Cruising through the sunlit uplands of Tipperary last evening to the Bord Gáis Energy Munster U20 final, and random notions light up the car like sunbeams reflected from the fields.
Are any late promotions likely among the blue and gold? How does the Cork performance reflect the health of the game on Leeside? What does Tipperary’s victory portend?
The ultimate question: What is the purpose of the grade in the first place? What does it all mean? You’ll notice, keen-eyed as you are, that the contest itself is far lower down the list of priorities.
Little wonder when both sides have half an eye on extra-provincial adventure, with some of the participants even saying as much in the build-up to the game. Last year Cork destroyed Tipperary in the Munster final but Tipp dug in for victory in the All-Ireland. Lessons available for all concerned.
The game itself was won by Tipperary, 3-15 to 2-17, in front of a healthy crowd of 9,117 - big enough to have to be accommodated in both of the Semple Stadium stands. Tipperary began and ended the first half with goals, while Cork’s long-range shooting helped them level matters on the short whistle, 1-10 to 2-7.
After the break it was nip and tuck — the sides were level 2-10 to 1-13 turning into the final quarter, and level again with seven minutes on the clock. In the end it took Cork sub Evan Sheehan’s first-time strike for goal to break the deadlock, only for Tipp’s Jake Morris to be the hero with his late, late winner angled in off the run.
As a learning environment, the grade probably justified its existence last night. Both sides were guilty of hitting low-percentage shots, for instance — players eyeing the posts while the boots were scraping the sideline.
Can you see the learning take place in front of you, though? Even as the game went on both sides looked to work the ball to a better-placed option; an interesting comparison would be the number of first-quarter wides — nine by our unscientific count — to those in the second quarter (an unreliable four, say). Many of those in Semple Stadium were teenagers, after all, and the lessons take time to absorb. Senior managers looking on will hope those messages stick when the youngsters get to the big show.
How likely is a sudden promotion, though? One effect of dropping a year off the age group, from 21 to 20, is the telescoping of grades: looking at it from U14 up, the gap is smaller, but looking back from senior, the gap is greater.
It all means that it’s harder for one of last night’s underage players to break through to the senior side on the back of a tour de force performance at his own grade. A senior manager might take a chance on a 21-year-old in a rich vein of form; a kid who’s just 19, not so much.
A real world example: Did Tipperary senior boss Liam Sheedy see any bolters last evening who might upscuttle Davy Fitzgerald’s carefully-laid plans this Sunday? The clipping of that year from eligibility helps to discourage that notion: The prospect of a youngster awaiting his Leaving Certificate results confronting an opponent this weekend with a decade of strength and conditioning behind him would make any manager swallow hard.
Tipperary’s goal just before half-time was a tribute to Kian O’Kelly’s hard work and cleverness, but it’s difficult to imagine a senior intercounty defence being breached in a similar fashion.
In that sense is U21 a better grade for senior managers looking for a trump card to outwit another manager, or is that to overstate its significance as a feeder for the top level? A matter for philosophising later, perhaps.
In the Cork camp was a restorative performance needed after the disappointment of the senior side’s exit, or was something more significant than that required? Is silverware now the only encouragement acceptable for the red and white? Can we refine that even further, perhaps: All-Ireland silverware, given a Munster title proved a bridge too far last night?
The two teams went hunting for the win last night — taking the game on its merits, to reheat a Johnny Giles classic line — and it was a hugely entertaining tussle, a back-and-forth struggle — but was something missing, given both sides had another day out at the back of their minds?
Was there ever a final that threw up quite as many questions as there were sunbeams on Knocknagow last night?