Steep climb ahead for the ‘Hurling Six’

Another initiative aimed at improving the state of hurling in a number of counties was recently launched by the GAA. This initiative is not new, but this time an ambitious target has been set whereby at least one of the six participating counties would reach either a senior hurling championship quarter-final or semi-final within 10 years, writes Nickey Brennan.

Another initiative aimed at improving the state of hurling in a number of counties was recently launched by the GAA. This initiative is not new, but this time an ambitious target has been set whereby at least one of the six participating counties would reach either a senior hurling championship quarter-final or semi-final within 10 years, writes Nickey Brennan.

The six counties selected to participate in the project are Antrim, Down, Kerry, Westmeath, Carlow and Laois. Judging by the performances of each of the six counties over recent years, significant work lies ahead if that target is to be achieved.

This latest initiative is the brainchild of GAA President Liam O’Neill. One of his primary aims during his Presidency is to see one of those counties make significant progress against the more established hurling sides.

It is a laudable initiative. I hope it succeeds. But aside from the support which the initiative will receive from central and provincial units, real progress will only be made if the counties adopt the right attitude.

In a number of instances local club rivalries often take precedence over the ambitions of the inter-county team. A seismic change in attitude from both the players and administrators will be necessary if any of the six are to attain the ultimate goal of a quarter-final or semi-final appearance.

Only counties with a firm focus on attaining that goal, and who understand and appreciate the sacrifices that will have to be made, have any hope of matching the standards set by the top couple of hurling counties.

Dublin an example to all

The best example of a successful hurling development initiative in recent years is Dublin. Of course the funding received from the Government of Bertie Ahern helped, but the success which has been achieved to date is ultimately down to a well-structured and successful coaching programme around the county.

Plenty of hard work was put in on the ground in clubs, and with Development Squads, but most importantly the enthusiasm and effort from many dedicated hurling men and women was the key to the upswing in Dublin’s hurling fortunes.

Each of the six counties has specific challenges. Antrim is currently the home county of the All-Ireland club champions, Loughiel Shamrocks, so on that basis alone they are well-equipped to deliver on the initiative’s primary objective.

Loughiel are intent on retaining the club title, and that could see their players absent from the inter-county scene, perhaps all through the league. New manager Kevin Ryan has then to reshuffle his side to accommodate the Loughiel players for the championship.

Such a scenario would not be a problem in Kilkenny, but it might not do much for the team spirit in Antrim.

Right now the height of Down’s ambitions is to win the Christy Ring Cup. They have come close on a number of occasions, and their ambitions for 2013 were recently signalled with the appointment of Waterford’s Paul Flynn as coach.

With only three senior hurling clubs operating in the Ards peninsula it is going to be extremely difficult for Down to consistently match the standards in the top counties.

Of the six counties included in this GAA’s initiative, Carlow has been the most consistent performers of late. Incoming manager John Meyler will be hoping he can lift Carlow to a new level. The big question is whether the Carlow players have the same ambitions.

The Kerry senior hurling champions, Ballyduff reached the Muster intermediate cub final last weekend, proving that the Kingdom has plenty of decent hurlers.

Patchy performances

Performances though have been patchy in recent years and John Meyler clearly felt he had brought the side as far as he could. Clareman Tom Howard now picks up the baton from Meyler, but like Down, the Kerrymen’s primary ambition is success in the Christy Ring Cup.

Westmeath made good progress this year with a Division 2 final loss to Carlow in Nowlan Park the low point. Galway man Brian Hanley has developed a good rapport with his players and he will be looking for further improvements in 2013.

Finally there is Laois, the home county of the GAA President. The state of Laois hurling has always been close to Liam O’Neill’s heart and nothing would please him more than to see the fortunes of his native county improve.

The past two years have been a forgettable time for the O’Moore County. Championship performances were appalling with heavy championship defeats during both years. That period also saw the departure of two team managers but most disappointing of all it saw many Laois hurlers display unacceptable apathy towards their county side.

Laois has yet to appoint a team manager. The recent effort to get a more positive response from the players was disappointing. Ironically, of the six counties Laois is probably best equipped to achieve the objective of reaching a quarter-final or semi-final.

There is a strong hurling base in Laois, but the small ball fraternity in the county appears to have lost hope and ambition. If the attitude of clubs and players were to change and everyone was focused in the same direction then the O’Moore county has some chance of regaining a position close to the top table.