The Institute of Technology Carlow will host a Fitzgibbon Cup hurling clash tomorrow (Thursday) which, three years ago, neither its significance nor substance would have been countenanced.
The home team, managed by DJ Carey and coached by county selector Michael Dempsey, take on the modern day kingpins of the competition, the reigning champions Waterford IT.
Waterford also have their own Kilkenny connections - coached by Patrick O’Flynn with Alan Roche of Young Irelands as a selector. So even though both sides are not based in the county, their managements have strong local connections.
Add to that over a dozen Kilkenny players between both panels - including six times All-Ireland medal winner Aidan Fogarty on the Carlow side - and you can see how this game (throw-in 7pm) has all the hallmarks of a cracker.
Since bursting on to the scene in 1992 Waterford IT, the defending champions, have won eight titles. Kilkenny players have featured prominently in their ranks - Henry Shefflin, J.J. Delaney among them - and they are managed by former Tipperary hurler Colm Bonnar, who also is coaching Ballyhale Shamrocks as they target an All-Ireland club final.
Waterford’s pedigree and progress is well-documented - but what about Carlow?
A team that has come from nowhere? On the face of it, you could say they have got a good bunch of players together at the right time. But that would not only be flippant, but wrong.
The Institute of Technology in Carlow is very different than when Waterford won their first Fitzgibbon. The facilities, the back up for all sports, are at the very top of their game.
The appointment of Michael Dempsey to the college, with Leinster GAA really backing and promoting the game there, has been the key factor in Carlow’s rise. Their hurlers are only playing Fitzgibbon hurling for their third season. Last year, they won the Freshers league. This year, they defeated UCC in the league equivalent of the Fitzgibbon Cup - a warm-up for the championship.
The victory over Ger Cunningham’s UCC , 3-21 to 1-18 in Dungarvan, with the aid of two Chris Bolger goals, has made the country sit up and take notice of Carlow’s progress.
And none more so than Waterford. It is, after all, a South East derby!
This is D.J. Carey’s second year as manager of the team. He remembers the disappointment of last year, when they lost to Waterford. As a hurler, he never lined out in Fitzgibbon Cup, but you get more than the impression he would have loved to.
“The standard is very, very good at this level,” he said. “What I like about it is the camaraderie, the coming together of players from different counties, different clubs. There are no politics; these players are living with each other, socialise with each other, all part of the one panel.
“We have Kilkenny players on the panel, but there are players here from counties which wouldn’t have as good a tradition - from Meath, Kildare, Kerry, players who are developing their own game and are very much key members of the team,” he added.
“To be playing Fitzgibbon requires massive personal commitment and they give it.
“Carlow IT has changed so much from my playing days,” Carey continued. “I’d drive in now and you wouldn’t recognise it.
“The facilities here are exceptional. It’s great for hurling, and great for rugby, soccer. There is a super gymnasium and the back-up service from physios and others is top class. And they are all doing courses on their doorstep here in Carlow.
“There are no excuses, everyone knows everyone - if you’re unwell or have an injury, we have the back-up here. Everyone knows where they stand.”
Supporters who look at the match reports of Fitzgibbon Cup games immediately turn to county players. Both sides who will line out tomorrow have quite a few, though for Waterford marquee names like Austin Gleeson and Padraig O’Mahoney are struggling with injury and have been out for two weeks.
However, a county panel place does not necessarily bring special treatment from Carey.
“Fellas might go on to county panels at this time of year, but it doesn’t matter with team selection. We have a spirit here which is important. Performances for us determines who is on the team. You can’t make presumptions that because you’re called in for the county team that you’re on our team.”
Carey has managed his own club Young Irelands (Gowran), but this job is different. And he knows it.
“I expect players to come in here fit, prepared, ready to play with good skills,” he said. “What I bring is knowledge, create a spirit, try and up their intensity.
At training Carey focuses a lot on the defensive aspect of the game. It’s remarkable to hear one of the most gifted forwards the game ever produced, urging corner-backs to hound and harry.
“I always look at it that your job is to get the ball. If you don’t have it, don’t let your man get it. And if he does have it, well then win it back. That’s the philosophy and defence starts from the corner forward back.
“From one to 15, players have to stand up and be counted. You can do things that look very good, but that may not be effective. It’s simple really but once our forwards get possession, every one of them should be able to score. Everyone of them on the panel should win their own ball and score.
“In recent years, Kilkenny have put such an emphasis on first touch you can see it in them,” he added. “They are so good, they have set that template from an early age, first touch against a wall, first touch in training.
“Kilkenny hurlers are just exceptional at it. I remember training with Willie O’Connor and if you’re first touch was out, he’d really let you know. But wanting to get that first touch, and get possession has changed the game. Players wanting a second or third touch, not on at all. And when the ball hits the ground the variety is gone, players stay trying to get possession, rather than moving it.
“That’s the big change in the game, players gathering around all trying for possession without a quick first time ball. I’m not much into tactics - this third man midfield is not something I’d be interested in. It’s 15 on 15, and I believe you must keep backs guessing , keep them wondering where the threat is. And first touch, letting the ball go first time, is important.”
The nature of this competition means that before Christmas, neither team would have had their strongest side out. It changes in both preparation and performance from now on, with four teams fighting it out for qualification from one group.
If there was a surprise element to Carlow, that’s well and truly gone. Their league form has labelled them as one of the forerunners to win the competition.
“There’s no bones about it, the game has gone way faster and better,” said Carey. “I have that slight negative about first time hurling and I suppose in my day, players had more time on the ball, and could do a clever thing with it. Nowadays the level of coaching is really something else. We owed a lot to our teachers up along, but the organisation at present is incredible. We would never had had someone like Briain Ryan calling to the school, an outside person coming to coach us for example.”
Waterford, with the aforementioned management and their injuries they have to contend it, will nevertheless relish the trip to Carlow.
“We’re not as far down the road as we were this time last year,” said coach Patrick O’Flynn, who noted that Carlow were one of the teams that “took them asunder” in a fruitless league campaign.
But Patrick, Waterford and indeed the entire hurling community noted the defeat of UCC in the league final. “There’s a reason why Carlow would be the favourites, they have made tremendous progress and have some of the top young hurlers in the country.”
Carlow IT’s local talent features the aforementioned Aidan Fogarty (Emeralds), who has returned to college to complete his electronics degree along with Barrow Rangers duo Ciaran Doyle and Edward Prendergast, Chris Bolger of Clara, James Gannon from St Patrick’s and Shane Norton, a clubmate of Fogarty’s.
Apart from the men on the line, among the Kilkenny talent on the Waterford team are Ger Teehan from Graigue-Ballycallan, Owen McGrath from John Lockes, Johnny Hayes of Kilmacow, Jack Langton of Clara, Brian Ryan from St Martin’s and Philip Campion from St Lachtain’s.
Of course there are more than Kilkenny players on show - Stephen Maher, who helped Laois beat Wexford in the Walsh Cup last weekend - is likely to feature for Carlow, while Jake Dillon of Waterford is one to watch also.
If the game goes down to the tradition, well then Waterford have it and will draw first blood in a tight group stage of four teams. If it goes on recent form then it’s Carlow’s, particularly when you add in home advantage.
And if it’s to be won on the line, you can only see one winner - the home team.
Whatever the outcome, and you’re probably neutral, on the matter of the outcome, this encounter has all the ingredients of a game worth watching.