by Damian Lawlor
Put Kerry into the Munster U21 hurling championship and enter a county team into the Dr Harty Cup - those are two suggestions by the Kingdom's Celtic Challenge manager Mark Ryall to help develop the game in a football stronghold.
Ryall's Kerry team play East Cork in the quarter-final of the Corn Michael Hogan Cup (Div.1) Bank of Ireland Celtic Challenge this Saturday and Ryall is hopeful of a good display after a fine group phase which yielded wins over West Cork and North Cork.
"It would be nice now to go further in the competition," Ryall says.
"There is a disappointment around here that the senior hurlers didn't reach the Joe McDonagh Cup final and that we didn't beat either Westmeath or Carlow, which would have helped our cause. So a win for us at the weekend would lift us all again.
"We have already played two Cork sides and beat them but this is another step up now against East Cork and it should be good for our lads to test themselves."
Ryall has been involved with this bunch of players since they were 13.
"We started off with an under-13 development squad and they have been a great bunch to train all the way up along. The majority of players are from north Kerry and unfortunately this year we lost three of our strongest lads who were called up to the Kerry minor football team, lads from Dr Crokes, Kenmare and Rathmore. But we have been very competitive all along at underage - we won an under-15 tournament in Clare a couple of years back and when we lost the lads to the Kerry minors this year we were able to call in some under-16 players.
"There is good work being put in around the county and we now have a good spread of Kerry clubs represented."
Hurling in Kerry is motoring well at schools' level too. Ryall, a teacher at The Green in Tralee CBS, saw his school side beaten in the Munster 'D' final this year but was happy that they had been hurling all year long.
"Mounthawk won at under-15 level and Gaelcolaiste did well too. It all helps," says Ryall.
"This is a big thing for us - we have had no less than 20 at training any night with our Celtic Challenge team."
Speed of hurling and speed of thought are key aspects of the team's approach.
With only eight clubs playing hurling in the county they have limited game time - compare that to five divisions playing football in the county.
"We need to look at the bigger picture," Ryall says.
"We went to Cork to play in their under-15 league a while back and won four games out of seven there - that improved the lads.
"Talking to my players they feel there should be an under-20 All-Ireland in the style of the Celtic Challenge now as as well.
"That would help Kerry when they get to senior level. We are in no man's land at the moment - a step behind the good counties and way ahead of the likes of others.
"And under-20 competition - with regular games - would help bridge that."
With progressive officials in Croke Park such as Games Director Pat Daly the notion of this - and cross border leagues - are not fanciful.
"We have hurlers in Kerry as good as anyone. Shane Conway would make a Tipp or Kilkenny team. The problems is that our lads are equally as good at football.
"So we have to challenge ourselves to think outside the box to keep lads hurling.
"I'd like to see cross border leagues.
"I'd like to see a county team entered into the Dr Harty Cup again.
"We are doing more work with strength and conditioning for our development squads and we are way more competitive - hooking and blocking is the starting point. We are up to 16 hooks and blocks per game. With a solid foundation and good lads coming through Kerry can go on to greater things in the next few years."Tweet