The Christy O'Connor column: Cork development squads are producing more hurlers than ever, the payoff is inevitable

The Christy O'Connor column: Cork development squads are producing more hurlers than ever, the payoff is inevitable
Cork City (North) player Ross O'Sullivan gets the ball away from East Cork (South) players Dylan McCarthy and Darragh Fitzgerald during the Rebel Óg U14 Inter-Regional finals at Páirc Uí Rinn. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

WHEN TG4 showed highlights from last weekend’s Arrabawn (U15) inter-county tournaments, the Cork-Galway Arrabawn Cup final was the standout match.

Three goals had given Galway a huge platform but they couldn’t shake off their opponents and Cork came with a late charge. The winning score came straight from a long Cork puck-out before being superbly finished by Tiernan Roche.

The manner of the win was impressive but it was all the more satisfying again considering that Cork had entered two teams (the only county to do so) into the Arrabawn. In the past, Cork would have entered an A and a B squad but management decided to split two even squads into Cork and Corcaigh panels.

The Corcaigh side drew with Limerick and were beaten by Galway in the group but their scoring difference saw them qualify for the Arrawbawn Plate, which they won at the weekend after victories against Laois and Waterford. Then just three hours later, on the same field in Boherlahan, Cork also lifted the Arrawbawn Cup.

It was no surprise that both squads were so strong. The U15 A, B and C Colleges finals this year were contested by six Cork schools. 

The 48 players involved were selected from 32 different clubs, and hewn from 17 different schools, stretching from Coláiste Pobal Bheanntraí to Pobalscoil na Trionoide in Youghal In Mallow last Saturday afternoon, the Cork U16s also won the Eugene Carey U16 tournament, defeating Tipperary in the final by 3-21 to 3-16. In the B grade competition, Cork lost out to Galway in a hard-fought semi-final.

After winning four Tony Forristal (All-Ireland U14) titles in the last six years, along with five successive Sonny Walsh (also U14) titles, Cork didn’t send any teams to those tournaments at the weekend.

Evan Sheehan battles Clare's Cian McInerney in the 2013 Tony Forristal. Picture: Patrick Browne
Evan Sheehan battles Clare's Cian McInerney in the 2013 Tony Forristal. Picture: Patrick Browne

Instead, the U14 Regional hurling finals took place in Páirc Uí Rinn on Saturday, with eight teams involved. That new initiative for U14 players began back in May, where the eight regional teams were broken up into two groups to play in a league format.

The quality on show in the finals on Saturday offered more proof that Cork probably would have won another Forristal – and surely another Sonny Walsh – last weekend. But Cork don’t need to win those titles anymore because the new structure at U14 casts the net far wider, and caters for more players – in both hurling and football – in games running from May to August.

That bigger picture is the only picture that matters or should matter, when assessing the overall development programme in place now, in both codes. And yet that still hasn’t diluted a lot of frustration in the county since the U20 hurlers were well beaten in last month’s All-Ireland final by Tipperary.

Cork’s near two-decade wait for a marquee underage hurling title has added to the frustration but the Cork public still need to see that bigger picture; Cork have reached All-Ireland minor, U21 and U20 finals in the last three seasons.

Not winning any is of little consolation to a county used to success but Cork haven’t enjoyed All-Ireland success at senior level since 2005.

For most of the last two decades, Cork underage hurling teams couldn’t buy a win. They may not be winning All-Irelands but they’re certainly far more competitive than they were. What’s more, they’re more competitive than almost every other county too.

The manner of the U20 defeat was disappointing, but the way in which Cork kept trying to find a way back into the game was some form of compensation. It would have been easy for Cork to throw in the towel after shipping four goals in seven minutes. 

Shane O’Regan after the U20 loss to Tipp. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Shane O’Regan after the U20 loss to Tipp. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

But they didn’t. Tipp were always going to win the match but the last 10 minutes could have had a whole different complexion if Cork had nailed a goal chance to pare the deficit down to four points.

Cork needs an All-Ireland win but, if the U20s had ended the drought, would it make those players more likely to win an All-Ireland senior title in the future? If anything, the serial disappointment may make many of those players even hungrier.

Dublin are a good example. They have won one All-Ireland minor title since 1984. 

Their only title in the meantime was in 2012 but the team which lost the previous year’s final to Tipperary must surely go down as one of greatest underage teams in the history of the GAA; Ciaran Kilkenny, Paul Mannion, Jack McCaffrey, Niall Scully, John Small, Cormac Costello, Davy Byrne and Eric Lowndes featured that afternoon in 2011. Brian Fenton, who was underage, never played minor for Dublin.

Underage success is important but it’s never the most important part of the long haul journey. Galway have won four of the last five All-Ireland minor hurling titles but they haven’t won an All-Ireland U21 title since 2011.

Success is often a matter of interpretation within the bigger picture. Cork won the All-Ireland minor football title this season after losing two games, both to Kerry, one of which was by 16 points. Last year’s Cork minor football team lost to Kerry by one point, and were knocked out at the semi-final stage. 

This year’s Cork minor football team were heroic but last year’s side could yet provide more players to the senior team.

The Cork minor hurlers lost one game this summer – by one point – but failed to qualify.

Cork will have another good minor team next year. Looking at the current crop of talent at U15, Cork should be favourites for the 2021 All-Ireland minor title.

Cork have more hurling talent than any other county. Nobody wants to hear the word patience during a famine but the next step in trying to end that famine is to try and make sure that the young talent is managed properly and that enough of those young players progress through to senior hurling in time.

And if that happens, it’s only a matter of time before Cork are really successful again at senior hurling.

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