The battle for young hearts and minds between the GAA and rugby

A new generation of rugby players have emerged from the Gaelic football heartland of West Cork
The battle for young hearts and minds between the GAA and rugby

Darren Sweetnam made an early breakthrough with Cork under Jimmy Barry-Murphy in 2012 before switching to rugby full-time. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

IN one of his Irish Examiner columns last May, Anthony Daly wrote about his time heading up the Limerick hurling Academy, and the multitude of front-line battles that often had to be fought with rugby.

When Daly was coaching the Limerick minors in 2015, he tried to get Conor Fitzgerald to play, but his heart was in rugby. Fitzgerald went on to represent Munster at U18, U19 and A level, and Ireland at U19 and U20 level before moving to Connacht.

Daly could see that war constantly being waged all around him. When the Academy teams would train every Saturday morning in UL, Daly often noticed some of those players conversing with the platoons of young rugby players also training on the north campus.

Daly often found himself asking the Academy players questions about those other rugby players. The replies were nearly always the same. “He’s from our club.” 

For decades, clubs in Limerick, especially those in and around the city, were struggling to capture the hearts and minds of the kids in those areas, especially when Munster Rugby were at the peak of their powers.

"When we were coming up underage, there was a bit of a battle - most people were playing rugby," said Kevin Downes before Na Piarsaigh’s drawn All-Ireland club final against Cuala in 2018. 

24 July 2020; Kevin Downes of Na Piarsaigh in action against Mark O'Loughlin, left, and Gavin O'Mahony of Kilmallock. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
24 July 2020; Kevin Downes of Na Piarsaigh in action against Mark O'Loughlin, left, and Gavin O'Mahony of Kilmallock. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

"Paul O'Connell and others were local heroes. Rugby was the cool thing. It was the popular sport in the area. There were plenty of very, very talented hurlers who went to rugby." 

Competing with rugby is a fact of life for hurling clubs in Limerick city where the game has a penetration beyond the private schools to a degree unmatched anywhere else in the country.

Hurling though is now clearly winning that battle. As Cian Treacy pointed out in the Irish Independent last month, with just seven Limerick-born players currently part of Munster’s 43-man squad, and only one representative in the province's Academy, the rise of Limerick’s hurling success is making it increasingly difficult for rugby to attract young talents. 

“Hurling's rise in Limerick,” wrote Treacy “has coincided with Munster's dip.” 

 It’s not that black and white. The slow death of the All-Ireland league (AIL) has been detrimental for rugby in Limerick, which has had a knock-on effect throughout the province. The GAA has also started to become much more prominent in traditional rugby schools. 

The engagement with schools and clubs is also far more active and robust in GAA than in rugby. Most importantly of all though, young aspiring players in Limerick find it much easier now to identify success with hurling than rugby.

The populations are vastly different but there has been somewhat of a similar phenomenon in Dublin. 

Despite Leinster Rugby’s rate of modern success compared to Munster, playing with the Dublin footballers – male and female – is the most attractive lure for hordes of young kids now in Dublin.

Commercial revenue is a factor, but good strategic planning ensures that success is created as much as it is expected. That’s also easier to achieve in Dublin because the big GAA clubs have the numbers to cater for losing players to other codes.

Kilmacud Crokes have lost a raft of former underage players to rugby – Ian Madigan, Ian McKinley, Scott Penny and Eoin Barr – but they’ll always have the resources to be one of the strongest clubs in Dublin.

The GAA will always have greater cultural sporting penetration throughout the country but every sporting organisation will still try and make inroads into new territories.

THE WEST IS AWAKE

In recent years, there has been an exciting crop of talented rugby players emerge from West Cork. When Inishannon’s Jack Crowley joined the Munster academy last June, making his Pro 14 debut last month, he was following a pathway more recently worn by Bantry brothers Fineen and Josh Wycherley.

The rise of West Cork rugby was led by former Cork senior hurler Darren Sweetnam, who provided inspiration for the Wycherleys, cousins Gavin and Liam Coombes from Skibbereen, Bandon’s James French, and Rosscarbery man John Hodnett.

Munster's Darren Sweetnam with Rhodri Williams of the Dragons. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Munster's Darren Sweetnam with Rhodri Williams of the Dragons. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

The game is clearly prospering in West Cork. In 2017, Crowley helped guide Bandon Grammar School to the semi-final of the Munster Schools Senior Cup for the first time. The school also reached a second semi-final in 2019.

“When I was younger, there were very few lads who stuck with the sport,” said Fineen Wycherley in an interview with Murray Kinsella in The 42 last summer. “You’d maybe play rugby to a certain age and then GAA would become everything.

“It’s almost the other way around now – a lot of lads are playing GAA up to 15 or 16 and then focusing on rugby. That’s a massive change in West Cork because GAA, football particularly, is so big.” 

A couple of years ago, former Wexford hurling manager Tony Dempsey spoke of the impact rugby was having in Wexford, and how the traditional choice dilemma between hurling and football was being replaced by rugby.

“That’s new to rural Wexford, it’s new to Ireland,” said Dempsey. “We have to become aware of the challenge of other sports and we have to make our games more attractive to the players.” 

Wexford’s Leinster hurling title win in 2019 has been a huge contributory factor in turning that battle around. County success is also more powerful because the players are so accessible to their own public in comparison to most professional sportspeople. But success still dictates so much when different sports are constantly trying to attract players to their code.

For decades, rugby often won those battles for young hearts and minds around Limerick and Dublin. But certainly not to the same extent anymore. Because so many ambitious young players in Limerick and Dublin are leaning towards hurling and football now for obvious reasons.

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