In 2006 the Waterford I.T. GAA club celebrated the 25th year of its existence by producing a book marking that milestone in the club’s history. It was not meant to be a literary masterpiece but rather a definitive record of what had, by any standards in sport, been an amazing journey against the odds that saw the emergence of the Waterford college in a short period as the foremost third level hurling nursery in the country.
A PROUD GAA HISTORY
The part played by the college GAA club as a flagship in the development of sport in W.I.T. cannot be overstated. The book, ‘Fiche Cuig Blian ag Fas’, outlines the progression of the GAA club from its foundation in 1981 as the project of a young lecturer from the hurling stronghold of Monaghan, Eugene McKenna, who, over the following ten years was to play a major role in the breaking down of the barriers that retained the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cup competitions as the preserves of the University elite.
From humble beginnings the W.R.T.C. GAA club progressed step by step throughout the eighties winning the Division 3 Hurling League in 1983, Division 2 the following year and when the Division 1 League title was won in 1987 with the defeat of a star studded U.C.C. side the arguments for keeping the non universities out of the Fitzgibbon Cup were once and for all swept aside and a new era dawned in the great competition.
The story of W.I.T. GAA club is one of progress on and off the field of play, coming from a base with no playing pitch or facilities of their own, depending on the goodwill of the city clubs and the Waterford Crystal Centre for training facilities to the magnificent development of the W.I.T. Arena at Carraiganore that caters for all college sporting activity with the hosting of the GAA World Games last year at the venue a hugely successful venture.
In the years 1989, 1990 and 1991 W.R.T.C. competed strongly in the Fitzgibbon, losing out on each occasion to the eventual winners. In 1989 they lost out in the semi-final in Belfield to N.I.H.E. Limerick who went on to win the title one year before evolving into University of Limerick and in 1991 a very strong side suffered a narrow heart breaking first round defeat to U.C.C. by a last second score in a muddy Mardyke.
It has also a strong football tradition and a hugely successful camogie tradition.
The WRTC team who won the college’s first Fitzgibbon Cup in 1992.
With Colm Bonnar as coach some ten of that side returned for the following year of 1992 and there was something of a steely resolve in the group to achieve the ultimate prize. The winning of the Division 1 League title before Christmas with victory over U.L. in Templederry was a huge boost. I recall the team returning to training during the Christmas/New Year break on the green patch of the college campus now occupied by the apartments opposite the AIB bank on Brownes Road. It was with some shock that we discovered later that the biggest bank robbery in the history of the state had taken place just some fifty metres or so away from where the players were training, right under our noses, when Gardai called in the following days to see if we had observed anything.
After beating U.C.D. with a last second point from a Noel Dalton free at the end of amounted to a mud bath in the Mary I Grounds the Waterford college produced a great performance to repeat their league final victory over hosts U.L. the following day in The Gaelic Grounds. It was an historic victory by a side that included players who were to make their mark on the intercounty scene in such as P. J. Delaney, Sean Ryan and Johnny Houlihan for Kilkenny while Andy Comerford, later to captain Kilkenny to All Ireland glory was on the line that day having been ruled out through injury. Other county players involved were Paudie O’Keeffe and Brian O’Meara while a young Brian Flannery, still a minor with Tipperary was a sub.
It was no coincidence that the rise of W.I.T. to Fitzgibbon prominence coincided with the beginning of a revival in Waterford’s hurling fortunes over the following years into the noughties. There was a strong Deise presence in the 1992 college side with Mount Sion’s Paraic Fanning as captain and backed up by players who were later to figure prominently in Waterford’s great U-21 All Ireland success in such as De La Salle’s Noel Dalton and Pat Fanning and Ballydurn’s Michael Hubbard. Pat Fanning missed out on the Fitzgibbon final, having played in the league final and earlier games, as a result of having had an operation for appendicitis. Other Waterford players on the panel were David Power (Mount Sion) and Brian McCarthy (Fourmilewater).
START OF A GREAT JOURNEY
That win was the start of a great journey for W.I.T. that over the following twenty two years saw the college winning a total of eight further titles, more in that period than any other college including U.C.C.. The hosting of the 1993 Fitzgibbon weekend in Waterford saw the college set the standard for future hosting of the event with the first live televising of games with U.C.C. winning the final in Walsh Park. In 1994 a star studded Waterford college side that included future big stars in such as Brendan Cummins, Ollie Moran, Peter Barry, Tom Feeney, Tommy Dunne, Fergal McCormack, Brian Flannery, P. J. Delaney and Brian O’Meara travelled to Galway and reached the final where W.I.T faced old adversaries U.L. in Clarinbridge. It was an epic game that was only resolved late in extra time with a U.L team that included Clare stars Brian Lohan, Seanie McMahon and Jamesie O’Connor as well as Waterford’s Fergal Hartley, avenging their ’92 defeat in Limerick.
A SECOND TITLE
The following year, 1995, with many of the same players involved the Waterford side were back in the final with the competition being hosted by Maynooth in Clane Co. Kildare. On this occasion there was an unusual reversal of roles from the side that won the first title in 1992 with Colm Bonnar, who had returned to College in quest of a Masters degree now a player and captaining the side, while the captain in 1992 Paraic Fanning, having succeeded Bonnar as Development Officer was now the team manager and coach. It was to prove, again, a winning combination.
With eight current county senior players in the side U.C.C. were decisively ousted and the stage set for a clash of giants in the semi-final in Clane where opponents would be the defending champions U.L. who would have twelve of the champions side of the previous year in their ranks. On this occasion the Waterford side would not be denied and at the end of a classic tie went through to the final with just a point to spare thanks to some great hurling from Fergal McCormack, Tom Feeney, Colm Bonnar, P. J. Delaney, Peter Barry and Tommy Dunne while the free taking of Kilkenny’s Ollie O’Connor with a total of eight points from the final score of 0-11 to 1-7 proved decisive.
The final against U.C.D. saw the Dublin side outclassed on a score of 3-15 to 1-4 with young Passage star Barry Walsh accounting for 2-1 of his side’s total. That victory firmly established Waterford I.T. as a force to be reckoned with in Third Level hurling.
The WIT team celebrate their win over UCD in the 2000 Fitzgibbon Cup Final. Photos: Inpho.
Despite losing the ’98 final to U.C. C. the nineties finished on a high note with the teams coached by Paraic Fanning and Tadhg O’Sullivan respectively and captained by Andy Moloney winning the Fitzgibbon in ’99 when avenging the previous year’s defeat by U.C.C. in Templemore and then starting the new millennium with a win over U.C.D. when hosting the final in Walsh Park. Those were teams made up almost entirely of players who were current intercounty seniors and if they were not were to become so and household names in the very near future. You had Henry Shefflin, Michael Kavanagh, Derek Lyng and Alan Geoghegan of Kilkenny, Eamonn Corcoran, Mark O’Leary, Paul Curran, Damien Young, Michael Bevans and dual star Declan Browne of Tipperary, Neil Ronan (Cork), Shane McClaren and Damien Joyce (Galway), Chris ‘Hopper’ McGrath and Leigh O’Brien (Wexford) and Waterford’s Dave Bennett.
The success of the W.I.T. in the Fitzgibbon was built on the success of their Freshers teams that saw the winning of eight Freshers titles over the previous ten years and that formula carried on into the noughties. Waterford were going for three titles in a row for the first time when disappointingly losing to U.C.C. in the 2001 semi-final and the following year, with Henry Shefflin as captain in his final year at college a very strong team went down by a point to a late score against U.L. in Castlegar, Galway. The feature of that game was that the Limerick team was managed by former W.I.T. Fitzgibbon star Ollie Moran. One year later that same man returned to W.I.T. as a student and played a leading role, as a player, in the college’s fifth Fitzgibbon success over a fancied Cork I.T. side at The Ragg.
Above: Paul Curran lifts the cup in 2003. Here: Waterford IT players celebrate victory in the 2004 final.
Brian Dowling and Hugh Maloney of WIT lift the cup in 2006.
A GOLDEN ERA
2002 had been the last hurrah for the great sides of ’99 an 2000 but the conveyor belt brought great replacements though to 2003 with Tipperary’s Paul Curran captaining the winning Fitzgibbon side to the victory over Cork I.T. and J. J. Delaney winning the Texaco award on the national stage as well as the All Star Hurler of the Year accolade. The same year Setanta O’hAilpin took the Young Hurler of the Year award and former college stars Brendan Cummins, Henry Shefflin and Michael Kavanagh were on the All Star team with dual star Declan Browne on the Football All Star side. That same year Ken Coogan was named ‘Man of the Match’ in the Fitzgibbon final and won his All Ireland medal with Kilkenny.
One year further on and the Fitzgibbon weekend was hosted by Athlone I.T.. W.I.T. qualified with a decisive quarter final win over U.L. and in the semi-final scored a hard earned 2-9 to 0-13 win over a strong Babs Keating managed U.C.D. side. In a hectic, incident packed final, in which no quarter was asked for or received Colm Bonnar’s side retained their title at the expense of bitter rivals U.C.C.. It was a game that saw Ken Coogan again receive the ‘Man of the Match’ award with brilliant displays from team captain J.J. Delaney, Conor Phelan and Waterford’s Michael Walsh.
Defeat in the 2005 semi-final by U.L ended another quest for three in a row as Limerick I. T., under Davy Fitzgerald became the second I.T. to win the Fitzgibbon and were seen as the coming team. 2006 saw W.I.T back in force winning a hard fought semi-final against N.U.I. Galway in The Mardyke before crushing U.C.D. in the final at Pairc Ui Rinn.
The 2008 Fitzgibbon Cup winning WIT squad celebrate after beating LIT.
TILE NUMBER EIGHT
Limerick I. T. returned to regain the Fitzgibbon in 2007 and 2008 was to see only the second final being contested between two non University sides. The game that then GAA President Nicky Brennan described as the greatest game of hurling he had ever seen took place in the Cork I.T. complex in Bishopstown and took a total of ninety minutes to complete.
With his side trailing by a point in added time at the end of normal time Ballyhale’s Eoin Reid levelled and repeated the feat as the Limerick side looked set to hold on for victory at the end of extra time. With the game in the additional allocated ten minutes Limerick led by a point as the final whistle neared when Eoin Reid became the hero of the day when, instead of going for the equalising point he took the opportunity to crash the ball to the net and so secured a dramatic 1-26 to 1-24 victory that saw Kevin Moran become the second Waterford player to captain the college to Fitzgibbon glory. Other Waterford players to play a big part in the victory were Ballyduff Upper’s Adrian Power in goal, Shane Fives and Shane O’Sullivan. The game saw a new star on the horizon with T. J. Reid making his Fitzgibbon debut, following in his brother’s footsteps.
Celebration time in Belfast 2014 for WIT after they beat CIT in the final.
W.I.T. returned to the Fitzgibbon final in Galway on 2010, losing a dramatic game to hosts N.U.I.G. after extra time. It would be four years before another final appearance, that being in Belfast in 2014. On that occasion a side with a good spread of Waterford players travelled as outsiders. Facing favourites Limerick I.T. in Saturday’s semi-final the team showed tremendous determination to come from behind and snatch victory in extra time. In the final they faced Cork I.T. in a repeat of the 2003 final between the sides and the result was the same with W.I.T. coming away with a 0-17 to 0-12 victory.
The W.I.T. team in the final was as follows. Stephen O’Keeffe (Ballygunner), Ger Teehan (Kilkeenny), Padraig Gahan (Kilkenny), Jerome Maher (Ballinameela),Tommy Hamill (Tipperary), Joe O’Dwyer (Tipperary)Jack Langton (Kilkenny), Stephen Roche (Mount Sion), Cathal Kenny (Kilkenny), Harry Kehoe (Wexford), Pauric Mahony (Ballygunner),Eoin Murphy Capt. (Glenmore),Liam McGrath (Tipperary), Jake Dillon (De La Salle), Gavin O’Brien (Roanmore).Subs – Johnny Hayes (Kilkenny), Andrew Kenny (Wexford).
The following year the W.I.T. again reached the final and having been unlucky to draw against U.L. in Limerick, lost the replay in Pairc Ui Rinn.
MORE TO COME
The college has had a lean few years since but the tradition remains strong and there are signs that things are getting back on track.
The W.I.T. story is one worth telling and certainly no other third level college can come close in terms of All Ireland medals and All Star awards won by players who have passed through its corridors. All Ireland winning captains include Liam Fennelly, Tommy Dunne, Andy Comerford and Henry Shefflin while Tommy Dunne, Henry Shefflin J. J. Delaney, T. J Reid and Austin Gleeson have all been named as ‘Hurler of the Year’ with Austin Gleeson doubling up as Young Hurler of the year in 2016.