ONE of the major challenges for Cork hurling in the years ahead will be to ensure that talented young players outside senior clubs are not disadvantaged when it comes to their long-term development.
Just before Christmas the Cork U20s won a hard-fought Munster title when seeing off reigning champions Tipperary by 1-16 to 1-14 on December 23rd at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. For Cork hurling, it was a much-needed festive tonic.
Nine of the starters that evening did not play senior club hurling in 2020, although Blarney’s 1-20 to 0-15 victory over Castlelyons in the Premier Intermediate Final in early October will ensure that the Muskerry club join the senior ranks in 2021, as the likes of Shane Barrett and Padraig Power will get to test themselves at Senior A level going forward.
For the record, Eoin Davis, Conor O’Callaghan, Ciaran Joyce, Daire O’Leary, Darragh Flynn, Eoin Carey, and Colin O’Brien are the other seven players.
If you discount the Blarney duo, but add the two non-senior subs that appeared that night, Shane O’Regan and Sean Twomey, then that is nine players who played that night against Tipp that will be plying their trade at intermediate or even junior level later this year, assuming the club championships go ahead.
There are other players knocking around that panel too. Ballincollig’s Fenton Denny came off the bench in the extra time victory over Limerick, while Darragh Moran, Liam Ryan and Owen McCarthy were all on the pine for the opening round against Kerry in Tralee.
All of these players are heading into an extremely important couple years in terms of their development as hurlers. A number of the above-mentioned players remain underage at U20 level for 2021, so will remain within Pat Ryan’s set-up long after the All-Ireland U20 Hurling final against either Galway or Dublin is done and dusted.
Others will undoubtedly graduate onwards to Kieran Kingston’s senior squad in the coming months and years, but the brains trust in charge of looking after Cork hurling must make sure that all these talented youngster’s development do not have their development stunted or stalled due to the fact that they are not regularly exposed to senior club hurling.
That is not to any way detract from the huge effort put into coaching players at intermediate and junior level, but it is just a fact of hurling life that a player is more likely to develop to their maximum being exposed week in, week out at the likes of Blackrock, like Alan Connolly is, in comparison to Colin O’Brien’s development hidden away up in Liscarroll.
Any of those from the Imokilly region, such as Shane O’Regan and Daire O’Leary of Watergrasshill, Ciaran Joyce and Darragh Moran of Castlemartyr and Eoin Davis of the St Catherine’s club can expect to be heavily involved with the East Cork division that won three in a row club championships between 2017 and 2019. You would imagine that this would be an environment that would provide ample high-performance structures to aid their development.
Many of these young hurlers would already find themselves in college at this stage of their lives. Unfortunately, there is no Fitzgibbon Cup or Freshers hurling this year, due to the Covid pandemic, so the many young hurlers attending the likes of UCC and CIT are missing out on some invaluable experiences this year that previous vintages would have banked with relish.
For others, the big question is as to whether the remaining divisions can pick up the slack. Unfortunately, the evidence of recent years would suggest that, at least in the short term, they are unlikely to do so.
The fact that Duhallow were the only division, other than reigning champions Imokilly, to contest this year’s county championship is a statement in itself. There is ample available hurling talent in the divisions of Avondhu, Muskerry and Carrigdhoun yet the appetite does not appear to currently exist within these regions to really have a proper go at pooling their resources and having a crack at Cork’s top club sides.
Having plenty of competitive clubs within your division does not necessarily mean that the division itself is going to be competitive though. In fact, the biggest stumbling block can be the fact that these clubs have ambitions of their own and are therefore going to be reluctant to make their players available to the manager of that division. One can’t blame club managers for taking such a stance.
Avondhu, in fairness to them, are fairly hamstrung by the fact that Charleville are now up to Premier Senior level, while Mallow, Ballyhea, Fermoy and Kilworth are all in the Senior A grade this year, so no players from these clubs are eligible for the north Cork division. The likes of Colin O’Brien, Darragh Flynn, Diarmuid Lenihan and James Keating might be available, but they would need the above clubs to be eligible and available to be competitive.
Duhallow and Muskerry probably have similar issues with them not being able to call upon Blarney and Kanturk players, although Muskerry on paper should be able to field a quality side from the likes of Eire Óg, Ballincollig, Cloughduv and Inniscarra.
You would imagine that a quality side could also be drawn from Carrigaline, Valley Rovers, Courcey Rovers and Ballinhassig, but Carrigdhoun seem to always struggle to get local rivals to unite.
In the short term Imokilly is the only division likely to offer a pathway for young hurlers to inter-county fare, but in the long-term Cork needs to utilise the divisional structures more efficiently.
This push will not come at local level, however. It is something that will have to be driven from the top table down.