Ultra-competitive colleges’ arena helping Cork’s young guns graduate with honours

The surprise Munster finalists have extensive third-level networks, which Cork especially have built on

Cork’s Conor Lehane, one of ten players in the side who have played for UCC. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

Cork’s Conor Lehane, one of ten players in the side who have played for UCC. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

Sat, Jul 13, 2013, 01:00

Where did Cork and Limerick come from? This year’s Munster hurling final, tomorrow at the Gaelic Grounds, was not the most obvious call before the season began. Even on the basis of what’s been coming through the development systems, the underage achievements of Tipperary and Clare in recent years made them more conventional candidates.

Cork and Limerick contested a thrilling provincial under-21 final, won by Limerick two years ago, but their senior status last May was that of two teams who will spend next spring in Division1B of the hurling league, having lost critical play-offs in April.

There is however another perspective. Cork and Limerick have between them five Fitzgibbon Cup colleges, who have won six of the last nine titles and provided 12 of the 18 most recent finalists.

It is however complicated in relation to the Limerick colleges, which haven’t been noted for the enrolment of local inter-county talent, much as was the case with Waterford IT until the last decade.

Eamonn Cregan, an All-Ireland winner with Limerick as a player and Offaly as a manager, coaches the smallest of the Limerick colleges, Mary Immaculate, who reached their first Fitzgibbon final this year.

“I look at UL and LIT and the number of Limerick players who’ve made the teams is tiny. Of LIT’s three Fitzgibbon (winning) teams Paudie O’Brien and Wayne McNamara are the only ones I remember playing although Paul Browne and Seánie Tobin played on the team that lost to UL in the (2011) final.”

Séamus Hickey hurled for the winning UL team two years ago and when the college lost the 2005 final, current panellist Niall Moran was on the team. So whereas the local Fitzgibbon influence isn’t non-existent, neither is it substantial.

Cregan has a few local players under his wing but just one of those involved tomorrow, albeit the top scorer from the win over Tipperary: “We’ve Declan Hannon and a number of others who aren’t part of the Limerick panel.”

Dominant force
Cork’s team is based on Fitzgibbon hurlers who played for Cork IT and UCC, especially the latter who have been the dominant force in the third-level game over the past two years.

Brian Lohan, Clare’s All-Ireland winning full back, coaches his alma mater, University of Limerick, and references the importance of the UCC contingent who line out with Cork tomorrow.

Anthony Nash was brilliant for UCC last year and couldn’t play this year because of the new restrictions on the number of years a player can compete in third-level. Conor Lehane had a super Fitzgibbon this year; William Egan had a super Fitzgibbon this year and last year. Séamus Harnedy’s been excellent this year.”

Intercounty recognition has broadened those reputations. Lehane’s star has been rising since first appearing for the seniors two years ago and Nash is the current All Star goalkeeper. Harnedy’s championship debut against Clare ended with the Man of the Match citation.

Afterwards, Harnedy paid tribute to former UCC coach Paul O’Connor whose untimely death last year shocked the hurling world and then acknowledged the role of the college in his development, pointing out that 10 of the Cork team had represented UCC (himself, Nash, O’Sullivan, O’Neill, Egan, Kenny, Kearney, Lehane, O’Farrell and Moylan).”

Lehane was an outstanding performer in this year’s Fitzgibbon. According to Tipperary All-Ireland winner Eddie Enright, who succeeded O’Connor and coached UCC to this year’s Fitzgibbon, the Midleton player, who debuted for Cork when still a schoolboy, is now better prepared for championship.

“He was finding it a physically tough battle and attempts have been made to rectify that. He’s now stronger but has maintained his pace with no fall-off in his skill levels.”

Recent times
Another UCC alumnus, Tipperary All-Ireland winning player and manager and Irish Times hurling analyst Nickey English coached UCD in this year’s Fitzgibbon. He says the competition has been crucial for Cork. “They’ve had really no underage success in recent times but they’ve been dominating the Fitzgibbon and the bulk of their best hurlers are all from Cork.”

Lohan identifies the connection between UCC and the county team, as being at the heart of a successful synergy.

“They’ve Ger Cunningham (Cork selector) involved with their Freshers, who have won the All-Ireland for the past two years. He knows the players that are there and the quality they have coming through. UCC are very well organised and down in Cork there doesn’t seem to be the conflicts with the inter-county set-up that are there certainly in the University of Limerick.

“We have a lot of Clare and Galway players and those county managements haven’t facilitated those players who want to play county and Fitzgibbon. Down in Cork it’s the opposite. The management seem to be able to work well together and very successfully.”

It’s hard to understand why county managers would balk at players sharpening their game in the ultra-competitive colleges’ arena. “It’s a great competition from a hurling point of view,” says Enright, a three-in-a-row winner with UCC in the 1990s. “It’s so competitive. Ten teams could have won it. About 80 per cent of inter-county hurlers are going to college because of the jobs situation. Because it’s a standard between club and county it’s a great stepping stone.”

Cregan remembers a tableau from earlier in the season. “We played UCC and I was looking at Conor Lehane and his hurling style – he’s an absolutely fabulous hurler – and beside him for a moment Declan Hannon, another of the best young players in the game. Now I’m about to see them again, this time at the very highest level, a Munster hurling final.”