With Antrim surprised by Westmeath in the Leinster championship preliminary round, then well and truly hammered by Limerick in the All-Ireland qualifiers, it’s time to ask: wherewith Ulster hurling?
Is the small ball game becoming the almost exclusive preserve of Munster and Leinster (now that Galway have moved house)?
Not if Paddy Duffy has anything to do with it — and he does. A Dub by way of Good Counsel but now long domiciled in Letterkenny, Paddy is the manager of the Donegal minor hurling team and a man on a mission — to spread the gospel of hurling.
Saturday’s 2-16 to 0-6 loss to Roscommon in the All-Ireland MBHC quarter-final was not seen as a setback, more a sign of progression considering where they have come from.
And while he’s not quite working in a desert he does openly acknowledge that he has his work cut out for him.
“Whatever happens at county level has to come from club level first and that’s what we’re trying to do in Donegal, develop the game within the clubs, expand the number of clubs playing hurling,” he said.
“We have eight clubs now at most of the age groups but the younger age-groups have 10 or 12, so that’s progress. At county level then we made a conscious decision to make a step-up from All-Ireland C to All-Ireland B anywhere we can — U15, U16, minor — just to try and play at a higher level.
“Sometimes that works out, sometimes it doesn’t but this is the approach we’re taking. The current minor team, for example, won the All-Ireland U16C reasonably comfortably two years ago and we felt there was nothing to be gained from sending them off to the minor C again. We said we’d have a go at the minor B championship, see how we do, take the plunge and see what we learn.”
The biggest problem faced by Duffy in his attempts to grow hurling, however, is Gaelic football. Not so much resistance from the various county boards as resistance from an unlikely source, the players themselves.
“The county board has been fully supportive of our efforts but the reality is that for the boys themselves football is number one. If the football management at minor level say they want to have a training session right now, the players will come; with us it’s not like that but that’s the reality of being the second sport in a county. From time to time we struggle with that, to put out our best side, but we’re getting full co-operation from the board.
“For the minor hurling this weekend for example there’s a clash with an U17 football blitz from which next year’s minor panel will be chosen but the selectors have told all the dual players to go with the minor hurling team — that’s a very positive gesture from them.”
All that work should result in the growth of a few new hurling clubs in the county, says Duffy, clubs that will challenge the dominance of the great Burt club.
“Burt are still the strongest but not as much as before. Ten years ago no one would come within 15 points of them; in the last three years three different clubs have won the senior championship — Burt last year, McCool’s and Setanta.
“My own club, St Eunan’s, are hoping to make the county final this year.
“We have some outstanding players [in the county] but they’re nearly always dual players and when football makes demands, that’s it.”
And that is it. The GAA have two field sports, two competing field sports, and where one thrives, the other is throttled.
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