Three years ago, DCU had only just made it to their first Freshers hurling final, while having not tasted anything past the quarter-finals of the Fitzgibbon Cup for more than fifteen years.
Hurling was by no means a fringe sport in the university, but it couldn’t compare to their footballing cousins, who had just lifted their fourth Sigerson Cup title in the past decade.
While the footballers surprisingly conquered the country in 2012, the hurlers were flirting with the Ryan Cup and league relegation. To be even back in half-serious reckoning three years later was a testament to their work, but nobody could have expected the success in the three years that have come since.
DCU retained their Freshers All-Ireland title at the end of March, their second in a row, after a historic Sigerson Cup Final appearance for the main side where they fought commendably against a star-studded and heavily-favoured University of Limerick, but even that had to be beyond the wildest dreams of senior-level rookie Eoin Roche.
Roche, who had led DCU to the Freshers title in 2017, inherited a side coming off their first quarter-final appearance for some time. and had the unenviable task of trying to build on the club’s relative high-points.
But he was bringing with him a talented new generation, and a core of young hurlers ready to make their mark.
“There’s Darren Mullen was impressive with the (Kilkenny) Under 21’s and was very impressive with Ballyhale Shamrocks,” Roche told The College View back in September.
“There’s Daire Gray, who was on the Dublin team as was Ciaran Dowling and Conor Burke.
“It’s the same as trying to blend an Under 21 team in with a senior team, it’s the same problem as that and it has a different level of competition as well and I’m sure the boys understand that and they’ll rise to that.”
Dublin’s Donal Burke and Fergal Whitely completed the set of inter-county stars from the Freshers side, but Roche needn’t have worried – the blend was ultimately seamless.
The Glasnevin university sent a powerful message in their league opener as another talented Dub, Colin Currie, smashed 1-10 past UCD in a 12-point victory.
A determined and positive display, especially after so many had been involved in important league games that weekend, was more than enough to show the group were willing to work for the new boss, and the appearances of both Grey and the two Burkes revealed the fresh new face this group was about to take.
The league campaign was successful, and a quarter-final win over LIT inspired further confidence. Patrick Curran and Killian Doyle partnered for 3-12 of DCU’s 3-20 total, two outstanding individual attacking displays capped off with Curran’s late penalty putting the exclamation mark on a two-point win.
Both Burkes played, along with Whitely and Grey – who suffered a nasty cut to the head – and Ciaran Dowling notched a point from the bench, and, despite Curran’s own admissions that they were still “down a good few lads” an important win for a side that may not have previously pulled it out.
Momentum for Roche’s project continued to motor along, and while the league was ultimately lost, another win over LIT in the group phase of the Fitzgibbon Cup, this time 3-15 to 2-17, cemented their chances as serious contenders.
Donal Burke grabbed 2-3 while Curran, the side’s undoubted main star, contributed 1-6 in a smashing 18-point win over Garda College after the LIT triumph, and secured DCU’s place in the quarter-finals – so often the stumbling block before.
“We’ve never gone past the quarter-finals of the Fitzgibbon in recent years, so the LIT victory was huge,” Roche said after the Garda win.
“We’re not content with just getting to the quarters, if we win, it would be our first semi-final since 1997 I think, so it would be huge for hurling in the college.
“It’s a combination of successful freshers teams in the last few years. You have to start tradition some place. If you look at Waterford or LIT they only pushed on in the late 90’s, early 2000’s.”
The push took DCU past a Mary Immaculate College side boasting the likes of Luke Meade and Cian Lynch and aiming for a third title in a row, with Doyle and Conor Burke clipping over late points to take the tie 0-20 to 2-12 after another high-scoring outing from Donal Burke.
A semi-final berth was secured, history was on the brink of being made – and against DIT in the semis, they didn’t wait around.
Before most of the fans had even settled into their spots at Parnell Park Donal Burke smashed in the opening goal, and a second-half blitz from Burke, Whitely, and John Donnelly, who notched six unanswered points between them at the start of the second half, secured their place in the final.
The grand occasion took place down in Cork. DCU alums like Seán Óg Ó Hailpín and Richie Hogan were in attendance, hoping to get a glimpse of their alma meter’s biggest achievement in the sport they mastered. DCU took the lead against the mighty UL, Donal Burke pointing as the underdogs controlled the opening moments over the heavy 1/12 favourites.
But despite this, scores didn’t come. Curran was quiet, Burke misfiring. UL were restricted to breaks but they made each one count, Jason Forde notching 0-3 early to give the scoreboard a familiar feel.
But back came DCU, Burke uncovered his shooting skills, Donnelly and Conor Delaney stepped up, Curran netted a penalty, and the contest was far from over.
1-11 to 1-09 to UL it read at the half – no mean feat to keep up with the Munster university by any stretch, but DCU’s staying power was always going to be tested hard.
Frustration began to take hold midway through the second period as Ronan Lynch scored a fabulous goal for Limerick amidst tit-for-tat scoring and Burke and Forde exchanging frees. Silly and soft frees were conceded, Curran booked in a fracas, but Bukre kept the scoreboard ticking over and the surrender was not meek.
Ultimately, UL did triumph, but DCU were every bit the value for their six-point loss.
“I’m disappointed, you know, everyone is feeling the same after that,” captain Delaney said after.
“We lost out to a better UL team on the day, so we can have no argument with that. Just generally disappointed with that.”
This wasn’t a DCU side glad to be there, not by any stretch. this was a DCU side who gave as good as they got on the day – a remarkable turnaround and rise just stopping short of a miracle.
But a 1-20 to 2-15 triumph over the same university in the Freshers final – their second year in a row beating UL – provided more than just scant consolation for DCU. It provided a window into a bright new future for the university’s hopes and aspirations with the small ball – and, potentially, a new arch-nemesis too.
Paul O’Brien, Gaelic Games Development officer in DCU, spoke very positively after the game, saying that “close to double figures” will move into the already-top tier Fizgibbon side and that”if you look at the two panels that were in the Fitzgibbon final this year, I would consider our panel to be getting stronger and UL’s panel to be losing a few.”
“Hurling is going in DCU at the moment,” said Wexford hurler and Fresher Rory O’Connor.
“Three years ago they got to their first fresher’s final and then last year they won their first one and now we’re after winning the second one back-to-back.
“There are a lot of rumours going around about what players are coming for masters and certainly there’s not many leaving the Fitz team from this year so even to get on the panel will be an achievement.”
An achievement just to get on the panel – a stark admission from a senior panellist for one of the top hurling counties in Ireland, but a perfect illustration of DCU’s remarkable progress.
DCU had only been playing Ryan Cup hurling three years previously. The tradition Roche spoke about is being built, and this season will serve as the best platform for what could prove to be the best year for DCU hurling ever next time around.
Image Credit: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile