WHEN Shane Meehan scored a brilliant goal for the Clare U20 hurlers against Cork last week, slaloming his way past a posse of Cork players, Brian Lohan had a look of anxiety more than delight on his face.
Standing on the bank in Sixmilebridge, Lohan was directly in line with Meehan who was lying on the pitch holding his leg just after the green flag had been raised.
Meehan had carried a hamstring strain into the match, which had kept him out of Clare’s game against Limerick the previous week.
As he was being treated by the physio on the pitch, Lohan’s concerns were based on how an exacerbation of that injury could have ruled Meehan out for the Clare seniors against Tipperary this weekend.
Meehan played on but Clare lost and were eliminated from the competition.
Two narrow defeats in games they should have won added to the frustration for Clare.
On the other hand, if Clare had progressed to the Munster semi-finals, how long more would their season have lasted?
For a start, they were sure to lose Meehan and Patrick Crotty, and possibly Cian Galvin, because of their involvement with the Clare senior panel. Limerick have advanced to the semi-finals but how far will they go in the competition now without Cathal O’Neill?
He saved Limerick against Clare with 1-1 in the dying moments, but he wasn’t available to play with the U20s against Cork on Wednesday evening after playing in the senior game against Cork last weekend.
“It’s disappointing that we’re penalising our best players,” said John Kiely after last Sunday’s game.
“We could make this work. It’s a pity they’ve gone down this route because I don’t believe it’s the issue of burnout.”
A week earlier, Gearóid Hegarty was even stronger again on the issue.
Having the luxury of such a strong panel presents Kiely with the opportunity of preventing the same issue denying some more of his young players of lining out with the U20s.
Colin Coughlan and Adam English were regular starters during the league, but they weren’t used on Sunday, which freed them up to play on Wednesday night against Cork.
Yet Coughlin came on in last year’s All-Ireland senior final and the attritional nature of the Round Robin may force Kiely to use Coughlin and English yet in the coming weeks.
The rule, as it stands, dictates that if an U20 player plays senior inter-county championship, they can only play U-20 in the same season once the senior team has been knocked out of the championship.
Cork's attempts to win three Munster and All-Ireland U20s in a row has been compromised by the loss of Ciáran Joyce and Dáire O’Leary to the senior squad. Cork aren’t the only side though, to be ‘penalised’, as Kiely termed it.
Cárthach Daly didn’t line out for the Waterford U20s in their narrow defeat to Tipperary last week because he was playing with the seniors four days later.
Oisin Pepper came on in the 67th minute for Wexford last Saturday against Galway, which prevented him from lining out against the Laois U20s on Tuesday night. Gavin Lee’s involvement with Galway last Saturday has also ruled him out for the U20s.
Munster has a Round Robin format with every team guaranteed two games, whereas the Leinster U20 championship is seeded. The quarter-finals took place on Tuesday night while Galway and Dublin – who were automatically through to the semi-finals – don’t play the semi-finals until May 2.
If they hadn’t played senior, Pepper and Lee would have only been guaranteed one game at U20 level.
But the timing factor again underlines the unbalance with the rule because an earlier start to the Munster campaign at least gives some of those U20s more of an opportunity to play at least one game in the competition.
It’s also been noticeable how young hurlers are being punished more than young footballers, which is again a timing issue as some of the football championship fixtures have a later start than the provincial round robin hurling format.
Yet it’s also obvious how more young hurlers are breaking through to play senior at U20 than young footballers in the same grade.
In the Cork-Kerry Munster U20 final on Monday night, there is no overlap with U20 and senior players on both squads.
Conor Corbett definitely would have been involved with the Cork seniors but he’s injured.
Yet if he wasn’t, Corbett would still have been able to play two U20 games before the seniors play (hopefully) on May 7th.
The flipside to this argument is that while underage competitions are highly competitive and crucially important on the player pathway, they are still essentially development teams.
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.
Yet the rule still suits the stronger counties, who have more resources, and more players, at their disposal.
Having a greater reliance on promoting U20 players to senior level out of necessity can definitely weaken some counties’ chances at U20 level. There are numerous strands to this debate.
There is no easy solution but the rule is causing far more of a stir than the principle of the rule intended.