Wednesday 21 February 2018

Ulster combination must be worth shot at minor level

Hurling will benefit if northern teams are more competitive, says Damian Lawlor

Damian Lawlor

THERE is little chance that a combined Ulster team will compete for the Liam MacCarthy Cup any time soon, as suggested by Dónal óg Cusack last weekend.

There is, though, an alternative to Cusack's proposal, which might not polarise opinion quite as much.

A few weeks ago, the GAA's Higher Education Authority decided to terminate all combined colleges participation in the All-Ireland Colleges 'A' championship. This put paid to the combined Ulster team after just one season together.

It seems the Ulster team suffered simply because the combined colleges template had been so successful for Dungarvan and Waterford schools in general. So successful, in fact, that it annoyed other schools. To level the playing field, the GAA opted to put it to bed altogether but they should have left the Ulster team alone.

This season excepted, northern schools have more or less owned the All-Ireland 'B' competition in recent years, with St Mary's, Belfast, St Patrick's, Maghera and Cross and Passion, Ballycastle lifting five of the last six O'Keefe Cups between them. It has done little to lift Ulster's standards at inter-county level, however.

The colleges' 'A' merger model, though, gave Ulster schools a chance to be truly competitive. To prepare for the competition, they played teams like the Tipperary minors and put it up to them. They only lost the All-Ireland quarter-final to Mercy College, Galway, when Shane Caulfield hit the winning point from midfield to put the westerners through.

A squad of 38 was drafted from several schools and they surely deserved another chance to stay together and play in the 2014 championships.

If there really is a will to see Ulster hurling combine and thrive there are two paths forward. The first is to revisit the concept of Ulster Colleges and let them strive to improve as a unit. The second is to form a combined Ulster minor team to compete in the All-Ireland championships.

Nothing of such a nature is going to happen at senior level in the next 10 years, so why not put the structures in place at underage and schools level and see how the concept gels?

If it's a success, then try it at senior level. If not, then go back to the tokenism; you know, give them a few bob; send them up a few high-profile hurlers to train a team. Maybe even take a few pictures of those players arriving by helicopter, or something.

Almost 16 years ago, All-Ireland minor quarter-finals were played for the first time. Antrim have represented Ulster since then on all bar two occasions when Derry and Down were instead sent into the lions' den.

The results have been absolutely horrific – 16 games and 16 losses. The smallest defeat came when Antrim ran Limerick to a point in 2005 but the biggest setback was in 2011 when Galway trod on them by 38 points. The average defeat in those 16 years is 16 points. We can continue with this nonsense, or we can try a combined Ulster team at this level.

People will argue that if you take this route you lose county pride. But the scale of the defeats is persuasive. Indeed, you might see greater pride from a combined team that can compete.

Critics will maintain that players who don't make the panel will not develop, but they won't develop much on the back of annual hammerings either.

The naysayers might also suggest we are belittling their provincial competition. But the teams are doing that themselves with their capitulations once they get out of Ulster. This system would surely inspire them to play for their province. What's to lose?

Dónal óg Cusack's suggestion was well thought-out, but it won't see the light of day any time soon. So try it out at minor level. See if it works. If you do what you have always done, then you will get what you have always got.

Irish Independent

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