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Gaelic games players reflect on importance of competitions lost to level five

With the college Gaelic games competitions that normally brighten up these weeks shelved for '21, Colm McGuirk gets a flavour of what players will be missing out on this year
Aishling Moloney and Sarah Rowe celebrate winning the 2018 O’Connor Cup. Photo courtesy of Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Let’s not kid ourselves here; the cancellation of camogie, football and hurling competitions for higher education students measures fairly low on the adversity scale in the current scheme of things.

Parking perspective for a moment though, to compete and succeed in these tournaments is often a huge honour for young players, and an important formative experience on and away from the pitch. It’s another experience the class of 2020/21 will have to do without.

Tipperary star and Ladies Gaelic Football Association ambassador Aishling Moloney has, at 22, a mantlepiece for a veteran to envy — two intermediate football All-Ireland medals, two national league titles, and a Player of the Year award, not to speak of club honours. Representing her university, DCU, has brought more glory.

“I was honoured to be captain of the O’Connor Cup winning team in 2018, and to live that all over again would be a dream,” she says. “It’s sad to see that it won’t be going ahead this year but, given the circumstances, it is the appropriate call.”

“I’ve made best friends for life playing with DCU, and will always cherish the wonderful memories”

Aisling Moloney

Sporting accomplishment is one thing; forging friendships that can long outlast a student’s playing days is at least as valuable for many players. Moloney describes her time playing for DCU as “a very special part of my experience as a student. It’s different from any other competition; your social life mixed with playing football. It’s a roller-coaster. I’ve made best friends for life and will always cherish the wonderful memories.”

Dozens of competitions across four codes give students of all levels the chance to compete, and the upper tiers feature much of the best young talent around. 

“Getting the opportunity to play among and against some of the best players in the country is a real privilege,” Moloney says.

Aishling Moloney receives the Player of the Match award for the 2018 O’Connor Cup final. Photo courtesy of Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Monaghan footballer Conor Boyle agrees. Now a regular starter with his county, he was on the fringes when he won a Sigerson Cup with DCU in 2015.

“It’s a very high standard and it’s a great opportunity to get onto your county squad. If you start on a UCD team, for example, you’re not going to be far off getting on your county panel, even for the top counties.

“The DIT team of 2013 was ridiculous! I remember their full-forward line was Darren O’Sullivan, Aiden O’Shea and Jason Doherty. You’re looking at those three walking on and thinking, ‘What have I signed up for here?’”

He remembers, too, the confidence he gained from excelling among such company.

“I found after a while it made you see that you’re at a similar level to a lot of these players you’d play against on the inter-county scene. The year before we won it we were playing with the likes of Johnny Cooper, James McCarthy, Dean Rock, and when you were playing with Monaghan you’d nearly look at these boys like they’re at a different level. But playing with them on the college team can open your eyes that there’s no big gap between players in a lot of these top teams, and those from smaller counties.

“I trained with Dean Rock for a full year and I can’t say that he’s any better than [Boyle’s club-mate] Conor McManus. It’s a good leveller because you put a lot of these boys from more successful counties on pedestals sometimes.”

While undergrads missing out this year may at least get another bite at the cherry, there may be, in the words of Kildare hurler Martin Fitzgerald, “no tomorrow” for postgraduate students.

“Most of what I learned in hurling, I learned playing Fitzgibbon Cup”

Martin Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald captained Limerick Institute of Technology in hurling’s coveted Fitzgibbon Cup while studying for a Master’s in 2013, before going on to win two Christy Ring Cups with his county.

He sees that year in Munster — under the management of Davy Fitzgerald — as crucial to his development.

“Most of what I learned in hurling, I learned playing Fitzgibbon Cup. That was the best year I had of my playing career, and if I hadn’t had it, I probably wouldn’t have experienced that level of hurling ever.”

Martin Fitzgerald in action for his club Ardclough

He notes the value of training and preparing alongside county players from the country’s top sides.

“I found it really interesting when I went in there to see what the Laois hurlers, the Clare hurlers, the Limerick hurlers were doing. Everybody brought something different that you might not be exposed to at club and county level. So you got insights into how the rest of the country was preparing.

“You pick up things that you can implement at home, that I could have implemented with Kildare and my own club Ardclough as well.”

Fitzgerald says the self-discipline and focus required to lead his LIT team fed into his studies too.

“Playing Fitzgibbon cup put a huge amount of structure on my college life,” he tells The City, “because it’s the highest level of hurling there is really at that age group.”

Camogie player Sinead Murphy has represented Dublin at intermediate level and should have been playing in the Ashbourne Cup for UCD this year.

“I think it’s great for player development,” she says. “Especially for players like myself that don’t play senior inter-county. It allows you to play at a higher level and train with and play against some of the best camogie players in the country.”

Murphy is next in line to stress the value of these tournaments for their off-field perks.

“From a social side, I think, especially in first year, it’s a great way to get to know people and to have a few more familiar faces around campus. I think what’s great about college sport is the mix of people you meet that you wouldn’t have met otherwise. You’re playing with girls doing a wide range of courses from different counties.”

Darragh Biddlecombe, GAA Development Officer at TU Dublin, feels sorry “for this year’s freshers cohort especially, who have missed out on their camogie, ladies football and GAA experience. It can be so important for making friends and settling into university life.

“In light of public health and the safety of everyone, [cancelling the tournaments] was the right thing to do. If it’s safe to return, hopefully a dedicated second year championship can be run next year for this group.”

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