Christy O'Connor: GAA minor switch to U17 has backfired on young players

Decoupling underage and adult fixtures was a positive step but the GAA then failed completely to provide meaningful competition for the majority of young hurlers and footballers
Christy O'Connor: GAA minor switch to U17 has backfired on young players

Midleton's Niall Corcoran runs through prior to scoring the first goal in the U19 Premier 1 Hurling Championship semi-final against Blackrock in Ballygarvan. Picture: Cian O'Regan.

IN mid-July, Na Piarsaigh issued a statement to explain why the club conceded a county Premier 1 U19 Hurling Championship clash with Blackrock.

The statement outlined how the players and management had prepared for the original fixture until Blackrock submitted a request to the Cork Competitions Controls Committee for the game to be postponed for a week due to players being on holidays.

When Na Piarsaigh informed the county board and the CCC that they would not be in a position to fulfil that fixture, the game was re-fixed to a later date. Na Piarsaigh proposed an alternative date in August but it was not accepted by the CCC.

Blackrock progressed but they were beaten in the semi-final by Midleton. The match was supposed to be part of a double-header, but Glen Rovers pulled out and Valley Rovers advanced to the final.

“It is kind of an up-and-down competition,” said Midleton joint-manager David O’Brien after the Blackrock game. “We are trying to keep the boys together all year between matches, Leaving Cert and holidays.”

ZERO INTEREST

In numerous counties around the country, a similar scenario was played out. The Clare U19 championship for example, which was also fixed for July, was defined by walkovers, no-shows and lack of interest. Players which had completed the Leaving Cert were gone on holidays. Other clubs had zero interest in the competition but what did county boards expect with the timing?

Fixing an U19 competition in July may have been well-intentioned but it smacked of tokenism and box-ticking all over the country. It had far less of a chance of taking off with the senior teams (or the main teams, at all levels) in those clubs ramping up preparations for their upcoming championships.

The take-up in Cork for the U19 championship was less than 50%. The Midleton-Valley Rovers final has yet to be played.

Timing is everything, especially in such a huge county like Cork which has so many fixtures to cater for. Cork CEO Kevin O’Donovan has always been aware of the need for a transitionary age group between youth and adulthood but where does that competition exist?

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 and anachronistic that players are just walking away too early. It may only be for a year but many who take that time out drift away and 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 S&C 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.

 Bishopstown's Sean Cronin makes a superb save to deny Valley Rovers' Daniel Lynch during the Rebel Óg Premier 1 MFC semi-final at the Mardyke. Picture: David Keane.
Bishopstown's Sean Cronin makes a superb save to deny Valley Rovers' Daniel Lynch during the Rebel Óg Premier 1 MFC semi-final at the Mardyke. Picture: David Keane.

The problem then is exacerbated with the 19-20 age group already 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. Yet the provision of proper structured competition to fill the void between minor and adult football and hurling remains one of the GAA’s biggest challenges.

After a raft of motions on the subject came up just short at Congress in February, GAA president Larry McCarthy established a committee to explore the underage grades. It was thought those recommendations might make proposals for a Special Congress this autumn but the committee will instead work towards a proposal at Congress next February with a view to introducing them in 2024.

Cork though, are clearly keen to address the matter sooner rather than later. 

At the August county board meeting, there was talk of a possible Cork motion to return minor to U18 and have partial decoupling whereby Cork clubs in the lower adult grades could call on U18 players.

However, introducing a county bye-law that would enable Cork to return minor to U18 was not permitted under general rule. As a result, the only other avenue open to Cork was to seek a derogation from general rule. Yet Central Council were never going to grant a derogation at the same time as a Croke Park sub-committee is examining underage grades.

The collapse of the U19 grade though, has left U18 players in a serious bind. And the fear of more and more players drifting away is more real than ever before.

Cork were right in seeking a restoration to U18 as minor, especially when decoupling (preventing U18s from playing) for Senior, Intermediate and Premier Junior teams would have seriously helped to address the problem in such a huge county.

Cork were also advocating that Junior A, B and C teams would be allowed to field U18 players because the overlap with minor for them would be less significant.

Decoupling is especially necessary in Cork to organise fixtures and present a master plan early in the year. But doing it for everyone at U17 is not workable. And the effort to accommodate an U19 grade have failed in Cork, and beyond, this year.

For now though, there is no easy solution to this huge issue in sight.

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