THEY couldn’t have timed the announcement of UCC’s new sports strategy better.
The College’s four-year plan, which includes an ambitious upgrade of the facilities at The Farm complex in Curraheen, was officially launched yesterday with a glittering collection of trophies sitting proudly next to the podium. In recent weeks the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups were added to the Collingwood to form a unique hurling, football and soccer treble.
While those are the marquee sports in the College but there are 55 clubs in total covering 3,598 distinct student memberships. It’s not all about the elite athletes like rower Paul O’Donovan and Paralympic prospect Mary Fitzgerald, who were both on hand at the launch, as 50% of UCC’s students train recreationally rather than competitively.
Dr Wesley O’Brien, the Carrigaline club man who lectures in the sporting arena and helped coach the victorious Fitzgibbon Cup hurlers, that’s as much a source of pride as the prestigious silverware.
“Sports participation is extremely high at the moment across a variety of sports. We’ve identified over 50 clubs and a lot of that is down to the volunteerism and enthusiasm throughout all these clubs.
“We are now viewing UCC as one club, no matter what the sport is, hence the idea that we are many tribes but one club under the Skull and Crossbones.”
Woven through the UCC Sports Strategy 2019-2022 are a number of priorities, which include developing world-class facilities, maximising the brand potential and igniting the community of sport. Above all else, explains O’Brien, being immersed in sport will stand to their students when they finish up their time in UCC.
“Graduate attributes – honesty, integrity, leadership, comradery, friendship – they are imparted values gained through any type of sport. That could be Ultimate Frisbee, rowing, fencing. It’s not just about Gaelic games, though I’m heavily involved in that, I can see the benefit from the wide breadth of sports.
“I review CVs myself for positions in our own programme and you’re looking at the identifiable skillset that carries over from sport. They are practical sides of having been involved in sport and employers will certainly recognise and value that. A degree should provide more than an academic achievement.”
For all that, an upgrade at The Farm, which will be christened the UCC Sports Park, is essential to alleviate the pressure for pitches. The new park will include a 1,800m running track a 1,300m inner walk, as well as the badly needed grass and synthetic playing pitches and a synthetic hockey pitch, along with 297 parking spaces.
“I was coaching with Ger Cunningham this year in the Fitzgibbon Cup and there were 14 teams, over 300 athletes across various panels, all sharing one floodlit pitch in the Mardyke. We were fortunate to have access to the 4G pitch in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on occasion but it’s time for change.
“We’re only talking about Gaelic games so it was down to the dedication of the students and some good coaching set-ups that it translated into cups this season. That’s not sustainable."
Tom Kingston was at the helm of the Fitzgibbon Cup unit, while Billy Morgan landed his third Sigerson Cup as manager on the football front, but John Grainger is the common denominator between the codes.
“Paul Daniels and Keith Barry are magicians but John Grainger was the same as Gaelic Games Development Officer for UCC. One on-campus floodlit pitch made things very frustrating at times."
UL lifted the Fitz in 2018 and Dr O'Brien accepts they are the market-leaders in Munster.
“Going forward we need the facilities to compare to the likes of UL. I work on a daily basis as a lecturer in sports studies and physical education and we are below-par in terms of outdoor facilities, even though the Mardyke Arena is a major asset.”
The former head of sport in UCC and current London Irish rugby head honcho Declan Kidney and Munster icon Doug Howlett were among those at the strategic launch.
Howlett's official role is Head of Commercial and Marketing with Munster Rugby, while he's also assisting in the background as a performance consultant with the Cork hurlers this season. No doubt he could provide some invaluable advice in the UCC 'brand'. The College's stated aim is to build a commercial marketing team to develop the Skull and Crossbones in sponsorship, merchandise and online terms.
While UCC have constantly challenged for major trophies, there is intense competition to attract elite competitors in every field at third level.
“The provision of sport needs to be an emblem of what we do," concedes Dr O'Brien. "The deadline is 2022 in terms of the strategy and I really hope we can meet the six objectives in the plan on a timely basis.
“Students vote with their feet and we need to be equitable to UL, DCU and others. That’s a harsh reality for somewhere like UCC but the right people are in place to drive UCC forward and I'd be confident that we will deliver."
The plan states UCC should 'become a global centre of excellence and innovation for participating in, performing, excelling, teaching and learning sport and physical activity'. A bold ambition but one they're capable of achieving on yesterday's evidence.