IN his Irish Examiner column on the morning after Cork defeated Limerick in the Munster U20 hurling final in July, Anthony Daly was effusive in his praise of Pat Ryan’s side, particularly in the context of what they had to deal with.
Daly said that Cork were now fancied to win a successive All-Ireland U20 titles the following month (which they did) but felt that it would have been an absolute certainty if Cork had Shane Barrett and Alan Connolly, who couldn’t play because of their involvement with the senior team.
“I just think that is a crazy rule and so unfair on those two young fellas,” wrote Daly.
Barrett and Connolly featured for the seniors just three days later against Dublin, with Barrett starting the All-Ireland semi-final the following week against Kilkenny, and Connolly coming on in the same game. Barrett also came off the bench in the All-Ireland final.
It would have been difficult for them to combine both if they were eligible for the U20s, but the rule denied Barrett and Connolly from having to make that decision.
Cork still went on to win the All-Ireland U20 title, but, at the county board meeting in early September, Cork’s Munster Council delegate Ger Lane said the county must table a motion to change the rule.
The rule, as it stands, dictates that if an U20 player plays senior inter-county championship, they can only play U20 in the same season once the senior team has been knocked out of the championship.
“If this rule remains in place, it will weaken Cork teams over the next couple of years,” argued Lane.
The rule could hobble Cork’s attempts to win three Munster and All-Ireland U20s in a row next year, especially if some of the players still eligible for that grade play senior championship in 2022.
With the senior championship expected to return to the more attritional Round-Robin format, Cork may need more of those younger players, which would rule them out of the U20 campaign. However, there is another side to this argument. Underage competitions are highly competitive and crucially important on the player pathway, but they are still essentially development teams.
The scenario with Barrett and Connolly was difficult for both players, but it also granted the opportunity for other players to step up in their absence, which those young U20 players emphatically did once they got their chance.
It could also be argued that players already playing senior are depriving other young players the opportunity to play at the U20 grade. In that sense, the rule makes sense from a developmental point of view.
Another strand to this debate is that the rule suits the stronger counties, who have more resources, and more players, at their disposal. Would a county with less resources win an All-Ireland without their two senior players?
The bigger counties can allow their younger players to stay at the U20 grade in order to let them develop. Yet in other counties, there’s a greater reliance on promoting U20 players to senior level out of necessity, which can weaken a county’s chances at U20 level. And there is greater potential for friction again when the senior team’s prospects may be deemed much lower than the U20s.
The elite will always make the transition easier in the bigger counties; David Clifford was never going to stall his senior career with Kerry for a couple of years spent with the U20s. Clifford didn’t need to spend time on that pathway anyway because he was already good enough to make the step-up before he’d even turned 19.
When Cork beat a highly fancied Kerry team in the 2019 Munster U20 final, Kerry were without Clifford and Sean O’Shea. However, Clifford and O’Shea also couldn’t play the previous year when Kerry edged Cork by three points.
In that same year in 2018, Cork didn’t have Mark White, who was the senior keeper, while Mattie Taylor also couldn’t play as he came on in the 68th minute of Cork’s senior semi-final against Tipperary, which was played just a week before Cork’s first match of that U20 campaign.
It is never an easy decision to make for young players, especially those good enough to play senior championship. Some may choose to delay that call-up, but that is also a luxury for the stronger counties.
Darragh Canavan was only used as an impact sub for Tyrone this year but Canavan has been gradually finding his feet since making his senior debut in the Dr McKenna Cup in December 2018. Mickey Harte made the decision to allow Canavan, who was still under 19 in 2019, to concentrate on his U20 duties that season.
Canavan was a central figure in leading Tyrone to the 2020 Ulster U20 title, but he also made his senior championship debut last season, which was facilitated in a knockout/winter football championship.
With different formats to come next year in hurling and football, players and managers will have some big decisions to make whether to stay with the U20s, or take their chances with the seniors.
But in the stronger counties like Cork, even when the chance of All-Ireland underage success is still real, there should always be enough young players in the system to strike that correct balance between underage development/success and senior progress.