Stars impressed with northern hurling fever

A MISSED opportunity. That is how Cork’s All-Star full-back Diarmuid O’Sullivan sees this weekend’s NHL game against Down. Not just this game either, all League games where the Mournemen have to travel.

Given that Down are an emerging side, battling the odds even within their own football-dominated county, O’Sullivan believes every team in their division should have agreed to travel north.

“The amount of enthusiasm for hurling up there is fantastic. They are just hurling fanatics who would talk about hurling until the cows come home. The Central Council are pumping money into these counties, but obviously it’s not going into hurling, it’s all going straight into football. I think that really disappoints these lads. They’re willing to do whatever it takes to develop the game, but they’re not getting the support while football gets loads.”

Think back just a couple of weeks ago, to Tyrone, and how their senior hurling team was shunted from pillar to post as they tried to fulfil a home NHL fixture. They were eventually relegated to a training pitch at Carrickmore, while club footballers played on the main pitch.

Talk to Down hurling people and the attitude there is more or less the same. “Exactly,” reckons O’Sullivan. “These guys take their hurling seriously. They’re not one of the powers, but they have every right to expect the same treatment as any other county, they’re putting in as much effort.”

Few inter-county hurlers are better placed than O’Sullivan to make that observation. Last year, when Cork travelled to play Down, he and his clubmate Donal Óg Cusack travelled up ahead of everyone else, and got involved with the local underage scene. Last weekend, they made the return journey. It was a pretty hectic few days.

“We flew up last Friday morning at seven o’clock. We were collected by Tom (Kinney) and Rónán (Sheehan) at Belfast Airport and visited five schools.

“That night we went to the Race Night for the Newry Shamrocks and presented their senior team with their medals for 2005. On the Saturday morning, we had a coaching session from eight to half-past twelve. That evening we went to their juvenile social, presented the medals again that night. On Sunday, we went to Ballycran, trained the Down minor hurling team for two hours.”

So, what did they find? “You can see the improvement in 12 months. Last year, we helped launch the National Schools Hurling Development Scheme. The Newry Shamrocks club, since we visited them last year, picked up 16 or 18 new players at U12 and U14 level, fellas who had never hurled before. That’s great for them.”

What about the Down minor team? “Most of that minor team are on the 17 mark, but they’ve been together since they were about 14, and I can honestly say, they’re a serious force. We did a lot of drills with them, Donal Óg took the goalkeepers and I took the rest of them and we had them hitting as much ball as possible. They were flying.”

A few weeks ago, Tony Considine and I were in Ballygalget, in the Ards Peninsula, a week before they gave Newtownshandrum the fright of their lives in the All-Ireland club semi-final; the appetite for hurling was astonishing. “Incredible,” O’Sullivan agrees. “There was one man there, in Newry, Kieran Courtney, who has five sons, all hurlers. Two of them, Kieran and Niall, are on the Down senior panel, another lad is on the minor team, and they just love their hurling. When Donal Óg and myself went up last year, there were so many kids who had never even seen a hurley. This time, nearly every one of the schools we visited had developed their own team. But, if Down is to seriously contend in hurling, the County Board would really want to take a look at things, start backing up those guys who are doing so much good work.”

O’Sullivan and Cusack are to be applauded for what they’re doing in the promotion of hurling.

But the cynics are there, always, and will question what the Cork duo are getting in return. O’Sullivan crushes suggestion of monetary gain.

“I couldn’t ask anyone for money in a situation like that. We’re given our expenses, that’s it, but there’s no way you could turn around and ask for money. When I was a young fella, I expected fellas to coach me free of charge. How could I turn around now and ask to be paid for it? We’ve done a bit of this. Donal Óg and myself, we were up in Westmeath as well, I have relations up there, but all the Cork lads are giving up a pile of their spare time presenting medals, that sort of thing, sometimes there isn’t enough time in the day. We get a bit of criticism for being too professional at times, but you don’t read about that other side.”

So, would he like to do it full-time, get away from the pressure of being a working foreman? “I’ve been asked that a few times, I don’t think I would. There’s no way you could do it as an inter-county hurler, you’d get burned out from it, lose the appetite, the edge. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy doing the bit we’re doing, going away occasionally to clubs like Newry Shamrocks, but I couldn’t do it on a full-time basis.”

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