Christy O'Connor: Power is a key part of moving up the grades

Players who may not have physically developed or even been near an U-14 squad could be the best player on the side by the time they reach minor.
Christy O'Connor: Power is a key part of moving up the grades

GAA All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Quarter-Final, FBD Semple Stadium, Tipperary 18/6/2022

LAST Sunday, the Tipperary minors defeated Offaly to win the All-Ireland title but they also completed a unique double which had never been achieved before – no Tony Forristal winning team (All-Ireland U-14) had ever gone on to win the All-Ireland minor title, for what used to be four, but now three years later.

Of course every team changes within that time-span. Players who may not have physically developed or even been near an U-14 squad could be the best player on the side by the time they reach minor.

That Forristal stat though, was still a popular reference point around the difficulties of why so many successful young players and athletes fail to convert their potential into senior success.

The Tipperary and Offaly players that featured on Sunday are still only 16 and 17-year olds that might never make it at senior level for any number of reasons. 

Yet the two teams are still unique when their pathways are tracked from that Tony Forristal competition in 2019, when both sides met in the final Tipperary were really impressive throughout that Forristal, winning their four games by an aggregate margin of 29 points. 

The weekend got even better for Tipp when they also dominated the the Sonny Walsh tournament, winning their four games in that competition by 53 points.

A lot of those Tipp players featured on Sunday, but Offaly’s put-through rate was even more impressive – 14 of the players which started also played in that Forristal final.

Offaly’s smaller numbers have always placed a greater emphasis and reliance on making the most of what they have. 

GAA All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Preliminary Quarter-Final, Corrigan Park, Belfast, Northern Ireland 11/6/2022
GAA All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Preliminary Quarter-Final, Corrigan Park, Belfast, Northern Ireland 11/6/2022

The majority of these players will hope to play senior for Offaly but the challenge is all the greater again now with the minor grade having changed to U17, and the U21 shifting to U20.

Even for players who make that jump between U17 and U20, making that next step up to senior is all the more challenging again when the game has become so defined by power and strength at that level. 

That was noticeable across last weekend’s All-Ireland senior semi-finals because there was no starter still under 20. 

In the All-Ireland quarter-finals three weeks ago, there were only two of the 60 starting players under 22 – Ciarán Joyce and Alan Connolly.

After winning successive All-Ireland U-20 titles, Cork are clearly building for the future with the bulk of those two squads. 

Yet the potential to transplant a raft of those young players straight into the team like Cork routinely did in the past is no longer viable, especially with the S&C ladder, and with so many of those players still on the bottom rungs.

The material for continuous transitional improvement still clearly exists and the previous Cork management had begun that integrational process; 17 All-Ireland U-20 winners were on the extended squad this season, six of whom have already played senior championship – Connolly, Joyce, Shane Barrett, Daire Connery, Brian Roche and Tommy O’Connell.

Of the Galway team Cork beat in last year’s All-Ireland U-20 final, only two of that side – Gavan Lee and Greg Thomas – have played senior championship. 

But neither of those two featured in the Leinster final, All-Ireland quarter-final or Sunday’s semi-final.

The S&C demands have changed everything, especially when compared with the past. 

Offaly reaped a massive harvest from their three All-Ireland minor winning sides between 1986-’89, with 11 players from those sides going on to win All-Ireland senior medals on the field.

Offaly had to maximise that talent with their small resources but in the three decades since Offaly’s mini dominance of the competition, Galway have had a sustained grip on the minor championship.

Galway have won almost half the titles (14) on offer since 1992. To put that number into greater context, it is just two All-Ireland minor titles less than what Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork (combined) managed in the same period.

To further contextualise that absolute dominance, Galway have won the exact same number of All-Ireland minor titles in the last three decades as Clare, Limerick, Waterford, Wexford and Dublin (combined) have won in the history of the minor championship.

The big question though, is where is all that success getting them? 

10 July 2021; An emotional Daire Connery of Cork celebrates with Feargal Condon following the 2020 Bord Gáis Energy GAA Hurling All-Ireland U20 Championship Final match between Dublin and Cork at UPMC Nowlan Park in Kilkenny. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
10 July 2021; An emotional Daire Connery of Cork celebrates with Feargal Condon following the 2020 Bord Gáis Energy GAA Hurling All-Ireland U20 Championship Final match between Dublin and Cork at UPMC Nowlan Park in Kilkenny. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

The fall-off is clearly happening to Galway even before those players get to senior; Galway have won just five All-Ireland U-21 (now U-20) titles in the last 30 years. 

Their last title in the grade was back in 2011.

Of the Galway squad of 26 which contested last Sunday’s semi-final, 17 have All-Ireland minor medals. 

As a comparison, the Clare side which reached the other All-Ireland semi-final have none.

Eleven of the squad have All-Ireland U-21 medals, but Clare’s fall off in that grade has been stark since dominating it at the outset of the last decade; Clare haven’t won an U-21/U-20 game in the province since 2015.

Clare were annihilated in some of those game but they have been able to over-ride those setbacks at U-20 level by consistently producing at least one quality player from each team.

There is no doubt that underage success is welcome and is a positive step in the development of any young players. 

But it isn’t the defining factor, especially when the strength and conditioning and power factor at senior can over-ride the skill levels that can see teams dominate at underage level.

In the modern game though, the complete package is required at senior.

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