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The GAA is built on the values of community and local bonds. Players and supporters are fiercely loyal to their clubs and counties and rivalries with surrounding areas naturally form.
Very rarely is any middle ground formed between life-long rivals but that is exactly the unique premise that the Electric Ireland Higher Education Championships are built on.
Kilkenny and Wexford is one of the most ferocious rivalries within the GAA and their battles in Leinster every year always extract the very best from both sides. Bordering one another means each county is well aware of their ‘noisy neighbour’ and rarely are their exchanges pleasant, at least not on a hurling field.
However, thanks to the Electric Ireland Fitzgibbon Cup, those borders are being broken down with two stars of the game, Richie Leahy of Kilkenny and Wexford’s Shane Reck, laying aside their county prejudices for the good of IT Carlow, whose second-round clash with GMIT on Friday evening will be streamed live on www.electricireland.ie/hec .
Last July, the duo marked each other on Leinster Final day in Croke Park, with Reck and Wexford memorably prevailing, but having played alongside each other for two years in college, there was no animosity between the pair at the final whistle.
“It’s one of our fiercest rivalries, always has been, always will be. It’s an extra buzz, it’s a derby when Wexford play Kilkenny”, Reck told Pundit Arena.
“We took it seriously, we’d be messing with each other in college but we took it seriously that day. We weren’t friends on the pitch.
“He said ‘well done’ and I said ‘hard luck’ [at the end]. I actually text him for the All-Ireland final to wish him luck.
“We’re close now. It was funny marking him when I had to because we’re normally together and fighting for the one goal and then you’re the complete opposite then, you’re nearly killing him!”
The college have an impressive panel, boasting some of the best-known stars from counties such as Laois, Carlow, Wexford and Kilkenny. Bringing together rival players to represent the one jersey must be a challenge but Leahy insists that it was just a case of treating everyone as a friend.
“They’re just other people at the end of the day, you just have to try and make friends with them. I’d be friendly enough, I’d try to make friends with anyone!
Reck reiterated his statement and said the common goal bonded the group.
“We both started together. At first, you’d be quiet but when you’re on the team together then, you’re going for the one goal – trying to win a Fitzgibbon Cup. Then you bond, we see each other every day in college so we’ve become best friends really.”
IT Carlow have always been a major side in the Electric Ireland Fitzgibbon Cup but despite reaching the final in 2016, the side have yet to lift the prestigious trophy.
In 2018, DJ Carey’s men fell to eventual champions UL at the semi-final stage while last year, they were overcome by UCC in the final eight.
Having experienced both those losses together, Leahy maintains that the group are galvanised for this season’s challenge.
“The loss the first year I was on the panel with Shane, against UL, that was a tough one to take and last year was another tough one against UCC especially to see them go on and win it.
“Hopefully this year we’ll be able to bond more closely and see how we go. I can feel the bond growing in this side. There’s a good buzz around the place, we’re bonding well so it’s a good sign.”
Reck also shared his optimism for the year ahead as Carlow look to reach new heights and make history.
“We’ve been building for the last two years now and I think this is our strongest team now so we’re hoping to do well this year and go one step further.”
Electric Ireland HE GAA Fitzgibbon Cup Round 2: IT Carlow v GMIT on Friday, January 17 in Carlow IT at 7pm.
Electric Ireland’s Sigerson, Fitzgibbon and Higher Education Championship campaign, FirstClassRivals, showcases the unique trait of these historic GAA competitions that sees unexpected alliances form when fierce county rivals put aside their differences to play together, challenge together, and win together.
Electric Ireland is proud to support the Higher Education Championships and will live stream a selection of Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cup games. Watch the games and follow the Championship at www.electricireland.ie/hec and be a part of the conversation on social media using the hashtag, #FirstClassRivals or visit @ElectricIreland on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.