'It wasn’t broken, so why did they go and try and fix it' - Ben O'Connor on age grade conundrum 

O’Connor described the lowering of the minor age-grade at club level to U17 last year as unnecessary and completely lacking in common sense given the playing void it created for 18-year-olds not physically ready for adult fare.
'It wasn’t broken, so why did they go and try and fix it' - Ben O'Connor on age grade conundrum 

NOT PLEASED: Cork U20 hurling manager Ben O'Connor. ©INPHO/Ben Whitley

Cork’s new U20 hurling manager Ben O’Connor has called for minor to be returned to U18 at club and inter-county level, as well as the restoration of the U21 grade.

O’Connor described the lowering of the minor age-grade at club level to U17 last year as unnecessary and completely lacking in common sense given the playing void it created for 18-year-olds not physically ready for adult fare.

He’s seen the three club options recently published by the Croke Park taskforce - retention of the status quo, revert to U18, or amend national policy so individual counties wishing to revert to U18 can do so - and took a very dim view that decoupling was a non-negotiable in each one of them.

Cork secretary Kevin O’Donovan warned this week that irrespective of whether minor stays at U17 or jumps back to U18 in the years ahead, there is “no escaping decoupling”.

O’Connor’s preference is for partial decoupling, along the lines of what was recently proposed by the Cork executive. Essentially, wave the decoupling rule in the smaller population centres where clubs depend on their 17-year-old players at adult level.

The taskforce recommendations at inter-county level of keeping U17/U20 or a new U17/U19 pairing are not the combinations O’Connor would plump for.

“It wasn’t broken, so why did they go and try and fix it,” he said of the move away from U18 and U21 in recent years.

“The threat the GAA put out that if we change the age grade back to U18 there will have to be decoupling; that’s fine if you are in a club with a big pick. But if you are from a rural club where a 17-year-old is better than a lot of your older fellas that are there, and he can’t play, I think it is just madness.” 

The obvious selling point of a return to U18 at club level, as O’Connor sees it, is the games outlet it provides for players not yet ready to step up to adult competition.

“For a 17 or 18-year-old who can’t make his adult team, they are asking themselves, what am I going to do. He is between two stools. If he’s not making the first team and they’ve no junior team, you are idle for a lot of the year. How do we expect to keep them involved when we have no matches for them.

“There are so many clubs where players aged between 17-20 are only getting three or four games a year because there is no competition for them.” 

Although debate is raging at grassroots level as to what is the best route forward for the minor age-grade, O’Connor doesn’t foresee meaningful change being brought about anytime soon.

He is similarly pessimistic when it comes to the inter-county rule forbidding U20 players from playing at their own age grade as well as the county’s senior side. It is, said O’Connor, “a joke” of a rule.

“The reason given for the rule is player burnout. I’ll give you your player burnout. Tim O’Mahony finished playing with Newtownshandrum the weekend before last and he’ll be back at the end of this month getting ready for next year’s inter-county season. He and every one of his Cork teammates started last October and some of them are still going 12 months later. But just because they are senior hurlers there is no player burnout for them.

“I can’t see the point of this rule at all, it is scandalous. All it is trying to do is weaken the bigger counties where you could have two or three players involved across the two panels. They are trying to level it out for everyone else.” 

The three-time All-Ireland winning forward and two-time All-Star said there was immense pride in being handed the Cork U20 reins. And while he fully understands the developmental nature of the U20 grade and the need to mould players capable of surviving the leap to Pat Ryan’s senior panel, he won’t shy away from his desire for silverware.

“I am going into this job and what we want to do is win the All-Ireland. We are Corkmen, we don’t want to see anyone else winning All-Irelands bar Cork.

“If you don’t win it, what is the next best option after that? The next best option is that you are after improving and developing fellas so they can make that step up to play senior.” 

Better known for his coaching than management - he trained Midleton and Charleville to Cork senior and premier intermediate honours in 2021 and 2018 respectively - O’Connor said he will continue to be “hands on” at training even if he is now wearing the bainisteoir’s bib.

“Everyone in the management team will be doing a bit of everything. I don’t see myself as a manager, I see myself as a coach. The part I enjoy is being out on the field with the players.”

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