There are certain places in the world synonymous with the sport they dominate.  New Zealand and rugby, Jamaica and sprinting, South Side Dublin and skiing, Kilkenny and hurling.

Hardened by lockdown and the lack of private education, the Kilmacud Crokes 2011 (under 10 boys) knew that in order to make the next step in their fledgling hurling careers, they would eventually need to enter the lions/cats den to see how they compared to the masters of the art. That opportunity came on the 27th of June 2021 when an invite from James Stephens GAA Club for a challenge game was duly accepted.  The day of reckoning had arrived.  Kilkenny beckoned. The county where the choice is the small ball or migration, and where Gaelic football is considered a garrison game.  We had so much to learn from this trip.

James Stephens GAA Club (JS).  The club of the greatest hurling manager of them all – Brian Cody.   3 time All Ireland Senior Club Champions, 9 time Kilkenny County Senior Champions, 13 time Minor County Champions, and 16 time Under 16 county champions.  A club clearly dominant at under age level, in the county that dominates the sport.

We set off early in a convoy of SUVs and MPVs on a gloriously sunny Sunday morning.  Purple and yellow clad boys beaming with joy and excitement as they sipped on their morning soya milk Mocha Frappuccino’s.  The journey down heard many a legend told.  One boy asked if it was true that Kilkenny boys brought their hurleys with them everywhere they went, which led to further discussion on whether they would sanitise their hurleys before the game that day.   As we exited the motorway and made our way along the country lanes towards their pitches off the Kells Road, we thought we spotted a Kilkenny boy that wasn’t carrying a hurley.  However, it turned out to be a mirage and that the KK boy, in fact, had a hurl in each hand.

On arrival we were told that the planned 4 games with 9 players per team was now changed to 3 games with 10 players per team.  Mind games – we should have expected this!  The influence of Brian Cody is evident throughout the club.  Coaches reacted quickly, reorganising their teams, setting out positions while they gave their final motivational speeches. Our boys then took their places on the beautifully manicured lush green pitches.  As he went to start the game the referee beckoned for sliotars.  We were quick to throw in our own Dublin County Board standard issue ‘Quick Touch’ sliotars … a strategy perfected by Cork in Kilkenny matches over the ages.  However, the referee (a local Kilkenny coach) took one look at our sliotars and said ‘we can’t play with foam balls’.  When we asked what type of sliotars they played with at under 10, he quickly replied ‘Real Ones’!  One point to nil to JS before a ball had been pucked!

The game quickly commenced.  What followed was two 25 minute hard fought halves which were split by two water breaks.  The level of physicality, intensity and skill by James Stephens was a joy to watch.  But our lads were up to the challenge!  Whatever JS could do, we could do just as well.  They may have expected some south side softies, but it was really Irn Bru we were drinking from those Frappuccino cups.  The 3 games were very tight but Crokes edged it on the day.  Smiling faces ensued for the boys in purple and gold.

Our gracious hosts laid on some lovely treats for us and the game analysis began as packets of crisps were munched lying on the grass in the sun.  The word went out that the plan was to stop in Supermacs on the way home. A roar of excitement went up from our boys.  When overheard by one of the JS coaches he asked ‘so you are supporting Galway hurling then are ye?’.  We knew there was so much we could learn from the masters of this craft.  It is all about the marginal gains.  The decision was made … it would be McDonalds instead.  Nutritious Big Mac were the order of the day, washed down with fruit filled Strawberry Milkshakes.  The lunch of champions.  Days like this are to be remembered, they don’t come much better!