaloe stretched into Tipperary and Offaly and netted many of their talented hurlers, such as Len Gaynor, Joe McKenna and, in more recent times, Shane McGrath (pictured).

Clare isn't the only county affected by the changing times. Many of Cork's best known faces from the last two decades came through their schools system and played in Harty Cup finals along the way.

Brian Corcoran with Midleton in 1988; Seán óg ó hAilpín with North Monastery in 1994; Donal óg Cusack, Joe Deane, Mickey O'Connell and Diarmuid O'Sullivan with Midleton in 1995; Timmy McCarthy and Neil Ronan with St Colman's in 1996/'97; John Gardiner and Tom Kenny with Farna in 2000.

They were already established hurlers before they broke onto the inter-county scene. They knew what it took to be successful long before they became household names. But this tradition of success in Cork has waned too. The Mon, ó hAilpín's former school, hasn't won a Harty Cup in 16 years, St Colman's last victory was in 1994 and while Midleton won four years ago, they had to endure a 16-year wait from their previous success.

In Leinster hurling, St Kieran's of Kilkenny have been the most dominant school with 50 provincial titles to their credit. They have also won 17 Dr Croke Cups, four more than St Flannan's.

Not surprisingly, St Kieran's have contributed greatly to the success of the current Kilkenny team. In 1996, Henry Shefflin and Michael Kavanagh came of age there, Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan and Jackie Tyrrell were part of the team in 2000, 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.

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Those players, like the Cork group, all contested provincial colleges finals with their school.

Although St Kieran's are the current Leinster Colleges and Dr Croke Cup champions, there was a five-year gap to their last success. Unlike in Cork though, it wasn't a cause for concern for those in charge of the senior county team. During those five years, Castlecomer and Kilkenny CBS rose to the top and kept the Cup in Kilkenny.

As with most things when it comes to hurling, however, Kilkenny are an exception. The county board, to its credit, takes a hugely hands-on role in promoting the sport in the key secondary schools and this has been a key factor.

In football, St Jarlath's of Tuam are the most successful team in Hogan Cup history with 12 titles. It's always been a school associated with Galway football but historically it has also had Mayo within its catchment area. Until recently, St Jarlath's was exclusively a boarding school, but as the demand for this service declined it took on day students. Last year the school shut its doors to boarders completely, but this can't be seen as the only reason for their decline in colleges football, as it's been eight years since they last won a title.

The introduction of free education in 1967 saw the growth of new community schools. This had a direct effect on boarding schools around the country as there was no need to send children away when establishments were opening up in close proximity to most towns and villages. St Jarlath's is just one of a list of traditional football schools which are failing on the football field as a result of a decrease in student numbers. St Mel's of Longford, Coláiste Chríost Rí of Cork and St Patrick's College, Maghera have all struggled to make their mark in recent times.

Even St Colman's of Newry, ranked second in the Hogan Cup roll of honour with seven victories, struggled for a period. They might be current champions but it took 12 years for them to regain the trophy having last won it in 1998.

During that time, big community schools with increased student numbers due to growing populations in towns have impacted on the competition. St Pat's of Navan claimed the Hogan Cup on three occasions in the early 2000s and last year Coláiste na Sceilge in Kerry won for the first time.

The new colleges season is already under way and there is no reason to think that the trend will change: the gulf between the old and the new is widening.