Naas hurling club blossoming out of broad roots
By Kevin Egan
In 2001, two decades ago this year, Naas hurling club won their fifth ever Kildare senior hurling championship. They had lost the previous year’s final, they would go on to add a sixth crown in 2002, and on the surface, all was well.
Yet this silverware was being collected all while a nagging sense of worry was going through the club about what was to come. Not long before, Naas fielded an U-16 hurling team in a C final, which was the lowest grade in the county at the time. Their starting 15 for this game, and that was all they had, included both U-13 hurlers and some members of the local camogie side in order to reach that magic number. While some smaller, rural clubs might find themselves in similar situations occasionally due to sheer demographic pressure, the same would never be true of a club like Naas, even back at the turn of the millennium, when the population of the area was yet to explode.
At the subsequent county board meeting, the question was asked what was happening in Naas at juvenile hurling level that a team was cobbled together for the match. Comments such as ‘very little’, ‘inaction’ and ‘lack of ambition’ were made, as was ‘you reap what you sow’.
Fast forward to this year, and at senior level, the situation is the same. Naas lost two county senior finals in succession in 2016 and 2017, and hardened by that experience, they scaled the top of the mountain in 2019.
The 2020 championship is yet to be completed, but they’ve reached yet another final, with Confey the only other club in the county still standing.
There, however, is where the similarities with the scenario in 2001 come to an end.
The chastising at that fateful gathering of the Kildare county board hit the mark, and what followed was to be arguably one of the most successful shake-ups of a club underage structure that has ever happened in the GAA, and one that has carried Kildare hurling to new heights in the process.
When the Lily Whites go out to play Roscommon on Sunday afternoon in Dr. Hyde Park, they will do so with 11 players from the club on the panel, eight of which started their most recent game against Derry. This group will go on to compete in the Joe McDonagh Cup, arguably the highest level the county has hurled at since the late 1970’s, when they were part of the Leinster championship – peaking in 1976 with their narrow defeat to eventual champions Wexford.
At underage level, this presence is even more pronounced. 11 more players are part of this year’s U-20 panel, 15 more will compete for places in the minor championship side, and the story is similar all the way down along the line through the various development and academy panels.
This is the point in the story where people reading this will try to identify what’s the magic secret. Or in some cases, to dismiss it as a result of simple demographics.
Undoubtedly, the incredible growth in population was a factor. According to the 2016 census, the town’s population came in at just under 22,000 people, and that has continued to expand since then.
Yet the story is about so much more than that, and that’s where we bring in some of the key figures from the club, starting with John Holmes, who oversees juvenile hurling in the club.
“We do have good numbers, but we’re still probably the fourth sport of choice in the town, after football, rugby and soccer. We would have close to 400 members from U-16 down, the numbers are that big bigger at the smaller ages of course, but we’re lucky to have a large cohort of very dedicated coaches and volunteers, so we do everything we can to make it a fun and enjoyable experience for everyone.
“We have a player pathway plan that informs everything we do, and it’s all about keeping players coming to the club and enjoying the experience” he says.
Anyone who has visited the club facilities will know the impressive infrastructure that is in place, with four pitches and a fantastic club house that includes modern facilities that cater for the needs of players of all ages. However by the time the needs of adult and underage teams for GAA, LGFA and camogie are looked after, space is still at a premium – all the more so in 2021 when one of the four pitches is out of action for repair.
That in turn has led to some innovative measures, such as the weekly Hurling on the Green during the summer months of July and August, where the Naas Hurling community go to the open green areas in the parks and estates of Naas and have a hurling night. Each year the Hurling on the Green event begins and ends with a BBQ, lots of hurling and all the family are invited to share in the experience. At these occasions, the club recruits’ new members from our community who may not have a history of hurling, but want to have fun, make friends and be part of the hurling family.
David Delahunty, a Tipperary native, explains why these sort of measures are successful.
“This is a very transient town – most of the people at committee level in the club are people who are from around the country, be it Laois, Galway, Kilkenny, or myself from Tipp. We can’t expect families that move here to have an emotional attachment to the club, so it’s on us to try and build that connection by creating a fun experience for everyone involved”.
Once school settles back in September, the street league commences, where any new players are given a hurl and sliotar as a welcome gift, the leagues are run off every week, and the players don the jerseys of all the tier one counties.
Fast forward to Spring, and the indoor marathon happens – players get to showcase their skills in a 12-hour hurling marathon performed by the juvenile section. Each group gets an hour to have fun with their friends in a family friendly environment. This is followed by the awarding of medals and certs to the players for all their hard work, with a little party at the end.
“It is all about developing hurling in our community. The players and their families know this” David says.
Passionate administration, large numbers of players, a devotion to creating a thoroughly enjoyable experience for players of all ages and abilities – all of this explains why the club is thriving in terms of playing numbers, right up to adult level where the hope is to field a fourth adult team in the 2021 championships. In 2019, the last year there was a full programme of games played in the county, Naas came away with the honours at senior, intermediate, junior, minor and U-21 level. Consequently, that has led to a steady flow of adult players into an already successful adult structure, so the hope in the club is that there will be a Junior “B” competition in the county for them to enter.
Given the fact that many of the traditional hurling clubs in Kildare are more rural based, picking from smaller communities, getting these core aspects right would in itself be enough to put hurling in Naas on a strong footing – yet it’s here where the club really goes the extra mile, or many miles, to be honest.
A little over a decade ago, the recovery was well underway, to the point that an underage competition in the county saw Naas 1 and Naas 2 reach the final. This led to the collective realisation that while the club would always be committed to the domestic programme of fixtures in Kildare, that they had the playing numbers and the ability – and some would say the need – to spread their wings and branch out into other counties.
This led to the decision to compete in Kilkenny competitions at U-12 level, while they have also taken part in underage competitions in Dublin in the past. Moreover, even aside from any structured games such as these, there is a huge culture in the club of travelling all over the country to get top quality challenge matches, taking on opposition from every county.
Austin Bergin is a Laois man, a graduate of the hurling nursery that is St. Kieran's College in Kilkenny, and chairman of Naas hurling club. He says location, connections, and relationships built up from a very special competition that takes place in Naas every year are all a factor.
“Given where we are on the M7, we can be in a lot of places within an hour, and there is huge enthusiasm from the local parents for games all around the country.
“We run an annual U-10 tournament which is now over 20 years in existence. It requires an extraordinary effort from all in the club, including the grounds committee, executive, mentors, players, and parents. Every year builds on the experience of the previous year. But this tournament draws famous hurling clubs from all over Ireland to take part, and when these clubs come here and they see the standards that are in place, then a relationship starts and you’ll have those games regularly for years afterwards”.
“At juvenile level, the difference between the really skilled players and those who are more in the middle of the pack isn’t as pronounced, that only grows with time” says John Holmes.
“As long as we keep getting these games of a really high standard, it’s easier for our players to keep pace with the development of hurlers from Tipperary, Kilkenny or wherever”.
No opportunity gets missed. All-Ireland semi-final and final weekends can be particularly busy, as their convenient location yet again comes to the fore.
“What’ll happen is that teams from some of the Munster counties will be travelling up to Croke Park and they might look to stop here for a game along the way” says Austin.
Club mentors, who might come from various parts of the country, bring teams back down to their home clubs, while they’ve also been a regular feature at Féile na nGael down the years, winning Canon Fogarty Cups (National Division Two titles) in 2014 and 2018, not to mention camogie Division Three titles in 2012 and 2016. All of these different avenues keep Naas connected to something akin to a national hurling network, and by being plugged into so many outlets, that power is produced in Kildare competitions, and the intercounty scene.
The lessons of 20 years ago haven’t been forgotten however.
“You have to make hay while the sun shines, there are no guarantees in sport”, concludes the Ballacolla man.
He says that, but it’s probably guaranteed that Naas hurling club struggling to round up 15 players for a county final won’t come around again. Their roots have grown too deep and too wide for that.