This year’s Bank of Ireland Celtic Challenge has proven to be a breeding ground for some of the top young hurlers from across the country to showcase their talents on the county stage.
Over the first three matchdays, the competition has seen some titanic, fiercely fought clashes between counties whose hurling rivalries are as old as time.
There are however two teams battling at the top of their respective groups, who will be more than familiar with one another.
Wicklow Gold and Wicklow Blue, both of whom have won their opening three games.
The Garden County decided to enter two teams in this year’s Celtic Challenge, despite not being widely regarded as a major hurling hotbed, with both sides thriving in their respective groups.
“It’s fantastic”, Jonathan Tallon, Wicklow Games and Development Officer told Pundit Arena, of the county’s early success.
“We set our goals for the start of the year that we were in division five the last couple of years so what we said was we’d enter our second team into a division five and then our first team would be able to push for a division three.
“With the Celtic Challenge you are getting to play the likes of Kilkenny’s second team and third team so I mean ideally we’d like to be competing at division one, division two up around Wexford, Kilkenny, Tipperary and if we’re doing that, then I suppose that’s when we’ll know we’re ready for the step up.”
Tallon has been with Wicklow for the last three and a half years and his role revolves around the sport of hurling in the county, something that he has been developing with the help of volunteers and coaches.
He explained that having more manpower and a full-time member of staff dedicated to hurling has massively aided the growth of the game.
“When I came in it was just a couple of people who were volunteers and who were giving up their free time and naturally there’s only so much free time a volunteer can give.
“I suppose this current crop of minors, they were lucky in the sense that they had a full-time staff member who is able to put everything into them and that’s where we were able to get more and more players coming as well as getting the parents on board because of the fact that I was able to give more time to them.
“We were scraping 15 players for all of the age groups all the way up but now with more coaches getting on board and more people willing to help out at academy level, we are able to field two teams at every age group now so it’s all down to the manpower we have and in fairness to the clubs and the parents, they’ve all jumped on board and started to give help where it’s needed and we’re reaping the rewards from it now.”
Wicklow has traditionally been seen as more of a football lead county, with Tallon explaining that when he first arrived, the underage footballers indeed had a slightly more professional setup.
Fast-forward a few years and the playing field has been levelled, with the younger county setup improving with the addition of strength and conditioning coaches, physio work and nutrition plans.
Tallon explained that these small changes have made a massive difference in the perception of hurling in the county and subsequently have led to an increase in the sport’s interest.
“When I came in first, the football squads were getting S&C at U13, 14 and 15 and there was none of that for the hurling.
“The hurling was just a case of ‘sure rock on, get a jersey and you’ll get to play because there’s only ever 15 anyway’ whereas now we’ve managed to set it up so that we have S&C for U13s, 14s and 15s as well and now the choice between football and hurling is more difficult.
“Lads are looking thinking ‘right well, they’re both treated the same. You have your S&C, you have your nutrition you have your physio, everything is the exact same,’ and it’s down to what sport you prefer rather than do you want to play in a professional sense or in an amateur sense.”
With two teams comes the added incentive of more chances for young hurlers in Wicklow to represent their county on the big stage.
“We’ve 44 lads down training and 44 lads are getting a games so I mean going back to a stage when we’d have 15 lads playing and we might bring on five subs, straight away you’re doubling the number of lads who are representing their county and believe that they can go on and play U20 or play senior.”
There are still challenges facing both Wicklow Blue and Wicklow Gold despite their unbeaten starts to their respective groups. The competition will continue to get tougher.
The Garden County though have already proven that in a Celtic Challenge full of hurling’s heavy hitters, they are more than holding their own.