The Electric Ireland Sigerson, Fitzgibbon and Higher Education Championships are unlike club and county Championships. Team composition is determined by place of learning not place of birth allowing traditional rivals to form the most unexpected of alliances. The defence on the UL team that won the Fitzgibbon at the beginning of this decade summed up this spirit beautifully.
It was becoming increasingly obvious in the late 2000s that the University of Limerick was attracting some remarkable hurlers. By 2011 it all clicked and the team that ultimately proved successful in securing a Fitzgibbon Cup included:
Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh, Seamus Hickey, Paddy Stapleton, PJ Delaney, Brendan Bulger, Kieran Joyce, David Burke, Pa Cronin, Shane Dooley and Paul Kelly.
UL were predominately successful because of their ability defensively. In the semi-final, Shane Dooley was sent-off midway through the second half but UCC could not make it count on the scoreboard. They had two cornerbacks who would go on to become All-Stars and Munster champions for their county. Limerick’s Séamus Hickey and Tipperary’s Paddy Stapleton. For Hickey, there was no doubt what he wanted to do when he started college.
My induction day as a fresher, they were going looking at lecture halls and timetables. I went straight for the GAA office and asked when the Fitzgibbon trials were on! I saw it as an extension of school hurling and representing where you go. For me, I thought it was natural while developing as a hurler.
UL finally secured the Fitzgibbon Cup in 2010/11, after a ten-year spell without success. It was a victory forged from the despair of a defeat.
UL had a couple of years of very good teams. The year before we won we got to the Fitzgibbon weekend against WIT in NUIG, they were hosting it. WIT had talent, but they were, I suppose underdogs. we had an excellent team. All the people named there, we were very strong, and we lost. It was a bit of a slap in the face.
Fitzgibbon is about the 15 collective players, not who has the best players on paper. It is about who turns up on the weekend. It is special that way. We’d a great team, a great side every year I played with UL, but that year we got over the line because we could play start to finish.
As an eighteen-year-old, Hickey was called into the Limerick senior panel. As a result, he is one of the few who played Fitzgibbon after he'd been involved in inter-county hurling. It meant within seasons he saw team-mates become rivals.
I always found it different. I played against David Burke a number of times on the intercounty team and marked Pa Cronin playing against Cork. It is different dynamic and weird when you’re close enough and hurling on the same team. I was delighted to have those kinds of lads playing alongside me whenever!
All the buzz at the start of the year was who was available for the Fitz team. The likes of a Pa Cronin, David Burke, Paul Kelly. Brendan Bolger came back and did a postgrad, that was big buzz and great excitement at the start of the year. I’d played against Bolger before or Kieran Joyce with Kilkenny, Paddy [Stapleton] with Tipp for years in the championship. It was different. It was kind of part of the reason you wanted to play with them. They were on such good teams. That’s why it was such a special competition. I never got an opportunity to play with players like that if not for Fitzgibbon.
The Limerick hurler highlights the drawbacks to attending such a large university too. In attracting more students, it was inevitable it attracted more hurlers. But with that size and standard of player came logistical issues.
In those Fitzgibbon teams, you’ve an awful lot of lads committed to intercounty teams especially in a big university like UL. So, it’s hard to socialise in those circles. Getting the team bond was actually hard and getting a group of lads who knew each other well enough that they could actually go to war for each other was difficult.
Alongside Hickey, compounding a ferociously talented defensive unit was Paddy Stapleton. The Tipp man would go on to win two All-Ireland titles as well as a rack of other accolades and thus is precisely aware of what is required for a team to be successful.
Stapleton echoed Hickey's thoughts on the difficulties of playing with a large university.
We’d a good team alright. The biggest problem with UL was that we never saw each other compared to a smaller college. No matter how good lads are, if you don’t know each other well it was hard, but we clicked well enough now that year.
All the four years I was there we had a team with the talent capable of winning it.
They both agree that it finally clicked that year, which was a major benefactor.
You have to get to know each other, we socialised very well that year. It was no coincidence.
For Stapleton, that was a benefit that manifested itself in many ways.
You get that bit closer and can give out to each other then, which is a good sign of a team!
Galway's All-Ireland winning captain David Burke partnered Cork's Pa Cronin in midfield, two figures Stapleton hails as crucial to their triumph.
The two lads in the middle of the field, we wouldn’t have won anything without David Burke and Pa Cronin. Pa Cronin doesn’t get enough praise. Without him, we wouldn’t have won it. We had good players in the right spots.
Stapleton also had the experience of watching team-mates become rivals. However, as part of a star-studded unit of backs, it wasn't as big a problem as you would think.
Most of them are on the other side of the pitch so I had nothing to do with them! We got involved in something, put time and heart into it and got to know the lads. At the end of the day we wanted to win medals, it wasn’t 'oh ill face you in two months time.' We parked that. I also played club against Tipp lads, but it is what you are doing here and now.
Seamus Hickey (Limerick) taking a run at his former teammate, Paddy Stapleton (Tipperary)
In reality, it was a straightforward remedy that brought the accolade back to UL.
At the end of the day, we got on, we wanted a Fitzgibbon medal and we were going towards the same cause.
As for Hickey, the benefit from being a part of that team was rather simple.
Listen, I just thought it was cool playing with guys from different counties!
The Electric Ireland Sigerson, Fitzgibbon and Higher Education Championships. Taking rivalries to the next level. #FirstClassRivals