Wexford duo and Sligo colleagues stunned by Louth
I ticked another item off my bucket list of unusual G.A.A. events to attend on Saturday.
Croke Park was my destination for the three finals of hurling's secondary competitions, and the games provided very entertaining fare as the afternoon moved into early evening.
Similar to my trip to the Kilkenny county football final in April, it wasn't an entirely random decision as there was some Wexford involvement in the first game.
The Sligo team which squandered a twelve-point lead and lost an exciting Lory Meagher Cup final to Louth by 4-15 to 4-11 featured Brian 'Bro' O'Loughlin of Monageer-Boolavogue at left half-forward, and Seán Kenny from HWH-Bunclody inside him in a two-man full-forward line. Niall Cafferkey (ex-Rosslare) came on for the Wee county (see the Seen And Heard column for full details).
The Sligo duo were availing of the special ruling whereby teams in the second, third and fourth tiers of hurling are allowed a maximum of five players from other counties.
Not everyone utilises this option, with the Ulster teams in particular preferring to stick to their own. Antrim and Armagh fielded fully homegrown sides on Saturday, while Sligo were the only county with a full complement of 'outsiders' as the two Wexford lads were joined by one apiece from Tipperary, Limerick and Dublin.
Louth had one each from Limerick, Kilkenny and Tipperary, while Mayo had two from Dublin and two from Galway, with one of the Meath corner-backs hailing from Tipperary. The Royals also had a couple of Dubs on board when we met them early in the year in the Walsh Cup, but their list of imports was down to the bare minimum on this occasion.
The ruling gives a chance to experience the inter-county scene to players who may feel that opportunity doesn't exist in their own county. For example, Brian O'Loughlin's last involvement with Wexford was at left corner-back with the Minors in 2006 when they lost that infamous Leinster championship quarter-final to Carlow.
In Kenny's case, I feel the ship hasn't sailed in terms of a potential role with the Model county. After all, he is still very young, he featured regularly off the bench for the Leinster-winning Under-21s last year, and he is in fine form with HWH-Bunclody in the current campaign, picking off six points from play in a recent win over Blackwater.
Incidentally, Kenny and O'Loughlin had been rivals in the first round of club action when Monageer-Boolavogue lost by six points.
On Saturday both contributed three points, with one of Kenny's from a free, and they swapped roles in the second-half when the pressure started to mount on Sligo.
The Connacht side had led by 3-6 to 0-3 after 31 minutes when an astute Kenny pass fed Matthew Davey for a goal, and it was 3-10 to 0-8 when O'Loughlin grabbed his third point with 18 minutes left.
What followed was an incredible turnaround as Niall Cafferkey and his Louth colleagues outscored them by 4-7 to 1-1 to win a first title at this lower level after four Nickey Rackard Cup final losses.
Views are mixed on the worth of the 'five-player' rule. Those in favour say that the presence of players from stronger hurling counties will improve the general standard; however, those against feel that it merely restricts the opportunities afforded to local hurlers in Sligo, Louth and the like to represent their native place.
Everyone has an opinion, and for the record I'm in the latter camp as I feel counties shouldn't look outside for what will only ever amount to short-term gain.
However, one thing there is universal agreement on is the overall success of this tiered approach to hurling. The Christy Ring and Nickey Rackard Cups were established in 2005, with the Lory Meagher following in 2009. Since then, no fewer than 18 counties, as well as London, Warwickshire and Fingal, have featured in at least one Croke Park final. In fact, of the 21 competing teams in the three grades this year, only three - Leitrim, Monaghan and Lancashire - have yet to contest a decider.
It's not perfect though; how can these sides really improve when their finals are played on June 7? It leaves them idle for the best hurling months weather-wise, and that inherent flaw must be addressed if the authorities are really serious about progressing the game.