Christy O'Connor on the challenge posed by GAA's new U17 and U20 grades

Many clubs across Ireland are hugely concerned about dropping key underage competitions by a year and how players will transition from minor to senior
Christy O'Connor on the challenge posed by GAA's new U17 and U20 grades

Beara's Ben O'Sullivan being tackled by Ballincollig's Harry Ahern and Tagdh O'Connell and Harry Ahern in this year's Rebel Óg U18 football final in Cork. Picture: Denis Boyle

WHEN Galway and Limerick met in the 2020 All-Ireland minor semi-final in late June, nobody knew what to expect, not even the teams.

After first getting together in November but not playing a competitive match, Galway’s lay-off surely broke all records in world sport: 600 days. Limerick had won a brilliant Munster championship at the end of 2020, but then they had to go into cold storage for six months.

The weather that evening in Ennis was atrocious, but the standard was first class, especially from Galway, who blew away all the doubts and worries with another slick display at minor level. They backed it up a few weeks later in defeating Kilkenny in the final.

It was worth the wait for those Galway players, but there were also other advantages in such a long lay-off. Players were heavily engaged in a high-performance culture longer than they would have if the championships had concluded in 2020, especially those players who would have been overage in 2021.

Galway's Liam Collins celebrates scoring a goal against Limerick in the 2020 minor semi-final. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane
Galway's Liam Collins celebrates scoring a goal against Limerick in the 2020 minor semi-final. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

In that context, the most noticeable aspect of the concluding stages of the 2020 minor championship last summer — in both hurling and football — was how players were older, stronger, and much more physically developed than they would have been as 17-year olds.

The quality and intensity that evening in Ennis were definitely a throwback. It felt and looked like a minor game from around 2016-’17, because most of the players were under 18.

It was also a reminder of the knock-on effects of removing that extra year in the marquee underage grades.

A week before Tipperary beat Cork in the inaugural All-Ireland U20 final in 2018, Tipp manager, Liam Cahill, spoke about the implications for his squad after the GAA had just moved minor from U18 to U17, and U21 to U20.

I think the GAA have got it wrong. They have moved back the U17 to facilitate the Leaving Cert and they’ve just kicked the can further down the road.

“The first round of the championship in early May, we had eight or 10 lads doing Leaving Cert, so it was the same scenario (as minor). If that was the reason for moving it back, it definitely isn’t working anyway.”

Those obstacles are easier to negotiate at inter-county level, because of the support structures and fixed calendar in place around those inter-county competitions.

But it’s been a different challenge at club level, where the changing of the grades has seen clubs everywhere haemorrhage players.

Corduff, in Monaghan, recently tabled a motion to their county convention to have club football returned to the original age grades.

Corduff’s focus was on bringing their own county back into line and returning club minor football to U18, but Armagh club Silverbridge proposed a similar motion for national change that they hope makes it to Congress in the spring.

Transition

Many clubs are struggling to transition players into adult hurling and football once they leave U17. Making that ‘jump’ to adult level for a 17-18-year-old can be so sudden that players are just walking away too early.

It may only be for a year, but many who take that time out don’t come back.

One of the core reasons for changing the minor grade to U17 was to decouple underage from adult grades to prevent burnout and fixtures congestion. That decision was sound in principle, but it didn’t go down well with a lot of rural clubs with smaller playing pools, who were stretched to field an adult team without access to U17s.

There were bound to be pressure points somewhere, but counties were caught in a bind in that space between 17 and 20.

The strength-and-conditioning culture is prevalent now at all levels, but many 17- and 18-year-olds are still not physically equipped for adult hurling and football until they’re 19 or 20 or older.

The problem then is exacerbated with the 19-20 age group already being heavily disrupted with third-level college, travel, new jobs, and everything else associated with greater independence at that age.

All of those issues make it harder to run off club competitions at U19 and U20, but most counties do not cater well for players anyway in that age bracket; many club U21 championships were run off at the tail end of 2021 as a box-ticking exercise to get those competitions out of the way.

On the other hand, even when the old U21 championships were played earlier in the year, they were invariably knockout competitions, which only guaranteed one game to too many players.

Whether or not the minor grade is returned to U18, counties still need to get more imaginative to protect their players by providing them with more games and opportunities to stay involved.

Kildare, for example, retained U18 and U23 competitions for that purpose.

In his annual report to the remote Cork convention in early December, Kevin O’Donovan highlighted the need for ‘a transitionary age-group between youth and adulthood’.

In O’Donovan’s eyes, the solution was simple: An U19 league and championship grade to be played on Wednesday nights, ensuring no clash with adult or U17 games at the weekend. It would be organised by the county board based on the gradings and structures in place at under-age levels, namely the regions and the Premier 1, 2, A, B, and C grades.

It’s another solid idea to prevent player-drain at that age group.

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