WHEN St Kieran’s College went in to their first round Leinster Colleges championship match in 2009 against St Brendan’s Community School in Clonad, just outside Portlaoise, they were convinced they would win.
Kieran’s always expect to win but they were turned over. Again.
The previous year, Dublin colleges had dumped Kieran’s out at the same stage. After winning 15 of the previous 19 Leinster Colleges titles, a five-year hiatus without the Corn Uí Dhuill was considered an extended famine.
A five-year gap without winning an All-Ireland Colleges title was also their longest stretch without a Croke Cup in over three decades.
Hard questions were asked within the college. The Kilkenny culture is defined by honesty, humility and the highest standards and any drop in those standards is met with an inquisition, guided by the deepest soul-searching imaginable.
St Kieran’s response to a mini-crisis was absolutely emphatic, with the College winning seven of the 10 All-Ireland titles of the last decade. Kieran’s won five of the last six titles but it would have been six-in-a-row if a young team hadn’t narrowly lost the 2017 final to a highly vaunted Our Lady’s Templemore side.
St Kieran’s now tower above every other college in the All-Ireland roll of honour with 23 titles, but their dominance was unprecedented during the last decade.
The most titles the famed college had won in a single decade before was four, which they managed in the 1990s. Apart from St Flannan’s Ennis, Kieran’s won more All-Irelands in the last decade than any other college has managed in their history.
Kieran’s relentless crusade though, was finally halted in early March when St Flannan’s beat them in an All-Ireland quarter-final.
Yet when the GAA season was shut down the following week, the teams still left in the provincial and All-Ireland Colleges championships assumed, similar to the Leaving Cert, that the journey was over.
However, the GAA have been fully committed to trying to get the post-primary competitions completed. Yet with games only returning in July, the main stumbling block for the colleges has been the ending of the school year in June, and a rule which prevents schools games taking place in July and August.
In the GAA’s official Rule Guide, Rule 6.46, which governs Alterations to Competitions structures, states: “Provincial Units with responsibility for Inter-County, Club, Higher Education and Post Primary Schools Competitions, shall not add or make modifications to existing Competitions Structure without the prior approval of the Provincial Council or the Central Competitions Control Committee, as appropriate.”
Initially, the word was the All-Ireland Colleges hurling semi-finals could be provisionally fixed for July 22-23, with the final to be played a few days later. Yet, if the green light is given, that timeframe could change now with the new roadmap
However, there is a narrower window again for the colleges football championship to be completed because there are already two outstanding A provincial finals; St Patrick’s Maghera were due to play St Colman’s Newry in the Ulster decider, while St Joseph’s Rochfortbridge and Naas CBS have qualified for the Leinster final.
That opportunity is all the more precious again for Rochfortbridge, who are in their first Leinster senior A final.
Every team though, in A and B, are mad to play. Most have agreed to play the games at very short notice, and in an extremely short timeframe, if that’s what required to finish the competitions; if the hurling semi-finals were played, the schools would have no issue playing the final three or four days later.
The football timeframe would be far tighter again with three games to be squeezed in. That could involve a multitude of risks of players going from nothing to too much.
Yet all the players want to play during that window, especially when other such windows won’t reopen when the GAA season cranks into full gear.
Some colleges have already suggested that if some clubs don’t agree to release players so close to an upcoming club championship, they won’t have an issue with any such decision.
On the other hand, clubs are unlikely to deny their own players an opportunity to win an All-Ireland title, particularly in the current climate.
Until a firm decision is made though, nobody is fully sure what might happen. Back in April, Ulster Schools’ Secretary Seamus Woods suggested that the opportunity to run the A and B All-Ireland competitions (Hogan and Drummond Cups) may have passed. “I can’t see them happening,” he said.
Around the same time, St Patrick’s Maghera joint-manager Paul Hughes didn’t rule out a September date.
“These are exceptional times and maybe an exceptional solution is called for,” he said. “In the present climate, a final in the new school year looks OK.
“It could see the likes of ourselves and St Colman’s bringing boys back to play in it, boys who have moved on to university. But it has to be about the players and not about squeezing it out or in.
"Schools play these games to give the players the best experiences we can.”
That is very much the bottom line here. With students having missed out on so much over the last few months, having an All-Ireland or a provincial title to aim for would be a cherished goal when they thought that dream had already perished.