Gravy train on track for U-21 hurlers as Erin enter the mix

THE ever-growing popularity of the GAA’s inter-county U21 competitions was confirmed with the announcement yesterday that Erin Foods are to sponsor the hurling championship at the grade until 2006.

No figure was disclosed but John Rooney, marketing director for Campbell’s Soup Ireland, Erin’s owners, said the figure was ‘substantial’. It is believed the figure will increase for each of the four years.

Apart from a brief three-year stint sponsoring the Leopardstown races some years ago, the 40-year-old company has neverbeen involved in sport, so the decision to take the plunge with the U-21 hurling championship for such a stint is a significant coup for the GAA.

The U-21 grade is certainly enjoying an increased profile. It has now reached a level whereby a crowd of 20,000 watched last year’s Munster final between Limerick and Tipperary and 30,000 turned up in Thurles to watch the Shannonsiders seal a third All-Ireland in a row against Galway some months later.

“Hurling has now reached a stage it has never reached before, in terms of profile, in terms of technical ability, in terms of popularity,” said GAA President Sean Kelly yesterday in the opulent surroundings of the Shelbourne Hotel.

“The very first sponsorship committee was set up back in the ’80s and the senior championships have long had Guinness and Bank of Ireland on board and we are now moving down to the U-21 hurling championship. I am confident that it won’t be long until we have sponsorship of the U-21 football and both minor championships as well.”

Kelly confirmed that the U-21 football competition would have a sponsor within the next year or two. Should the improvements to the fixtures calendar, which Kelly is so eager to bring in, go through quickly, the football competition’s attractiveness to potential sponsors will be all the greater.

“People are amazed at the popularity of the U-21 hurling championship,” Kelly pointed out.

“We’ve had crowds of up to 40,000 at All-Irelands and indeed 50,000 one year. I remember a Munster U-21 championship match one evening when I was chairman of the Munster Council. It was the middle of October in Ennis at half-past six and there were 19,500 people at the game.

“That’s not surprising because, for some reason or another, there’s seems to have been more quality matches at U-21 level than at any other level, comparatively speakingThat holds for both hurling and football at U-21 level. It also fills the gap for players from minor to senior and it has become a huge competition since it was first run in 1964.”

Also yesterday, the President confirmed that the Croke Park pitch had come through the rigours of Saturday’s Special Olympics opening ceremony without any visible damage. Kelly admitted he was very concerned as to how the playing surface would fare with 7,000 athletes and their coaches, volunteers and security men walking on it for four hours but his worries were unfounded, he said.

“It was so good yesterday, that they were cutting the grass,” RTE’s Micheal O’Muircheartaigh said at the press conference. “A person visiting it for the first time would not know it had been covered up at all.”

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