When the 2009-2015 Strategic Action Plan was launched in November 2008, it contained an objective that, at the time, might have been viewed by some as purely aspirational and interpreted by others as delusional.
When we first went around and did our reconnaissance on the thing we found that hurling was hanging by a thread in a significant number of counties and we would have to develop them. This was our excuse to do it.
Liam O Neill
“By 2016,” the Plan claimed “We will be able to say: all units at all levels provide a coordinated programme of meaningful games for players, appropriate to their needs and abilities…and (they) can take part in well-planned and scheduled games as part of a balanced lifestyle.”
Now, consider what, just over three years ago, a club hurler in Louth, Longford, Leitrim or Sligo might have made of that statement. It surely must have seemed like little more than lip service.
The same hurler, however, might not have realised that instead of rhetoric, Uachtarán CLG Christy Cooney meant business and requested the establishment of a Hurling Development Committee (HDC), chaired by Uachtarán Tofa Liam O’Neill, to address some of the issues afflicting the ancient game in certain parts of the country.
O’Neill, along with a committee that included former Cork player John Fenton and Galway’s Seán Silke, strove for change and made the provision of regular games in developing counties – the term ‘weaker counties’ was soon banned – one of their main aims.
“When we first went around and did our reconnaissance we found that hurling was hanging by a thread in a significant number of counties and we would have to develop them. This was our excuse to do it,” explains O’Neill, the HDC chairman.
And so the Táin Adult Club Hurling League was launched on Saturday, February 4 with a full programme of fixtures across 13 counties – the nine Ulster counties, Louth, Longford, Leitrim and Sligo – involving 59 clubs across five grades in 10 divisions.
“The Táin Hurling League is the hook on which we can hang an awful lot of extra things,” continues O’Neill. “The fact that it got off the ground and we got the first two rounds played almost completely and with good results is a huge boost.”
The Táin Organising Committee, in conjunction with Ard Comhairle, is responsible for setting fixtures and guarantees the primacy of those fixtures, ensuring there are no conflicts with other codes in a county.
“To get people in some counties to accept that this time around they couldn’t put football games up against them was a step forward and I think we will progress from that. I think there is an increasing awareness,” says Pat Daly, Head of Games Development.
“For example in Cavan, they have now decreed that Monday and Wednesday are now hurling only nights and there can’t be any interference. These are all small developments but they are welcome developments.”
The fixtures schedule for the new competition complements that of the Allianz Hurling League and the three knock-out competitions beneath Liam MacCarthy Cup level – the Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher Cups.
It means players will have three competitive club games in February before the start of the inter-county season, which begins on February 26 with Round 1 of the Allianz Hurling League. Throughout March and April, the Allianz League and the Táin League are woven into the schedule on different weekends.
“A fella starts out playing hurling in the Táin League goes through February, continues his Allianz League with his county so we have a structured programme of games. We’re putting into practice our own mantra of fix the games and give the clubs games,” O’Neill says.
“To strengthen counties for the Allianz League we had to start hurling before the League starts. That’s why it’s in February. Our engagement with the clubs will end in mid-June. Now they go back to their own counties and they have the benefit of hitting the ground running. We’ve added huge value to that in the four months.”
Round three of the competition takes place this Saturday and to illustrate just how innovative the competition is, all one has to do is look at the fixture list .The Division 5A meeting of Knocks Grattans from Fermanagh and St Fechins of Louth at Ballinamore on Saturday is a perfect example of the diversity of competition on offer.
“There is huge excitement because people are playing new clubs, getting to meet new people, they are playing a new style of hurling and they are all learning from each other. That’s huge,” O’Neill adds.
“The fact that there is a conglomerate of counties with that many teams and that many matches has a spin-off effect also. It gives a huge opportunity for the three provinces involved to develop their referees because referees have to be found.”
O’Neill, who will take over as Uachtarán CLG from Christy Cooney in April, insists the Táin Hurling League is a long-term project that he is determined to see out to the end. There are already plans to expand it to include a Táin Youth Hurling League for club teams, school teams and Talent Academy Squads in 2013.
“People will see that when I appointed the new hurling committee that I am serious about hurling and appointing people who will do the right job for me. I am going to continue what has been started here.
“That’s a huge message that has been sent out here. They’re getting the full attention and commitment of the top official in the organisation for a three-year period. I can’t send out any stronger message than that.”
Named after the Táin Bó Cúailgne, with the introduction of the Táin Hurling League the GAA has taken the bull by the horns with regard to the reviving and strengthening hurling in developing counties.