UCC production line has delivered for Cork hurling
Nearly half of the 52 players listed on Sunday have passed through the Cork college
Cork manager Kieran Kingston celebrates with his son Shane Kingston after Cork’s win over Tipperary in the Munster GAA Senior Hurling Championship quarter-final at Semple Stadium on Sunday. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
The eruption of young Cork talent in Thurles on Sunday was in keeping with one theme in the county’s recent hurling history: the production line has been more commonly found in UCC rather than in under-age inter-county teams.
Attention to detail in the college has seen players graduate to senior inter-county despite the county not having won All-Irelands at minor or under-21 level for nearly 20 years.
Grabbing the attention at the weekend was the fact that three of the five full debutants weren’t even playing Fitzgibbon Cup hurling this year, having only just arrived in UCC.
“No, I wasn’t. In this year’s Freshers team we had Shane Kingston, Darragh Fitzgibbon and Michael Coleman. When you put young fellas on and their skill levels are good and their attitude is good, they’ve no real fear of nobody and aren’t burdened by the expectation that they’re supposed to do x, y and z. It’s just the freedom of playing hurling.
“At one point [on Sunday] Darragh Fitzgibbon got the ball and went on a solo run in the first half. Shane Kingston went by him, took the pass and put it over the bar off his weaker side. Proper hurling.
“Conor Lehane probably had his best game in the Cork jersey and he said that these guys – the debutants – have no fear. Everyone knows they are skilful players so I think that took the pressure off Lehane because of these guys. Mark Coleman was giving excellent ball into the forward line, Darragh Fitzgibbon especially in the first half was running with the ball and Shane Kingston, even though he took a while to get into the games, ends up with 1-4.
“Lehane was able to do his own thing and Séamus Harnedy had his best game for Cork since 2013.”
Tom Kingston is coach of the UCC Fitzgibbon team. A former county player and brother of current Cork manager Kieran – and an uncle of Shane – he believes that the college has helped to plug the gap in the county supply line even though he is equally confident that the minors and under-21s will be well able to deliver in the near future.
He also points out that it’s not just Cork that has benefited, even though having a traditional powerhouse in the city – as well as the rising academy in Cork IT – is an obvious advantage.
“Absolutely, although I think Cork coming at under-age level, but it’s not just Cork. Look at Tipp: Michael Cahill was out injured; he was UCC and won a Fitzgibbon; Dan McCormack has won two and so has James Barry. Michael Breen captained the team this year and Séamus Kennedy played with us. There are huge benefits out of it. Waterford as well.
“I honestly believe that third level is critical to inter-county. Ask any inter-county player who’s played Fitzgibbon – and that’s the majority – and they’ll tell you it’s a magnificent competition and has brought them on a lot. Everyone gives the example of Séamus Harnedy. I believe it brings on the player who’s 19, 20, 21.
“It gives hurling from October to February at a high level and gives the correct breaks at the right time, and any Fitzgibbon player is looked after professionally with best medical care and advice and coaches for strength and conditioning as well as hurling. It bring guys on.
“It’s been very beneficial to Cork. I think Kieran would agree with that if you asked him.”
As Grainger says, nearly half of the players on duty in Thurles have been through the halls of the college.
“Out of the two panels on Sunday, the 52 guys who were togged out, 23 of them have been with UCC – 18 Cork and five Tipp – and have won Fitzgibbons and Freshers.”
Both he and Kingston lay emphasis on the fact that the college prioritises “coaching on the field” and with former All-Ireland winners Tom Kenny and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín involved with this year’s Freshers, the tradition of hurling in the county is part of the message.
Grainger also says that the newcomers are “level-headed enough not to get carried away” and that Kieran Kingston will assist in the process if necessary.
Tom Kingston agrees: “Five making a championship debut on a team is a lot to be breaking in on the one day. Sometimes that can go against you but yesterday it worked. It wasn’t too big an occasion for the guys breaking through. They were able to deal with it mentally, which is great.”