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UL and Na Piarsaigh hurler Ronan Lynch pictured at the launch for the Electric Ireland Higher Education Championships.
UL and Na Piarsaigh hurler Ronan Lynch pictured at the launch for the Electric Ireland Higher Education Championships.

Ronan Lynch is ready for Fitzgibbon campaign

By Eoghan Tuohey

There are few competitions in the GAA that allow for such a broad range of talented players, hailing from spectrum of counties, display their skills alongside team-mates whom they would ordinarily see as foes, as the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson cups.

In recent years, the Higher Education third level competitions have grown in stature, popularity and importance, reflected in the player interest that surrounds them this time of year.

Ronan Lynch was on hand in Croke Park to help launch this year’s championships, and the Na Piarsaigh clubman is well aware of how difficult retaining this title will be.

“That’s the big challenge isn’t it? They say good teams win titles but great teams retain them, that’s the challenge for this year. Last year, we had an exceptional squad, we would have felt that if we could get ourselves playing as a team, we’d have a great chance of winning, just because of the calibre of player we had. But this year, all the squads are so good and it’s just such a level playing field, it’s going to be tricky to get ahead of the pack.”

Unlike most other GAA competitions, panels rarely remain intact for more than a campaign or two. This volatility in a team’s makeup makes retention of titles a very difficult task, and it’s something that UL have yet to achieve, having only become a force in recent times. They currently sit fifth on the overall roll of honour, boasting six titles.

There are many uncontrollable factors at play which can bolster or weaken an institutions’ squad entering the new season, and perhaps this uncertainty has helped to increase the awareness of these competitions, as each side can consider themselves as genuine contenders, and the possibility of one team dominating for a long spell is unlikely.

Indeed, it could be argued that no college has truly lorded the Fitzgibbon cup since UCC won eight in a row in the 1980s, three in a row in a row between 1995-1998, or when LIT and WIT traded titles from 2002-2008. It’s a refreshing contest, but management are at the mercy of circumstances often outside of their control. This UL side, for instance, will be down several of their stars who helped claim last year’s crown, including some senior inter-county All-Ireland winners, and will not be easily replaced.

Ronan Lynch, Na Piarsaigh, and Pauric Mahony, Ballygunner, during last month's AIB Munster Club Senior Hurling Final at Semple Stadium.
Ronan Lynch, Na Piarsaigh, and Pauric Mahony, Ballygunner, during last month's AIB Munster Club Senior Hurling Final at Semple Stadium.

“We’ve lost a good few now, to be honest,” Lynch admits. “A lot of high profile lads, like Jason Forde, who last year had a super year, Tony Kelly, Gearoid Hegarty, we have lost a few high quality players, but I suppose, as with most colleges at this level, when you can’t play freshers you’ve a crop of super inter-county players coming in every year.

“We’re lucky in that regard, we have a lot coming in and we have kept a good few from last year, there’s never a year in UL where you don’t have a strong squad. The challenges are there for everybody, across the board. Once you get to Fitzgibbon level in January, it’s nearly inter-county that you’re playing. Our squad is good, we’ll have a nice bit of work to do over the next couple of weeks, and it can be disjointed at this time of the year, with fellas coming back from county panels and clubs.

“There’s a few of them gone yeah. You’d be missing the likes of Mike Casey, Sean Finn, Hegarty, a couple more, although Tom Morrissey will be available, he’s gone back doing a Masters. But, at the same time, you are getting back lads to replace those that you’re losing.”

The defending champions, unsurprisingly, have opted to stick with the same management team, led by former Limerick hurler and mentor, Gary Kirby. Yet, despite the inevitable exodus of final-year students from panels each year, comes the equally inevitable influx of fresh new talent. This is occurring at perhaps increased levels in Limerick institutions at the moment, as between UL and Mary Immaculate College, they are now going for the county’s fifth Fitzgibbon title in a row. And, according to Lynch, this year will be no different in terms of the quality upon the conveyor belt.

“Yeah, a rake of the Tipp fellas that won an Under 21 All-Ireland are in now as well, a lot of good fellas. The good thing about college and the best thing about the Fitzgibbon is that you’re playing at such a high level, there’s a lot of national notoriety attached to it, but also then, you have lads who mightn’t be playing at the top inter-county level who are also getting a chance to impress. We’ve a couple of lads from Carlow, from Connacht counties who are serious hurlers and are getting their chance to impress.”

The influential wing back/midfielder expressed his disappointment at his club, Na Piarsaigh, exiting the All-Ireland club campaign by losing the Munster final to Ballygunner. But, in the same breath, this is the first relatively prolonged break Lynch has had in a few years, and is allowing him to prepare for the January college competition in his own way and at his own pace, which is certainly a positive.

“It’s different now, it’s been awhile since I’ve had an entire winter or pre-season to focus on myself, and do my own bit. We were hugely disappointed to lose to Ballygunner, and we felt, looking back on it, we felt that there were a lot of things we could have done differently, but, at the same time, you have to hand it to them and they wanted it so badly. They had a lot of pain behind them as well, driving them on. They hugely deserved their win and I hope they go on and win it out.”

UL have been drawn in the so called “Group of Death”, alongside fellow heavyweights NUIG, UCC, UCD. The competition is sure to be as fierce as ever before this year.