School sports are big business. When parents choose where to send their children, schools with a reputation for sporting prowess will catch their attention. More importantly, however, schools play a major role in helping to develop future athletic talent for both amateur and professional games.
Kilkenny has won eight of the past 10 All-Ireland men’s senior hurling championships. Is the secret of the Cats’ success locked away in the county’s boys’ schools or should the credit go to local clubs?
St Kieran's College in Kilkenny has long dominated schoolboy hurling, having won 20 All-Ireland senior colleges and 53 Leinster senior college titles.
In 2009, when Kilkenny won a historic fourth consecutive All-Ireland senior hurling title at Croke Park, 15 of its players were past pupils of St Kieran’s.
Lester Ryan, a 26-year-old teacher at the school, is the captain of Kilkenny's senior men's hurling team and a hurling coach at the school. He is also a past pupil. "My relatives had gone to school in Kieran's, which was a factor in me coming here, but the strength of hurling here was a big draw as well," says Ryan. "That said, strong hurlers at this school didn't pick up a hurl in first year; they were already playing the game in primary school."
Ryan is keen to emphasise that the school isn’t all about fawning over the best players, and that there are many other options for boys who do not join in with Kilkenny’s obsession (the school was also all-Ireland schoolboy soccer champion in 2009).
"We have four hurling teams at under-16 level and a high transfer rate to Kilkenny intercounty teams, all of which have boys who may not have made the school's A team," he says. "We are not a training academy for the Kilkenny senior team, and we are not looking to shove people on to the panel as they leave the school. We just want to nurture and grow whatever talents they have. Whatever their skill level, the coaches here just hope that all of the players will improve under us."
Last year, Kilkenny’s GAA secretary expressed concern about the hurling dominance of a small number of schools, saying that smaller schools were struggling to field high-level teams.
However, Ryan says that, in recent years, the standard of school hurling has improved across the county. “There’s not just us, but also CBS, St Canice’s and Johnstown schools. And you can see the difference it is making to the county game.”
Some other schools, such as Castlecomer, have been improving in recent years. Just down the road from St Kieran’s, a virtual war cabinet has been assembled at rival hurling school CBS Kilkenny, where at least five coaches and the school principal are investing considerable energy and resources into developing their game. Out of a staff of 50, 19 teachers are directly involved in the school’s hurling.
Niall Tyrrell, a teacher at CBS, is one of the coaches. “The schools have a huge part to play. We have nearly 300 students playing hurling here and students on the under-21 team, and we strive to ensure that every student who wants to play hurling gets a chance to do so. Schools hurling is the shop window for underage hurling in Kilkenny, and of course that has an impact on the strength of the county’s senior team.”
Like Ryan, Tyrrell says the formative years of a hurler’s career begin in primary school. Ryan and Tyrrell also say that local clubs and schools play important roles in identifying future talent, particularly where a local club might not be as strong and a very talented player might be identified through their school.
The county board has development squads for youth teams at A, B and C levels, and there is close co-operation between the schools and clubs when it comes to coaching. This all suggests that Kilkenny's success is not happening by accident.
“We focus on strength, conditioning, diet, nutrition and functional movement, so that the fellas are ready and more adaptable to meet the demands of the game,” says Tyrrell.
“This doesn’t mean that academics or other sports are neglected. Far from it. We’ve carried out research in the school which shows that students who are involved in sports tend to have a higher level of academic achievement.”
This is not wishful thinking on Tyrrell's part. There's good data, much of which is based on research conducted by Ireland's leading sports scientist, DCU professor Niall Moyna, which supports a link between exercise, sport and academic success – not to mention, of course, good health.
THE CRICKET GOLD RUSH: AN UNLIKELY SUCCESS STORY
Ireland’s success in cricket is growing all the time, and in many way this is due to a strong schools development network.
Since the 1990s the women’s team, which is amateur, has had major international success. In 2007, the professional men’s team surprised everyone by knocking Pakistan out of the group stages of the Cricket World Cup. It was no fluke, and Ireland’s cricket team have continued to impress ever since.
But who plays cricket? You might think it’s the preserve of a small number of fee-paying schools. You would be wrong. In fact, one of the powerhouses of Irish cricket is Rush in north Co Dublin, far removed from any private schools.
The origins of the sport in this part of Dublin date back to before the foundation of the GAA, when a local landlord allowed his mansion’s cricket pitch to be used by locals and his staff.
This small club, currently the National Cup holder, has produced two national men's team captains – one for Ireland and one for England – as well as a number of players for the Leinster and Ireland teams at both provincial and national level.
Brian O’Rourke, a former player for Leinster and a major force in cricket coaching, is the development manager of Cricket Ireland and works closely with schools.
“When I started, cricket was very much a minority sport. Rush was one of the first areas I went to because it had established clubs,” he says.
O’Rourke worked to develop relationships with three local schools: St Catherine’s, St Brendan’s and Rush National School.
“Cricket was already well established in these schools. We went in for about an hour and a half per week, giving kids good exposure to the game and bringing in blitzes and primary- school competitions. Both 2007 and 2011 were seminal years for us. It gave cricket exposure and a major boost.
"Interest has grown and we have some great young players waiting in the wings, including young Nathan McGuire and Neil Ross, among others."
Now Cricket Ireland receives development funding from councils throughout Dublin and is hoping to grow into Meath and Kilkenny. About 47,000 children are involved in the game.
“It’s a noncontact sport that boys and girls can play together until the age of 13. It can be played in a 40-minute session, so teachers love it. It can be perceived as a boring game, but we say it is quicker and faster and, once people get past some preconceptions, very engaging and enjoyable,” says O’Rourke.