Wicklow hurling using Celtic Challenge as launchpad
By John Harrington
The Celtic Challenge has been a hugely beneficial developmental competition for Wicklow hurling in recent years.
Of the senior panel that will play Donegal in the Nickey Rackard Cup Final on Saturday, June 3, 12 of them competed in the Celtic Challenge from 2016 to 2021.
Coming up hard on their heels is another very talented generation of Garden County hurlers.
Last year two Wicklow teams, Wicklow Blue and Wicklow Gold, reached Celtic Challenge Finals with Wicklow Blue winning the Corn William Robinson Final and Wicklow Gold losing to a strong Kildare Lilywhites team in the Corn Tom Hogan Final.
This year the Garden County once again fielded two very talented teams, with Wicklow Gold reaching the Corn Jerome O’Leary semi-final and Wicklow Blue in action this Sunday in the Corn Michael Feery Final against Monaghan.
According to Wicklow GAA Games Development Administrator, Conor Daly, the county’s ability to consistently compete in the Celtic Challenge is a testament to the hard work being put in by both players and coaches in the county in recent years.
“The Celtic Challenge has been a great developmental competition for Wicklow hurling,” Daly told GAA.ie
“There's a great crop of young hurlers coming through in the county and the extra exposure they get to a high level through the Celtic Challenge is huge for them.
“These lads want to hurl in that Wicklow jersey and they want to hurl at a higher standard. It's great to see the passion from the players, the passion from the coaches because it helps greatly with the promotion of hurling in the county.
“This year we had two U-15 academy squad teams with over 50 players at every training session. Really dedicated young lads and really dedicated coaches and they're really pushing the standards.”
One of the most encouraging things from a Wicklow hurling point of view is that in recent years they’ve grown the base of the game.
There’s an increasingly big representation on inter-county teams of players from the west of the county where clubs like Western Gaels and Kiltegan are doing great developmental work.
Bray Emmets underlined the rising standard of Wicklow hurling by winning last year’s Leinster Intermediate club championship, and wherever Daly looks he sees other positive signs of growth.
“There’s now a real drive and grá for hurling in Wicklow,” he says. “As you say, a club like Western Gaels have done great work, and then there are other encouraging signs like Avoca who would have had a hurling team many moons ago and are starting again now at nursery level.
“Wicklow might not be viewed as a hurling county but we're trying to change the tide and there's some good people driving it. We have great lads involved with our academy squads who are driving a great standard.
“There’s good competition in the county now at senior and intermediate level. Bray are obviously the benchmark but they haven't won their titles in recent years easily and it will be a tight senior championship again this year.
“Even last year in the Final Glenealy brought them to a replay and probably should have won the first game. Bray are setting the standard and it's up to other clubs to catch them and there's been great work done around the county from juvenile all the way up to senior.
“The likes of Aughrim GAA who won the Junior last year have gone up Intermediate. Western Gaels are up Intermediate and in the next couple of years they'll look at pushing to be a senior team which is a great because the more senior teams we have playing the more exposure they'll get.
“You need to get the young lads in and if they see their club doing well at hurling it gets them interested. The volunteers are there at grassroots level. My phone is constantly going asking for tips, asking for visits. They have a real passion for it.”
Wicklow have successfully used the Celtic Challenge as a platform on which to build in recent years and another title on Sunday would offer further proof the player pathway in the county is in rude health.
They’re bringing through more and more young players of a very good standard, and that’s why Daly is ambitious about the short to medium term future of Wicklow hurling.
“In terms of bridging the gap to the traditional hurling powers, we are getting there steadily,” he says.
“The population is growing in Wicklow. There's a lot of people coming in from outside, even from the Munster region, who are looking at growing hurling.
“That's the main thing. Once you get a good buy-in from coaches and volunteers that are interested in hurling and want to grow the game there's nothing to stop a county like Wicklow progressing and achieving my personal goal of competing strongly at Tier 2 in minor and U20 and producing enough talented players to then compete well in the Joe McDonagh Cup.”
The results of every match in this year's Celtic Challenge and the fixture details for this weekend's finals can be viewed and downloaded below.