AT the recent Cork county Convention, one of the questions raised to the Executive via email focused on Cork’s underage development squads, and whether they were working as well as in other counties.
The question, which came from the Valley Rovers club, was possibly a reaction to the Cork minor hurlers' 12-point defeat to Limerick four days earlier.
It was impressively answered on Zoom by Ronan Dwane, Cork GAA coaching officer, who informed the delegates of some very informative numbers. The minor hurlers’ defeat was disappointing but Dwane was more inclined to focus on the make-up of the U20 hurling team that defeated Limerick the same day.
Dwane highlighted how 13 of the starting team had played Harty Cup hurling, with 11 of those players having come through three of the strongest schools in the competition – CBC, Midleton CBS and St Colman’s. The two players outside those schools – Daire Connery (who played with Gaelcholáiste Mhuire AG) and Alan Connolly (who played Harty with Rochestown College) – are both current Cork seniors.
Dwane’s point may have extended beyond the development squads but it was still very well made because both are so intrinsically linked. Making that connection to U20 level is a more accurate barometer again of the schools system, and how well they are contributing to the county teams.
The U20 grade is also a better reflection of your county championships as most of those players get an opportunity to showcase their talents there in a more competitive environment. Shane Barrett and Alan Connolly really showed that rate of improvement this year when playing six games each for their clubs in county title-winning seasons.
The question on the developments squads was still probably even more pertinent again considering that Cork had lost so heavily to Limerick and that so much focus on Limerick’s recent senior success has been attributed to their underage hurling academy.
A lack of success at underage level is always bound to draw questions on the development squad system. On the other hand, Cork have contested five more marquee underage finals than Limerick in the last four years.
The recent Munster U20 hurling final was Cork’s fourth Munster final in-a-row (Cork reached the 2017 and 2018 Munster U21 finals). If you include the U17s and minors in 2017, which reached Munster and All-Ireland hurling finals in both grades, Cork have contested 10 marquee underage hurling finals (at U17, minor, U20 and U21) in the last four seasons.
Cork would obviously have preferred their success rate to have been much higher from those games but at least Cork are reaching underage finals now, something they struggled to do over the previous two decades.
The Cork minor hurlers were extremely unlucky last year when losing just one of four games by one point. Yet the quality of that side was reflected with eight players from that group – Daire O’Leary, Brian O’Sullivan, Ethan Twomey, Ciarán Joyce, Jack Cahalane, Luke Horgan, Daniel Hogan and Darragh Flynn – playing U20 this season.
The big Cork schools are producing hurlers for Cork underage teams. That isn’t as prevalent with the football squads but that’s more of a geographical than progression factor; 20 schools were represented on last year’s All-Ireland minor winning panel of 26.
That win was a massive highlight, but it has been an impressive last three years at minor football level for Cork; in 2018, Cork lost to Kerry by one point and Kerry went on to win the All-Ireland; Cork lost to Kerry by one point after extra time in the 2020 Munster semi-final. And Kerry have the chance now to win a sixth All-Ireland minor title in seven seasons.
Kerry have absolutely owned the Munster and All-Ireland minor championship since 2014 but, while Cork never like to hear comparisons with Kerry, the ethos of the developmental squad system is broadly similar in both counties – a more holistic view is taken as opposed to creating a culture of elitism through that squad system.
Cork are more inclined to look at the bigger picture in both codes; they have eight teams in both codes at U14; in the recent past, Cork always sent two even teams playing in the Arrabawn U15 inter-county hurling tournament, something no other county does.
Cork’s double football success at minor and U20 last year was a huge boost for the county but that quest for a first All-Ireland minor or U20 hurling title in over two decades has shortened patience and increased frustration, especially around development squads. But Cork are getting closer and it should only be a matter of time before Cork win a minor or U20 hurling All-Ireland.
Because the groundwork is being done.