Many senior intercounty teams carry a cohort of U21s on their panel, at least, promising players who are almost ready for the big show. Sometimes the future arrives early for some of those players: Austin Gleeson was an U21 All-Ireland winner last year and both Young Hurler and (senior) Hurler of the Year.
Ditto Tony Kelly in 2013, when he also collected a senior All-Ireland medal.
Those are outliers, however. For most players the transition can be a tricky one, and why not?
Senior intercounty hurling is a step up for managers as well. Jerry O’Connor and Donal Moloney co-managed a fine Clare side to the All-Ireland U21 championship in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
But when they replaced Davy Fitzgerald at the helm of the Clare senior team O’Connor said there were immediately recognisable differences between the grades.
“The number of games — at U21 level you might have five games, if you got to the All- Ireland final in September, but this spring we had ten matches in maybe 12 or 13 weeks — the Munster League, the National League. That was a huge change in terms of logistics and management.”
John Kiely, Limerick senior manager, can empathise. He points out that even though U21 success is obviously welcome — the Shannonsiders won the All-Ireland in that grade under his direction in 2015 — it takes time to bed in a management structure at the top level.
“It’s been challenging from the point of view that you’re putting a group of people together to look after the players, and then you’ve got the players themselves, so you’re talking about the guts of 60 people, to refine the roles and develop strategies, to work out what works best.
“And that takes time. You can’t expect to pull 60 people together on a project overnight and expect them to work in unison, to work at their optimum. It doesn’t happen, and it’d be the same in business. The exact same. There was a bedding down period but we feel we’ve gone through that and we’re working well.”
Then there are the other differences. A senior team which has a dozen or so U21s among its members can find May a tricky month, and Derek McGrath of Waterford explained why last Monday at the launch of the Munster Championships.
“Like every other team, given the age profile of all teams, exams are the only excuse with a couple of lads. I think Shane Bennett is finished exams this week, Patrick Curran is finished his exams next week.
“Different guys have different exams this week and the following week. I think we played on June 5 last year, 13 extra days should free us up, definitely a month run into it with little or no interference.”
So far so expected. But top-flight competition has another demand that may be in plain sight but is under-appreciated even by close observers.
“The physicality,” said Jerry O’Connor. “There is absolutely no comparison between the physicality at U21 level and senior. You’d feel that you have an U21 team reasonably well prepared, with a lot of gym and strength and conditioning work, but nothing will prepare you for the level of physicality we experienced in (Division) 1A.
“I don’t believe it is (close), to be honest with you, from what we’ve seen. We were down at the Galway-Tipperary game and Galway- Limerick, and Galway appear to have moved onto a different level altogether.
“Now, physicality isn’t going to win you a game on its own either, but it’s a noticeable difference, and it’s a big ask for a player who’s been playing U21 to move straight into senior at the moment. It might have been easier to do that four or five years ago because there wasn’t such a big emphasis on strength and conditioning, but if a guy’s been on a strength and conditioning course for three or four years and he’s in his mid-twenties, he’s coming up against players from U21 who haven’t that work done yet. I think Austin Gleeson mentioned that last year, as well.”
He did. “It was the physicality of them compared to us was massive,” said Gleeson of the Waterford-Kilkenny game in 2015. “There were times in the game it was boys against men, even around the middle of the field, the hits you were taking, it was unbelievable.”
O’Connor added: “We’ve had relative success at underage, but it’s completely different ball game to transfer that from underage to senior.”
Waterford All-Star Jamie Barron concurs on the difference between underage potential and senior reality: “I was only around 18 when I came in first and coming up against grown men. I was a lot smaller back then, I was being blown away inside in training.
“I’m able to hold my own a bit better now, I suppose. The gym work, the nutritional side of things, those are the biggest changes. You’d take for granted a little bit where you were and how far you’ve come in a few years. Strength and conditioning back then was torture but now it’s not as bad. You build a base and then you’ve to keep progressing and progressing. I was a small little player back then and the easiest place to put me was inside in one of the corners, so once I got out around the middle of the field I wanted to keep progressing and improving. Thankfully that’s still going.”
Barron agrees with O’Connor on the disparity between the grades: “Absolutely. They’re worlds apart, to be honest with you. I know our U21s won an All-Ireland, and maybe Waterford supporters might be expecting to see senior success straightaway as a result, but it doesn’t work like that. When I was playing U21, coming back in (to senior) you’d feel ‘It’ll be easy enough to step up’, but you need a lot behind you, a lot of work to be able to compete at that higher level. We’re doing that work and we hope it’ll get us places.
“It’s probably the biggest part of the game at the moment, and the more of that work you’ve done, the more years of it you have behind you, the better you’re going to be. The peak age is probably around 28, 29 — we won’t be there for a while yet but we’re hoping to keep on that path and to progress, and eventually we’ll be there.”
Dave Moriarty, who’s worked with both the Limerick hurlers and the Tipperary footballers, says U21s who are able to handle their own grade may find themselves overmatched at senior.
“One thing is a player’s training age — a player who’s come from an academy set-up, who has a good grounding in processes and training, he’ll obviously be at an advantage when he gets out of U21 — but it’s still not equal if he’s 20, 21, and he’s up against a guy who’s 26 or 27, who’s come through the same path and has years and years of serious conditioning done.
“You can have exceptions — looking at our lads in Tipperary, for instance, someone like James Feehan was well able to survive senior intercounty football at 20 years of age, but it’s significant that he came through a rugby environment in Rockwell College, where that strength and conditioning culture would have been very strong.
“There are other factors. It goes without saying that different players can put on muscle mass at different speeds and so on, but in general it’s fair to say that the confrontations at senior level can be a good deal more demanding than even at U21 level, though people may not think it.”
And even when the hard graft is done, there’s still the event itself. Jamie Barron says nothing prepares a player for the cauldron of senior competition.
It’s a little like The Matrix: “I think you have to experience it yourself to find out what it really is about — you can be telling lads how physical it is, just how tired you’ll feel after only ten minutes of the game, but it’s only when you’re out there in front of thousands of people that you realise what it’s about. It’s experience, and if you keep gathering that experience it’s bound to stand to you.”