Friday 24 November 2017

Schools help lesser lights to find right combination

YESTERDAY'S All-Ireland colleges A hurling final saw two different galaxies collide: the familiar constellation of St Kieran's College met an illuminating and trailblazing pretender in Ardscoil Rís. Hurling is always crying out for new names and the Limerick school has filled that role admirably, having won an historic first Harty Cup earlier in the season.

The curtain-raiser had the added peculiarity of a hurling team from Kerry fancied to beat a team from Offaly in the Vocational Schools' decider. As with all these novelty acts that hit the big stage, it was not an overnight emergence but the product of hard work, imagination and deep reserves of faith. Widening the hurling base is a constant challenge for the GAA.

St Kieran's College is a big hurling house that can look after itself, home to 50 Leinster colleges A titles; the nearest challenger, St Peter's of Wexford, has eight. The college also leads the All-Ireland roll of honour, ahead of another famous nursery, St Flannan's, who have 13 wins. That the next best is a four-time winner illustrates the unequal distribution of wealth.

Ardscoil Rís has worked hard to make its own way, but others need encouragement and someone to show them how. In Dublin, the combined hurling colleges experiment that began in 1993 has yielded a good return, including two Leinster titles and one All-Ireland. Now better nourished, the city is able to feed north and south colleges teams, and one independent school, Colaiste Eoin, who all compete in A competition. But, more than that, the project has fast-tracked the success of Dublin underage hurling teams, especially at minor level.

Amalgamations may not be everyone's ideal solution, but if they are planned in an imaginative and restrained way, with provisions to sub-divide if they become too dominant, then other schools should have nothing to fear. Take the Westmeath colleges' hurling side that took part in the Leinster A hurling competition for the first time. They finished up with a hiding from Kilkenny CBS but defeated Castlecomer in the league and were also competitive against Birr, while in the championship they defeated Dublin South Colleges, a notable scalp.

A few years ago they reached the Leinster U16-and-half A semi-final, only beaten by St Kieran's after extra-time. A combined schools team like they have in Westmeath is not a simple exercise and takes a lot of work, patience and co-operation, given the logistics of pooling players from different rural schools, but the GAA games manager in the county, Noel Delaney, believes it is massively beneficial and offers the county's hurling people greater hope.

"Up to that there was no school playing A hurling from Westmeath," explains Delaney. "Only one team, Scoil Mhuire (Mullingar), was playing B and the rest were operating at C and some in D. So for those guys to get this level of hurling is very important. At minor hurling level, they can't train till the 1st of March so they are getting quality hurling in December, January and February, during which time there would be very little hurling played otherwise. And you are trying to get up to another level, to the likes of Kilkenny, who would have three or four teams in A level. All these schools are playing at that time of year."

The same has been tried and tested in schools football. Dundalk schools combined forces in the Leinster A football championship in the last decade and won a provincial title in 2002. West Waterford have done the same in the Harty Cup and in Kerry a combined colleges team entered that competition for the first time, centred around the successful Causeway Comprehensive School that has been prominent at underage levels and in the Vocational Schools, beating teams from hurling counties. Kerry Colleges did enough to justify the step, and were only a late goal away from a famous win over De La Salle, twice Croke Cup winners in recent years.

In Ulster, a combined team, though mostly drawing from Antrim schools, faded after a couple of years in the early 1990s. It is not for everybody but the potential is obvious and recent ripples of opposition from some schools towards the idea of merging forces are puzzling to say the least.

"Individual schools may feel it's not fair," comments Delaney, "all I can say is that from a hurling development point of view in Westmeath, it is hugely significant. We are not at a level where they can win a Leinster final or All-Ireland but I'd be disappointed if it came to pass that Westmeath could not compete in A competition. I think that administration needs to look at the bigger picture."

How can you argue with that?

Dermot Crowe

Sunday Independent

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