Meath hurling's Royal lineage
By John Harrington
Few people predicted Meath’s Christy Ring Cup success last year, but the county is well placed to build on the achievement.
That’s because hurling in the county is now benefitting from some very solid foundations that were put in place by Games Development Administrator Peter Durnin in 2011.
He was initially appointed by the Meath County Board as a part-time hurling coach on a six-month trial basis, but his energy and application quickly made him indispensable.
One of his first acts was to establish the High Kings Hurling project which brought together a development squad of the best young U-13 hurlers in the county.
In the first year it catered for just 40 children over the course of eight weeks in the summer and by the end of that time almost half of the recruits had fallen away.
From those humble beginnings though the High King Hurling project has gone from strength to strength and now brings together 75 U-12s and 75 U-13s every Saturday from May to September.
And where previously Meath only had inter-county squads at U-14, U-16, and minor, they now have ‘Talent Academies’ at U-14, U-15, U-16, and U-17 as well as a minor inter-county panel.
Hundreds of adolescents and teenagers are now part of either the High Kings Hurling programme or Talent Academies because Durnin operates an open door policy and is determined to bring quality coaching to as many young Meath hurlers as possible.
“Club coaches do say to me now that they can see the standard of the U-14 and U-16 Championships coming up because nearly ever serious player playing underage hurling for their clubs is involved,” Durnin told GAA.ie.
“If we're taking 75 at U-13 level, there's only a handful of other players out there that aren't part of this programme.
“We're not really narrowing it down as such. Whoever wants to come in can, so you're nearly getting every player in the county in and gives them that bit of a boost. When they feel they're part of a county team they'll put more into it and you're definitely getting the standard up that way.
“It's made a big difference, and as much as it brings up the skill level it's great that the lads know each other that bit longer too. They're making friends and that's nearly as important as anything else.
“It's about creating a culture. What we did was give them a jersey every year and sure once word got out that there was a bit of gear going, everyone wanted to be part of his High Kings programme.”
The impact of the High Kings Hurling programme and the Talent Academies is already being felt in a very meaningful way.
For two years in a row the Meath U-14s won Tony Forrestal All-Ireland ‘B’ title.
That group of players then qualified to compete in the ‘A’ of last year’s Arrabawn tournament (All-Ireland U-16) for the first time in the county’s history.
Last year’s Meath minor team that reached the All-Ireland ‘B’ Final was back-boned by graduates of the first ever High Kings Hurling squad, and this year Peter Farrell became the first High Kings graduate to play for the county senior hurling team.
“There' a lot more lads coming behind and we've got more work done with them,” says Durnin.
“So I think in a couple of years you'll have very few players who weren't part of the High Kings programme playing for the Meath senior team.
“I definitely think it's making a big difference. Before talented young lads just wanted to play football and wouldn't bother with the hurling, but now it's on more of an even keel. There are far more lads committed to the hurling.
“The High Kings, when I started it first, you had to plague clubs to send lads in. Now clubs are asking when it's starting.
“The first year I did it there was a fall-off in numbers as the year went on. We started off with the 40 and it dwindled down to just over 20. But since then it's been going the opposite way. Numbers are going up and up and up.
“And players are always asking can they come into it. You'd have young lads who are only 11 wanting to take part with the 12 year olds, so there's definitely a big interest in it.”
Last year’s dramatic Christy Ring Cup Final victory over Antrim and the U-21 team's All-Ireland 'B' success has provided Meath hurling with a serious boost.
For the first time since 2004, the county senior team will compete in this year's All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship.
Durnin hurled for many years for Meath himself and admits he can’t recall there ever being a bigger buzz in Meath for hurling than there is now.
“It’s amazing,” he says. “I never thought that winning the Christy Ring Cup would do so much.
“We had a presentation of jersies at the end of the year and we had the U-21 Cup and the Christy Ring Cup and everyone had their picture taken and all the young lads knew the players' names.
“For the first time ever O'Neill's were stocking the Meath hurling jersey as well as the football one because we've always had a different sponsor to the footballers and you could never get it.
“Everything just really took off last year and if we could build on it again this year it would be great.
“They're back in the Leinster Championship for the first time in many years. I suppose the aim this year would be try to get a win in that and try to stay up in it.
“Gaining promotion in the League is another obvious target. You look at Kerry, they're up in 1B and were playing Galway on Sunday and after 45 minutes there was only a puck of a ball in it.
“That's the sort of level we want to be getting to, where Kerry have gotten to. There's no reason why we can't.”