What’s another year? That is the rhetorical question the GAA hierarchy are asking as a motion to change the U21 All-Ireland hurling championship to U20 to fall into line with Gaelic football is being prepared.
Have no doubt that a proposal will be winging its way to Congress in February.
When GAA director general Páraic Duffy and president Aogán Farrell are openly voicing their approval of such a change you can be certain the recommendation is imminent.
Last month, Duffy emphasised the gap between U17 and U21 in hurling as will be the case next year has to be narrowed.
“The U20 championship, yes I would definitely like to see hurling go to that because I know there are complaints about the gap between 17 and 21. I think 20 is far better.”
Farrell endorsed that view earlier this month, referencing Tipperary’s failure to have a similar motion passed recently – “Absolutely,” he answered when asked if he shared Duffy’s opinion.
“No doubt. Hurling needs to go to U20 and I can’t see any argument against it.
"Tipperary wanted that to happen and they were right but they didn’t win the day. I accept democracy – I can’t accept it just when things go your way – but I believe that it should happen and the logic stacks up that way.”
The one argument against it was the possibility hurling could follow the football example whereby those players on a senior panel would be prevented from playing for the U20s.
It’s a situation that a lot of developing football counties are waking up to now but Farrell has indicated the eligibility criteria will be altered for hurling meaning U20s would be able to play senior.
“Hurling is always a little bit different and I would bow to the expertise of our hurling development committee on that. They are not fully convinced that it should be the exact same in football and I would await their expert view on that.”
That’s just as well. As we have cited in this column before, two of the last five hurlers of the years have also been young hurlers of the year, ie U21. Tony Kelly was 20 when he was honoured with the two individual awards in 2013. Last year, Austin Gleeson turned 21 less than two months before he was starring in those All-Ireland semi-final bouts with Kilkenny.
Hurling is more of a young man’s game than football. Comparing some of the recent retirements is one indicator of that fact. On one hand, there is Gavin O’Mahony (30), James Ryan (30), Darach Honan (27) and John O’Keeffe (29). On the other is Bryan Sheehan (32), Karl Lacey (33), Denis Bastick (36) and Niall McNamee (32).
Then there’s the number of U21 hurlers winning senior All-Irelands and All-Stars. When Tipperary claimed All-Ireland and U21 honours in 2010, a 19-year-old Noel McGrath featured on both teams.
Current All-Star Conor Whelan was the same age when he scored 1-2 in the 2015 All-Ireland quarter-final.
We saw him all too briefly in senior Limerick colours this past summer but 19-year-old Kyle Hayes was one of the county’s most exciting performers. Shane Bennett was 18 when he inspired Waterford to an All-Ireland semi-final two years ago.
The GAA are right to heed the advice of Paudie O’Neill’s hurling committee and recognise that U20 or U21 level complements those also playing the senior grade.
Perhaps, though, their willingness to defer to the group is more to do with appeasing the traditional hurling counties in which there is sure to be opposition to change what is a fine competition. The margin to U17 notwithstanding, it’s not as if the U21 grade needs fixing.
The knock-out value of it will be appreciated more next year as the senior championship resembles more of a league.
Why the GAA don’t now believe the country’s best young footballers should benefit from the same freedom to play U20 and senior is an interesting conundrum.
As we touched on before, you would hope that David Clifford is allowed to make his own mind up whether to play U20 or senior next season.
Jack O’Connor and Éamonn Fitzmaurice may or may not be on the same page in regard to that but it should be the prerogative of the Fossa teenager.
Perhaps, though, it’s the prospect of the senior teams of weaker football counties being denied access to their best late teenage talent that may spark a resistance.
Such expediency usually wins out but there’s a more noble argument to consider too. For so many inter-county footballers, minor and U21 have been rites of passages.
Should the new breed be deprived of U20 football if they are deemed good enough to represent their seniors when the hurlers won’t?
There are reasons why hurling should receive preferential treatment but this isn’t one of them.
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