Since 2006-7, 18 Munster colleges ‘A’ level hurling trophies have been on offer: Cork are bottom of the list with one

Were Cork schools always strong in Munster colleges competitions? How accurate is this perception?

Let’s see. Since 1980 Cork schools have won 15 of the 33 Harty Cups on offer and 16 Dean Ryans, the U16½A competition, almost 50%, a very high win ratio.

But the cupboard is almost bare for the past ten years. The last Harty won by a Cork school was in 2006 by Midleton CBS; their previous victory was in 1995, and the North Monastery’s last was in 1994.

St Colman’s, Fermoy won in ’96, ’97 and three in a row, 2001-’3, their last. But now their boarding section is shut, which affects their competitiveness.

Cork schools won seven Harty Cups of nine from 1994 to 2003. Cork minor hurling teams were successful in the same period. Jimmy Barry-Murphy led the minors to All-Ireland victory in ’95 having lost to an excellent Galway team the year before: 12 players who had experience of the cut and thrust of Harty competition were on that team and a similar stat exists for the 1998 winners, managed by Denis Burns.

That team of ’95 provided great leaders for Cork at U21 and senior level including Donal Og Cusack, Séan Óg Ó hAilpín, Timmy McCarthy, Mickey O’Connell and Joe Deane — all experienced colleges players. We know the standards these players reached, performing and winning at the very top.

Playing at the top level of colleges hurling exposes teenagers to the highest standards and provides them with invaluable experience; there’s no comparison with club games in the same age groups. Not all colleges players transfer their promise onto the inter-county stage: colleges hurling is played in autumn and spring in heavy conditions, like the All-Ireland club series.

Some players find that speed is king in the summer and don’t make the transition, but for those who can, the pressure of these top colleges games are a good starting point.

Diarmuid O’Sullivan played Harty Cup as a wing forward on the 1995 Midleton CBS winning team, playing on for a further two years. He told me he was more of a footballer than a hurler until he made the Harty team: “I found Harty hurling much tougher than minor inter-county,” he said. “The games were of an intensity that I had never previously encountered. You became aware very quickly of the standard required to compete and you had to adapt to the various styles played by schools from the different counties. It toughened me up a fair bit and stood to me in my later career with Cork.”

John Considine managed the Cork minors to their last All-Ireland in 2001. I asked him if he believed there was a link between Harty hurling and under-age success with Cork “Having lost the Munster final that year, leadership and belief were the two components of the 2001 team that drove us to an All-Ireland,” he said.

Considine was also minor manager in 2010 and 2011: “But there are differences now. The 2010 team, talent wise, was on a par with any team I had. However, the 2011 team lacked confidence.They weren’t used to winning at colleges at U15 or U16 and they lacked this vital background to respond to the challenges as that 2001 team had.

“Belief is something that grows from success and because of Cork’s recent lack of success at colleges level and at minor level, in Croke Park particularly, the swagger that would have accompanied previous Cork minor and U21 teams has well and truly departed.”

Self-belief in Cork minor hurling teams has taken a battering, according to Considine. This is borne out by the fact that in the past three years Cork have been beaten by every county in Munster — except Kerry.

Since 2006-7, 18 trophies were on offer at ‘A’ level in Munster Colleges: Waterford schools have won 6, Limerick 5, Tipp 4, and Clare 2. Cork are bottom of the list with one, the U-15 in 2008 by St Colman’s.

In all grades of competitions since 2006-7 (A, B and C), Cork schools have won 9 from 54, an average of 16%: well below the level expected for a county of Cork’s tradition.

Joe McKenna is a former Limerick great and a past Harty star at St Flannan’s. He heads up the Monitoring Committee of the Limerick Hurling Strategy group and expressed his delight that Limerick have three schools in the knockout stages of the Harty Cup.

“Our ambitions are to be as competitive as we can be. Ardscoil Rís caters for players on one side of the city, Castletroy for different clubs on the other side while Doon CBS take in a rural hinterland in east Limerick.

“It can only be good for us because it raises the standard of the players involved and that filters through to clubs and then on to inter-county level.”

This season six Cork schools entered the Harty Cup competition: Coláiste Chríost Rí on the south side and the A.G, Gaelcholáiste Mhuire, on the north side of the city as well as St Colman’s, Hamilton High, Bandon, Charleville CBS and Midleton CBS — the only Cork school still left in the competition.

From the 1960’s, four schools in the city were hurling schools: Coláiste Chríost Rí and Sullivans Quay (Deerpark CBS) on the south side and on the north side, Farranferris, the Diocesan seminary, a boarding/day school and the North Monastery.

Hurlers travelled long distances to these schools but Farna is now closed, Deerpark no longer enter Munster competitions while the Irish school in the North Mon play as a single entity, reaching the Dean Ryan U16½ ‘A’ final this year.

Midleton CBS caters for a strong hurling hinterland while Rochestown College are an emerging school, playing senior A football but B hurling.

Population expansion has created dormitory towns and new schools sprung up in Ballincollig, Carrigaline, Riverstown, Mayfield and Douglas. There’s no doubt the GAA missed the opportunity in developing hurling to a top level in the community schools/colleges when they came on stream.

The drive and single-mindedness of the religious-managed schools to foster hurling was missing from these new schools. Only Carrigaline CS have won in Munster, at ‘B’ and ‘C’ level, since 1980. Many talented hurlers from rural hurling areas began to attend the nearest school rather than travelling to a ‘hurling’ school, leading to a major dispersal of talent which diluted the standard of the traditional ‘Harty schools’.

The VEC sector and traditional Cork colleges sector are coming together in 2013/14. Is it time to look at ways of encouraging schools to play in ‘A’ competitions at senior level? The concept of mergers between schools in traditional and non-traditional hurling areas could be explored.

But as in Waterford and Dublin, who have combined colleges teams, the push must come from the schools themselves. Combined schools could play in their own senior competition or in the Harty, as Coláistí na Déise, Dungarvan and West Limerick Colleges did this year. I know there is resistance from the traditional schools to merged teams and the Munster Colleges Council may not be fond of this notion either.

Likewise, a Cork city colleges team made up of non-hurling schools or schools with few players has been mentioned, though who would take charge is an issue, as running a schools team at the top level is a huge commitment. But if schools are agreeable and are willing to commit the required resources it might be worth exploration by the Games Development Unit of the Cork County Board (GDU).

Dublin schools are playing together as a combination for a number of years in the Leinster Colleges. “It certainly raised the standards in the city and it led to a raising of standards in Coláiste Eoin,” said Colm Mac Séalaigh, heavily involved with Coláiste Eoin and the combined Dublin Colleges team at the beginning. “Coláiste Eoin now competes as a stand-alone school with many Cuala and Kilmacud club players who go on to provide some top players for the Dublin minors.”

The Kilkenny County Board is well aware of how important quality is in their second level schools. St Kieran’s is the jewel in their crown but they are very conscious of the part played by all others and they give material support to all second level schools.

Included in this are Borris in Carlow, Good Counsel in New Ross, Wexford and De La Salle in Waterford City. They appreciate the development work being done with pupils from Kilkenny clubs who attend these schools.

Cork’s failings at schools level further compounds the fact that the aura of winners, once associated with the Rebel county, is gone and Cork is viewed by the outside hurling world as eminently beatable.

Can the standards of schools hurling and club hurling be raised in Cork? The revamped development squads from age 14 to 17 are seen as the future. Will they bring success? Only time will tell.

Tomorrow: Donal O’Grady on development squads in Cork: Can they save the day?

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