In the final of this year’s Fitzgibbon Cup, members of the Cork All-Ireland senior hurling panel, sub keeper Darren McCarthy, Killian Murphy, William Egan, Conor Lehane and Seamus Harnedy, lined out for UCC.
Another current Cork player, corner-forward Luke O’Farrell, played for beaten finalists Mary Immaculate alongside Clare’s John Conlon and Colm Galvin.
They weren’t the only inter-county stars that day either, not by any means. UCC had a galaxy of stellar players from Waterford, Galway, Tipperary while the Limerick college was likewise served from a variety of counties, though in their case, and because of a serious shortage of male students in the college, they were far more restricted.
Most of the other players on the Cork and Clare teams have also cut their teeth in the Fitzgibbon Cup.
So strong has this old college competition become that there is now an argument the Fitzgibbon Cup is becoming a better barometer for senior success than the All-Ireland minor championship and is up there now alongside the All-Ireland U21 series.
One man in a pretty unique position to comment on that is Limerick great Eamonn Cregan, manager of both this year’s Munster champion Limerick minor side and also Mary I.
“Well the Fitzgibbon Cup has become a very powerful contest in recent years. Once they got rid of the snobbery, where it was confined to universities, the competition got a lot stronger,” he said.
“And the snobbery was there, unfortunately. It came probably from the academic side ‘We’re above everyone else!’ That kind of attitude has no place in sport. You look now at the strength of the IT colleges in Waterford, Limerick and Cork especially, that has blown all that snobbery to smithereens and not before time. People play sport for the love of it and to better themselves. That’s what the Fitzgibbon Cup should be all about and that’s what it is about. They’re all on the same campus together, spend all that time together. A great bond forms and they become like a club, a unit, very tight-knit.”
That bond means even a small college like Mary I can outplay and beat the biggest and most traditionally powerful colleges in the country.
“The Fitzgibbon Cup has become very important in terms of developing players for the senior game in the last five or six years, has certainly brought up the standard of a lot of players. Anyone with ambitions of playing Fitzgibbon Cup also has ambitions of playing senior inter-county hurling. That would be their next objective, if they’re not playing it already.
“Most of them are probably playing underage inter-county but senior level is what fellas really aspire to. This year we had a few established stars, John Conlon and Colm Galvin from Clare, Luke O’Farrell from Cork, all in this year’s All-Ireland final, but we also had guys like Declan Hannon from Limerick, Niall O’Meara the Tipperary U21 captain, Seán Curran, Jamie Wall from Cork, Brian O’Halloran from Waterford. We kind of half-had Galway’s Conor Cooney, if you know what I mean, he was focused on the All-Ireland club championship with St Thomas’s.
“We were very fortunate to have them but they brought up the level of all the others, guys who wouldn’t be as well known, from counties that mightn’t be as successful as others. For those players, playing Fitzgibbon Cup was a huge advance, a level of competition they wouldn’t have been used to.”
A superb platform for players then, an opportunity to put themselves in the public eye, maybe attract the attention of their senior county manager, all of whom now make it their business to attend Fitzgibbon Cup games. In many ways in fact it’s even closer to the senior game than is the U21 competition which is more cutthroat with players spending more time together. They’re almost like a club side, as Cregan points out above.
Not that he believes everything is perfect. Far from it.
“It’s gone a bit over the top I think in terms of physical training. They’re training how many times a week, five, six? It’s as if you’re playing with a county team, you’re training so often and so hard.
“I look at how some teams have trained for the last five years, it’s like fellas are substituting one county team for another. I think someone is going to call a halt. It’s practically all inter-county now in every team, you have the players being pulled between their county manager and the college manager.
“We were lucky in that we didn’t have as many inter-county players as most, and we decided to let them train with their county. You mightn’t believe this but we had only one physical training-session all season, one visit to the Cratloe Hills. After that, between Timmy Hammersley, Gavin O’Mahony [his two coaches] and myself, all we did was hurling, hurling, hurling. You can be as fit as you like but if the ball comes to you and your touch is wrong, at that level you won’t get the chance of a second touch — your hurling must be right.
“Having said that, you’ve got to be fit enough to get to the ball but the amount of physical training that’s being done is unnecessary — by the time fellas get to their late 20s now, they’re just going to be sick of it.
“I played until I was 38, I can’t see that happening in the future. It’s a young man’s game now, a young single man’s game because they’re the only ones who will have the time anymore.”
It’s not just the physical intensity either. “It’s becoming too big a deal now for the individual colleges. To see the way guys are psyched taking the field, and very often that’s counter-productive, stops teams from performing to their full potential. I was at a final last year in Cork between UCC and CIT and although it went to extra-time, it was very exciting for the two colleges and their supporters, bad weather or not it was very poor hurling. Fellas are getting too hyped, getting in each other’s faces, psyched out of their minds. That’s no good. It’s not about knocking the head off the fella you’re on, it’s about winning the game and doing it properly. But maybe that’s just me and the way I like to see hurling played. Overall though it’s a tremendous competition, an opportunity for fellas to improve, to challenge themselves against better players.”