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UCD's success splits Dublin hurling

TO their detractors, UCD are the chameleons and impostors of club hurling. They are the motley crew of academic mercenaries who change jerseys and identities as cirumstances demand and crush the ambitions of real clubs striving for the honour of the parish, town or suburb.

Since they won this year's Dublin hurling championship, the time-worn debate about the rights and wrongs of a college side being allowed compete in the club championship has taken on a fresh impetus. If the Belfield team beat James Stephens of Kilkenny in today's Leinster club final, expect inquests and maybe motions to the Dublin annual convention about limiting UCD's options in future county championships. If they lose, the schadenfreude should fuel clubhouse sessions from St Vincent's in Marino to Crokes in Kilmacud.

Watching on with more interest than most will be Ballyboden St Enda's 2004 hurling manager Paudie O'Neill. His side lost to the college by seven points in the Dublin final. Ballyboden have never won a Dublin championship but have been the coming team in under-age grades over the last five years.

If it hadn't been for a UCD team featuring Stephen Lucey (Limerick), Diarmuid Fitzgerald (Tipperary), Michael Fitzgerald (Cork), Doc O'Connor, John O'Connor, Redmond Barry and Mattie White (Wexford), Brendan Murphy (Offaly), along with Brian Phelan and Bryan Barry (Killkenny), they could have made the breakthrough at senior this year.

"By my calculations UCD used 41 different players in this year's Dublin championship. They lost a couple of games in the league stages of the competition but when it came to the knock-out stages they were able to pull all their big names back again. It's very difficult to compete against those sort of resources. Normal club sides, no matter how good, always have a few guys below the mark, but this year UCD were able to bring in Brian Hogan when Diarmuid Fitzgerald was unavailable. That's how much strength in depth they have."

O'Neill stresses that neither he nor his club want to see UCD barred from club competition in Dublin but he does want a "sophisticated and rigorous debate on the issue.

"There is no spin-off for Dublin hurling from UCD having a winning run in the Leinster and All-Ireland club championship. The notion of guys of the quality of the UCD players playing in two different counties is inequitable."

He contrasts the UCD experience with that of Ballyboden. "This year we had a panel of 26 players, all of them indigenous Dubs and 25 of them came up through our own under-age structures. Ballyboden is a prototype of how hurling is being developed in this part of the city.

"Twenty, twenty-five years ago there was no hurling in this part of the city. The team that took the field in this year's county final were the result of years and thousands of hours of voluntary effort in developing hurling. It can't be right that they are then expected to compete against UCD who are handed 30 top class hurlers on a plate who have been nurtured in the traditional hurling counties."

O'Neill says the UCD players should have to make a decision between playing for the college or their native clubs and he also believes that the college team should be required to name a championship panel at the beginning of the season. Another idea gaining currency among the Dublin clubs is that college sides such as UCD who win county titles should - like divisional sides such as South Kerry and Carberry from Cork - be barred from entering provincial stages of the club championships. Ballyboden and the other big Dublin clubs such as St Vincent's - frequent victims to UCD at U-21 and senior level in recent years - fear that the people behind hurling in UCD have some empire-building in mind.

The college have won seven Dublin titles in a century of opting in and out of the county championship. But in the last five years they taken two senior titles (the 2000 title was the first in 40 years), an U-21 title and reached two more quarter-finals. With the resources at their disposal and the college's rising profile as a centre for hurling excellence, UCD could well be a potentially serious force in Dublin hurling as long as the will is there.

And the recruitment of Babs Keating as coach this season, with Nicky English helping out in an advisory capacity, did nothing to dispel the suspicions of the big Dublin clubs about UCD's ambitions.

Dave Billings, GAA development officer at UCD and the hurling team manager, sounds more bemused than anything else about the fuss surrounding UCD's current success. "This year we were invited to enter the championship and we agreed to enter because of the new format. We lost three games and only beat Cuala by a point to qualify for the next round of the championship."

He says the proposal that the UCD players should have to declare for the college only is unworkable. "It would be unfair to ask the players to declare just for UCD. Everyone knows how tribal the whole GAA way of life is and you couldn't ask players to turn their backs on their native clubs."

But surely that's the point. The club championship is the very essence of the GAA's tribal nature and the presence of a composite team such as UCD is completely at odds with the "one life, one club" ethos of the competition.

Billings, ironically a St Vincent's clubman who played on the Vincent's football team whose monopoly of Dublin football in the 1970s was only broken by Eugene Magee's UCD teams, offers a different perspective.

"We want to compete at the highest level and our role is to spread the gospel of the GAA here in this college. A lot of the lads playing for UCD may never get the chance to play in and win a county championship again. A club is about spirit and the trophies you win."

Try telling that to Tom Feehan, another St Vincent's man. Two weeks ago he was moved to write a leter to a national paper about UCD's participation in the club championship.

"I play for St Vincent's GAA club in Marino. We participated in quite a number of hurling finals during the 1990s and more recently in 2000 when UCD beat us off the park. We also competed in our first SFC final in 2002 since 1985 only to fall to UCD again. It was at this stage, aged 31, that I decided enough was enough.

"It was time to retire because no matter what effort a club puts in, if UCD get organised and decide to 'go for it' it is extremely difficult to compete on the same playing field. Fast forwarding to 2004 I decided to make a comeback. To my utter despair, after beating UCD in the league format of the championship - as most of their stars were down the country playing for their respective clubs - we ended up playing them in the county semi-final and we were playing against a completely different team.

"Needless to say we lost. I am actually going back into retirement now, a lonely voice in the small world of the Dublin hurling community."

It may not be so lonely a voice for much longer regardless of how UCD fare today.

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