In the column immediately preceding this one, comment was passed on the challenges facing and progress made by other Leinster counties in hurling in the recent past and which appear to be ongoing. My initial intention was to examine the malaise a couple of Munster counties currently find themselves in also. However, instinct is that there may be deeper issues at play in both locations and more might come to light as time goes by.
Somewhere else signs of promise have reached fulfilment is in Meath hurling. Anyone who listened to my most recent podcast https://boylantalkssport.com/2019/06/29/boylan-talks-podcast-june-29th-2019 will have heard me make reference to the work done by Paul Reilly, John Reilly and others towards the betterment of underage hurling in particular over a long number of years.
Their efforts first began to yield discernible fruits with the annexation of the Nicky Rackard Cup a decade ago and though progress may have seemed incremental at times, it’d be fair to say that the county’s hurling fortunes have been on an upward trajectory ever since. To see Meath not only contesting hurling finals at adult level nationally but winning them only adds to the sense of a new dawn.
It goes even deeper than that. Think back to the 2016 Christy Ring final and the manner in which they reeled Antrim back after looking like they were on a sinking ship. Nobody in Dunboyne will forget Sean Quigley’s magical ‘winner’ in what turned out to be the original game against the Glensmen.
However, with hindsight, the standout from all that ensued at that time has to be the fortitude shown by the Meath team and those around them. Not only in terms of hauling themselves back into the original joust with ‘Sambo’ McNaughton’a side but, maybe even more due to the manner in which they dealt with the brouhaha surrounding the technicalities in the case and managed to go out and do the job again.
A promotion in the National League followed soon after their Croke Park excellence and though they remain domiciled in the same group in the spring competition, sometimes after an elevation of status consolidation is the most important thing. Which will doubtless be their main aim having negotiated their way back into the Joe McDonagh Cup having had all too brief a sojourn therein in 2017.
Now, as was stated in a previous outing here, for the first time in a very long time, some hurling was actually seen ‘in the flesh’ this year. That is to say, as much of Meath’s game against London as the one seeing eye could pick up. Even from that partial viewing though a couple of things were very evident: (a) that in Shane McGann and Jack Regan Meath have two players of comparable class with anybody in the country and (b) the work being put in at underage level is absolutely paying dividends as the hurling fortunes of the county continue on an upward trajectory.
The difficulties I experience in trying to watch hurling person should be fairly well known at this stage so this corner isn’t going to claim to have seen all and know all. However, there is one barometer – perhaps simplistic – which to me underlines how for Meath have come in recent, and maybe no so recent, seasons.
Not all that long ago, Antrim, Down and Derry could put it up to and in some cases usurp the elite. Remember Antrim, under the guidance of the late Jim Nelson, and with such unforgettable characters as ‘Sambo’, Olcan McFetridge and Niall Patterson in tow, ousted Offaly and performed with credit against terrific a Tipperary team.
A couple of years thereafter, Down gave then-All Ireland kingpins Cork a right rattle, on foot of which Gerald McGrattan ended up an All Star and Noel Sands became a household name among hurling aficionados. Then it was Derry’s turn to have a bit of a uprising as, with Geoffrey McGonigle, the very talented Oliver Collins and indeed the great Brian McGilligan of football fame (McGonigle was a fine footballer too) in their ranks to arrive on Jones’s Road and prove their worth.
My reason for mentioning all of the above is simply that in recent times Meath have defeated all three counties. In some cases multiply. Looking through a different lens it could be said that has more to do with regression by the Ulster sides – something I suppose validated by the fact that they are in a lower tier also.
For one thing, though, there was only one show in town when they were causing shockwaves and for another I believe that the current bountiful spell being enjoyed by Meath hurling has more to do with them coming forward than anybody else going the other way. Where Antrim beat Offaly and Down gave Cork a run, see Meath’s annexation of the All Ireland B Championship in 1993 and tussling manfully with Offaly three years later.
Yes, there were fluctuations of fortune in the years the followed but from the time the Nicky Rackard Cup was captured a decade there’s a been a stability and upward trend to the county’s hurling status. Only a couple of seasons ago they were competing in the Walsh Cup and while they’d since returned to the other pre-season competition (Keogh Cup), competing against a better calibre of opponent will have brought them on too.
Mention was afforded earlier to the fact that, in all probability, having returned to the Joe McDonagh Cup competition, the most important thing initially will be to stay therein. Instinct is to feel they well too. Not only as evidenced by the impact made by the likes of Nicky Potterton and Callum O’Sullivan off the bench. Or even that they were able to absorb the loss of team captain Sean Geraghty as well as Paul Fagan, Sean Quigley and others during their campaign.
Equally, however, good work is evidently ongoing with underage teams too. Meath teams regularly compete well in Celtic Challenge contests while it also must be encouraging to see Royal hurlers taking part in Leinster Championships ‘proper’ in the underage competitions, and though it doesn’t always go to plan, only by at first taking the step up will you eventually bed in thence.
Now, the following might seem an absolute contradiction of what immediately preceded it, but, Meath’s participation in the All Ireland U-20 B Championship could be not only one of the most significant developments but also one of the most closely followed. Yes, that is the sporting romantic in me taking hold, but what of it?
Reason being, of course, the inclusion of Sean Boylan in Vinny Guy’s management team. What more can be said about my neighbour? Only that his involvement in anything will improve the profile, prospects and outlook of who or whatever it is. The man’s enthusiasm is endless. I know one former player contacted him when news of his hurling appointment broke and – not surprisingly – his response was “When I saw their (players) enthusiasm I felt like a young fella again”. Seeing such interest and drive emanate from the near-76-year-old is enough to nearly get these legs pumping again so I can only imagine the effect it’d have on the bunch of young lads with which he is now involved.
Which is why it was most disappointing to see their campaign get off to such a limp start when Louth conceded victory before a ball was pucked at all. There were other walkovers in the competition too which hardly does anything for either its standing or the development of hurling in the counties involved. But that might be for another day.
For now, though, better to reflect on what’s going well. Specifically, if I may, the Dunboyne contribution thereto. Which is quite vast across the county teams and codes. Let’s conclude near where we began. How fitting it was that Paul Reilly was involved in another great day for Meath hurling.
In the aftermath of Christy Ring’s return to Meath, Frank Dempsey – the voice of Meath hurling – posted a video to his latest medium, Meath Daily TV, in which he reckoned he’d unearthed a new poet – none other than the talented Mr Reilly! Luckily, I was happily able to enlighten my friend and colleague from Trim. Many a Dunboyne victory were commemorated with a Paul poem. In fact, no significant occasion would be complete without a production from the man we call An Runai!
Hopefully he has plenty more writing to do.