Cork GAA: Schools hurling is vital for player development

Youngsters missed out on 18 months of second level competition due to Covid
Cork GAA: Schools hurling is vital for player development

Jack Cahalane, Niall Hartnett, Eoghan Kidney and Denis McSweeney, CBC Cork, battling Daire O'Leary, Cormac Roche, Leon Doocey, St Colman's Fermoy, in the Harty Cup in early 2020. Picture: Jim Coughlan

WHEN Christian Brothers College and St Flannan’s Ennis met in the 2020 Dr Harty Cup final in Mallow 19 months ago, St Flannan’s were full value for their three-point win to secure the Ennis college’s first title in 15 years.

Flannan’s took the initiative early and led by four points at the break. They had seven different scorers from play, compared to three for CBC, one of whom, Jack Cahalane, bagged 1-9 out of CBC’s total of 1-12, with the goal coming from a penalty in the seventh minute of added time.

St Flannan’s went on to defeat St Kieran’s Kilkenny in the All-Ireland quarter-final a week later, with CBC losing out to Presentation Athenry at the same stage. Flannan’s were favourites to win the All-Ireland, but everything was shut down just a few days later. And there hasn’t been a colleges’ hurling game played since.

The great pity for the majority of those Flannan’s and CBC players is that both colleges would have been stronger again in the 2021 competition, if it was played. CBC had 12 of their starting 15 underage, all of whom were returning to the college. Flannan’s had 11 of that 2020 starting team back, while another player – who was injured for that final – would have also been available.

 CBC's Niall Hartnett and James Dwyer holding onto Colm Cassidy, St Flannan’s. Picture: Dan Linehan
CBC's Niall Hartnett and James Dwyer holding onto Colm Cassidy, St Flannan’s. Picture: Dan Linehan

Of course, there are no guarantees that both sides would have reached the Harty final again, or gone further in the All-Ireland series, but the regret was all the more acute when they never got the chance.

That was nobody’s fault, especially when the third lockdown between January-April of this year effectively closed off all potential avenues to run off any competitions.

Provisions had been made to run off a truncated version of the Harty, with home-and-away stipulations attached to a knockout draw, but exams and getting kids back to school were always going to take precedent during a condensed window once the schools reopened in March-April.

Most of those players from CBC and Flannan’s have moved on now but at least the players who didn’t play last year, but who are still in school and are eligible to play will do so in 2021-22; last Thursday, Comhairle Iar-Bhunscoileanna na Mumhan confirmed that post-primary schools’ competitions will resume next month.

The first round of the Harty Cup will commence on November 10, with the Corn Uí Mhuirí (senior football) getting underway the previous week.

It’s a huge boost for vast swathes of young players – in particular second year students – many of whom never even got the chance to train with their colleges teams since starting secondary school. 

That age-group have already missed out on so much because their last four months in sixth class in primary school between March-June 2020 were also wiped out during the first lockdown.

However, they will finally get that opportunity next month, with the first matches across five different grades at U15 football beginning on October 6. The Dean Ryan (U16.5 hurling) commences a week later.

All those games will be run on a straight knock-out basis. However, the Harty and Corn Uí Mhuirí will move from the group stages to a backdoor format for teams that lose the opening round.

A knockout championship would have been unforgiving, especially considering some of the first-round fixtures; CBC face Midleton CBS, while St Flannan’s play Thurles CBS.

In the Dean Ryan two years ago (it was played in late September and October 2019), Midleton beat CBC in the quarter-final by five points. That Dean Ryan competition was won by St Colman’s Fermoy, who will be one of the favourites for the Harty because of the impressive manner of how they won that 2020 Dean Ryan Cup. 

After taking out Hamilton High School Bandon and De La Salle College (Waterford), Colman’s hammered Midleton in the semi-final by 22 points, before edging past Ardscoil Rís in the final by one point.

Those underage colleges competitions are often a solid gauge but they’re not always the most accurate barometer either. 

Midleton will be strong Harty contenders again this year. From the Midleton team that was blitzed by Colman’s in that 2019-20 Dean Ryan semi-final, Jack Leahy, Timmy Wilk and Diarmuid Healy started on the Cork minor team that won the All-Ireland title in August.

Cork's Jack Leahy in action against Cian Scully of Limerick. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton
Cork's Jack Leahy in action against Cian Scully of Limerick. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton

Those players got loads of top-class hurling over the last year, but the most important thing now is to try and provide as many games as possible, within reason, to all players across the board.

Cork have been progressive in that regard. Even though the underage competitions have changed from U13 to U15 to U17, Cork have run U14 and U16 competitions while an U18 competition will begin in October.

Not every county has been that organised; when the grades were still even last year, there were no U16 hurling competitions in Clare. That wasn’t the sole reason Clare were beaten by Cork by 40 points in this year’s Munster minor championship, but it was one of the many contributory factors.

Everyone is still trying to work their way through the difficulties of the last 19 months in the best way possible. Some good teams in the Harty this year could still find themselves gone out of the competition after just two games.

A group stages scenario would be better than a back-door format, but at least the competition is back. And the more hurling and football young players can be exposed to now over the next year, the better.

Because too many young players have missed too much.

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