A COUPLE of weekends back, the Cork U14 regional hurling competition began at the 4G pitch at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, with four games taking place on the one day.
The eight teams involved are based on geographical regions; East Cork South, East Cork North, North Cork West, North Cork East, Cork City North, Cork City South, West Cork, Cork Mid-West.
Some geographical regions will always be naturally stronger than others but all teams are of more or less equal strength through a clever shifting system to balance the numbers.
Some clubs are not strictly operating within their geographic location to ensure that every team is highly competitive; Sarsfields are pitched in with Cork City North; Bride Rovers are playing with Cork North East.
A similar system applies to the Cork U14 regional football tournament, which began a couple of weeks prior to the hurling tournament, while a second round was played last weekend. The next round of the hurling will take place on June 22 because the Féile na Gael tournament takes place in Cork two weeks beforehand.
The competition has been hugely popular to date but it’s been even more of a success considering the reasoning behind it. A decision was taken this year not to enter teams in the annual Tony Forristal and Sonny Walsh (All-Ireland U14) tournament in Waterford.
It may be a radical move but it was smart thinking from Cork GAA coaching officer Ronan Dwane, Cork GAA Games Manager Kevin O’Callaghan, and the coaching and games committee in Cork because a county as big as Cork needs to be spreading the net wider than just limiting the catch to 48 players at that age group.
Given the huge numbers, Cork underage hurling will always have huge potential. Yet the clever strategic planning now taking place in the county is gradually moving Cork to where it always threatened to go with that proper pathway in place.
At the recent Munster U15 Divisional tournament played on the May Bank Holiday weekend, four Cork teams – Cork East, Cork North, Cork City, Cork West – contested the semi-finals.
Qualifying matches had taken place on the Saturday before Cork East beat Cork West in the final in Mallow on the Monday. Earlier in the day, Cork East only beat Cork City in the semi-final by one point.
The achievement is more pronounced again considering that the other four counties involved – Clare, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford – had just two teams from each county.
There are strong numbers in the clubs at U14 and U15, which is bound to translate into success, but Cork underage hurling is clearly thriving.
“We are in a very good place potentially in hurling now,” says Ronan Dwane. “But we need to push that talent through to minor level over the next few years. And then we need to push it on further to senior level. The main priority of underage development is to make senior players for Cork, and their clubs.”
That pathway from U14 and U15 is made easier again because of the strength of the secondary schools system. Around 70-80% of the players involved in the development system in Cork at U14 and U15 regional levels are going to secondary schools that are currently very competitive in hurling.
After so long in the wilderness, Cork has become a dominant force again at Colleges level. That was fully evident in February when Midleton CBS and Christian Brothers College (CBC) contested the first all-Cork Harty final since 1994. St Francis College Rochestown defeated Hamilton High School Bandon in the B final which preceded the Harty final. In that B semi-final, Rochestown narrowly defeated Charleville.
That dominance has also percolated down to the U15 grade; St Colman’s defeated Midleton CBS in the A final; Gaelcholáiste Mhuire an Mhainistir Thuaigh beat CBC in the B final; Pobail Scoil Na Trionide, Youghal beat Patrician Academy Mallow in the C decider. And they weren’t the only Cork sides consistently in the mix; Coachford College lost the C semi-final to Youghal.
The numbers are teeming at underage in Cork schools. Midleton CBS had 82 U14 players training in the school this year. St Colman’s had 66 players training at the same grade.
When the two schools met in the Cork U14 final last week, the vast majority of those players weren’t involved. But they are still within the system with one of the first-year teams. More importantly, they were consistently playing hurling in the school, unlike the past when the top 25 players in the grade was all that was really catered for in a secondary school in any given year.
Next year, a second competition - not a B competition - will be organised for the bigger Cork Colleges. The volume of players playing hurling now in the Colleges is so huge that they have to provide games for them.
That is the thinking behind the Work-Group set up by John Horan to review the GAA youth/player development pathway at inter-county level. The draft document drawn up by that group draft contains some radical proposals which, if accepted, will completely change the face of the GAA at underage level.
“Big changes are coming down the line at national level,” says Dwane. “I think the All-Ireland minor championship in its current guise will change significantly in the next few years. It’s putting too much pressure on young fellas too early. It has to be more about development.”
Cork are definitely ahead of the curve because that appears to be the main ethos in the county now towards developing young players. And Cork is definitely going to benefit from that philosophy in time.