Rebel Óg and Cork County Board must cater to all players, not just the elite

Changes to age grades mean those turning 18 in 2021 are in limbo
Rebel Óg and Cork County Board must cater to all players, not just the elite

Geoffrey Gowen, St Finbarr’s, getting in a tackle on Colm McCarthy, Sarsfields in the 2020 Rebel Óg P1 Minor Hurling final. Picture: Dan Linehan

THE spotlight last weekend was on Cork's underage hurling teams, the minors falling flat against Limerick, unfortunately, though the U20s tore it up in extra time against the Shannonsiders.

Those are the elite young hurlers in Cork and whatever about the results, they deserve credit for simply getting the chance to play at that level. Two players stood out in that regard on Saturday: Daire O'Leary and Fenton Denny.

Cork's Daire O'Leary and Limerick's Mark McCarthy in U20 action last weekend. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton
Cork's Daire O'Leary and Limerick's Mark McCarthy in U20 action last weekend. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton

O'Leary is defying the horror that is 2020 by hurling up a storm in every game. A Cork minor last year, appearing in two of the four matches, he's really pushed on, excelling for the Cork U20s against Kerry and Limerick, after a superb club campaign with Watergrasshill.

Denny hails from my own club, Ballincollig and got a late run against Limerick for the U20s. He's a classy hurler, for sure, and more importantly, has a savage attitude. He didn't make the Cork U17 or minor squads in 2017 but kept putting in the hard yards since.

 Fenton Denny, Ballincollig, takes on Alan McEvoy, Blarney. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Fenton Denny, Ballincollig, takes on Alan McEvoy, Blarney. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

The vast majority of teenagers in any county, let alone one with a huge number of players, don't move beyond club competitions.

Indeed, only the best in any club, progress to the first team as adults. That's often forgotten about with the emphasis on 'player development' when we examine underage sport.

We're constantly looking to the future when the most important thing is enjoying the now. Having fun, playing with your friends and, if possible, winning games along the way is what motivates the vast majority of young players.

There are some critical decisions to be made over the coming weeks about GAA for youngsters in Rebel county. 

NEW GRADES

Central Council has mandated that U13, U15 and U17 are now the primary ages in hurling and football, dropping from U14, U16 and the traditional minor. Immediately that creates a gap for those turning 18 and the whole shift from U18 to U17 doesn't seem logical when the majority of U18s these days are only in fifth year in school.

Having 18-year-olds play at senior and underage is clearly the actual issue, but previous attempts to restrict U18s togging out in adult competitions were shot down at congress. So the compromise is an U17 minor grade and the fallout from that.

A decision must shortly be taken to stage a one-off Rebel Óg U18 competition in 2021, or for the Cork County Board to drop U21 to U20 or U19, in a new format to provide games for all. That's especially important for the average player, not being called on by adult teams.

In Cork, CEO of the county board Kevin O'Donovan last week wrote in a letter to clubs: "We thank all clubs for your patience on this matter and any feedback on the best approach after U17 is welcome."

We're also waiting to see how Rebel Óg handles the tiers from U12 up to U17 for 2021. Originally, they were pushing through proper competitions at U12, U14, U16 and U18, only, forcing clubs with bigger numbers to enter multiple teams by removing U13 and U15.  

So it's ironic that U13 and U15 are now mandatory.

Common sense would dictate that the urban clubs with large numbers should have competitions for every age, as they can in soccer. For some reason, the current governing body of Rebel Óg have moved away from that. 

It looks now like there be championships at all ages but no leagues, based on a guaranteed three group games and a semi-final in each code. 

The U13s, U15s and U17s will be out in the first half of the season, the U14s and U16s in the second, with a separate U12 strand: essential for players coming out of the Go Games format, who are still only in primary school. 

Clubs with bigger numbers will have the option to field two, three or even four teams. That's all fine in theory but for all bar the smallest clubs, grading players is going to be challenging and will see players from two age groups divided on ability. 

Most young lads just want to be togging out with their buddies.

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