Paudie O’Neill, the man in charge of protecting and developing the game, speaks to Fiona O’Brien about how the GAA brings people together
This year, Croke Park’s Hurling Development Committee launched a three year action plan to ensure that the game survives long into the future. Its chairperson, former Tipperary and Dublin star, Paudie O’Neill believes that the key to increasing participation and maintaining interest in the sport is more meaningful fixtures.
The plan singles out every county in Ireland into different categories; areas that the game needs to be protected, such as in hurling strongholds of Kilkenny and Cork, where it needs to be strengthened, and where it needs to be completely developed. London and Warwickshire fall into the latter category, and O’Neill said it is important to him to ensure that football is not the only option available for youths over here to experience GAA.
“We just launched the action plan this year, and we have specific timeframes where we will analyse and review what has worked and what we can improve upon,” he says.
“We are keen then, perhaps towards the end of the year, to speak to the Provincial Council of Britain to see where we can implement and involve their counties in developing hurling.”
O’Neill was speaking after the recent launch of an all new national hurling competition for 16 to 17- year-olds. It is designed to replace the old Minor B and C championships, and promises to ‘celebrate mass participation and champion several exciting new initiatives in the game’.
A total of 1,000 players are involved in a schedule of 110 matches, from May 4 until the finals on June 18. This means that 800 players who wouldn’t have been involved otherwise will take place in 800 new matches. A total of 38 teams from across 31 counties and featuring county as well as regional sides will take part across seven groups that are determined on a geographical and developmental basis.
Players want to play
At the time Aogán Ó Fearghail, Uachtarán CLG, said: “All of us involved in the GAA recognise only too well the enormous treasure that is the game of hurling and are fully cognisant of the fact that its health and well-being is something that has been entrusted to us to secure for future generations.
“This new competition has the potential to do just that and play a pivotal role in the nurturing and development of the great game.
“The best way of celebrating what we have is by playing our games. “This initiative looks to support where the game of hurling is already well established while also looking to strengthen its presence in new areas.”
Paudie O’Neill is also ambitious of the competitions hopes, stating that he believes that excessive training without competition is what harms the sport. “If you ask a young hurler what their favourite aspect of the sport is, it is always to play games.
“No one ever says training. So that’s why we set up guidelines that teams could only begin to prepare in the fortnight leading up to the tournament, as we want to move away from burnout, and develop skills in a competitive environment.
In total there will be 22 county teams and 16 sides that represent regions from within Tier 1 hurling counties such as South Kilkenny, Waterford City and West Limerick. After an initial round-robin group phase of matches, teams will be graded on their performance and will then be assigned to one of five Divisions for the Preliminaries and the Play Offs where again they will compete against teams of a similar level of ability.
“I think the only way you can improve, that anyone improves, is by playing against maybe superior opposition. You need to challenge yourself.
“When we did the preparation for this, we learned that kids want to play against the best.
“So they aren’t seeded out of playing against the very top teams, and if they do well and perform the rewards are there for them.
“We’ve also introduced slightly different scoring, so for example you get bonus points for scoring two or more goals, while also awarding a losing bonus point for a defeated team that loses by a margin of five points or less.
“It keeps it fresh and interesting, and we also award the ‘Best and Fairest Award’ that will see referees after every match choose one player from each team selected on the basis of their skill level as well as the respect they showed to the playing rules, match officials and their fellow players.”
Paudie has recently returned from Germany, where he visited a GAA team in Berlin. While there he saw the power the GAA has in bringing people together.
“It has always been the case that the GAA is a great place for Irish people to connect with other Irish people abroad, and keep that little bit of home.