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Inclusion put to test as colleges come a cropper

A RECENT annual staple of the GAA calendar has been the plaintive sound of inter-county managers moaning about their third-level rivals.

"Why should colleges have first call on county players in January? Why can't I play who I want in the OBMcGFBDMcK Cup?"

(Editor: By which indigestible mouthful, I presume, you mean an amalgam of the O'Byrne, McGrath, FBD League and McKenna Cups? Carry on ...)

The vexed issue of player availability occasionally gets hot and downright heavy: check out the media war of words between DCU's Niall Moyna and Donegal's Jim McGuinness 12 months ago.

Matters reached a head in December when Queens University withdrew in protest from the McKenna Cup after several counties included some university players in their named squads for Ulster's subsidiary competition.

So, in Queens' absence, how are their fellow students faring this January? We'll be kind and give them a D-minus.

In the O'Byrne Cup, no college team has reached the semi-finals. UCD (albeit staying competitive) and Athlone IT (far less so) finished pointless and bottom of their round-robin groups.

The other three enjoyed a modicum of success against county opposition - holders DCU drew with Wicklow and beat Carlow; DIT and Carlow IT both defeated Wexford - but their qualification hopes had already gone west before the last round. Suffice to say, a marked change from recent years when DCU reached the 2009 O'Byrne Cup final as a precursor to winning in 2010 and 2012.

Beyond Leinster, colleges have been faring even worse. St Mary's and Jordanstown are pointless after two rounds of the McKenna Cup; ditto Sligo IT and NUIG in the Connacht FBD, where GMIT were thrashed by Roscommon in their solitary outing thus far; while in the knockout world of the McGrath Cup, the ITs from Limerick, Tralee and Cork, coupled with UCC and UL, all fell at the first hurdle, losing by a cumulative 62 points.

It's arguable what all this suggests. In a few obvious cases, the colleges have simply been out of their depth. In one or two others, it's probably fair to surmise they have aped their county cousins by picking 'experimental' teams when they haven't got the strength in depth to carry it off. Some colleges have been weakened by counties claiming first call on players, notably up north.

Then, of course, there's the minor detail that most county teams were back in collective training much earlier (officially!) this winter. Maybe they're less rusty, and ergo less vulnerable, as a result.

The question of college participation in these inter-county competitions is sure to remain a 'live' and contentious issue.

UCD's Dave Billings predicts that, at some stage, the Sigerson Cup will embrace a round-robin format (guaranteeing three matches) and this would lessen the argument for college access.

But he adds: "The O'Byrne Cup is always an important competition, not for the football but for the (hardship fund) cause that is there ... a lot of inter-county managers forget that.

"They should look at the bigger picture."

For his part, Leinster Council chairman Martin Skelly expresses some concern about the consistency of college team selections; he accepts that college involvement can impact negatively on attendances . . . but he remains an advocate. "The overall good that it does for the GAA, particularly in our third-level colleges, overrides the disruption for county teams in their preparation for the National League," he concludes.

Mickey Harte and some of his brethren may beg to differ ...