'U20 gives players a chance figure things out for themselves' - O'Keeffe on benefits of access to talented youngsters

Waterford U20s have two players - Mark and Patrick Fitzgerald - involved with Davy Fitzgerald's seniors. 
'U20 gives players a chance figure things out for themselves' - O'Keeffe on benefits of access to talented youngsters

YOUNG GUNS: Tipperary’s Jake Morris and Mark Fitzgerald of Waterford. Pic: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Under old rules, the Waterford U20 hurlers would have guaranteed access to Mark and Patrick Fitzgerald for their opening three games of a Munster round-robin that throws-in on Wednesday evening. 

Beyond that, though, it would have become a disruptive waiting game of when exactly the pair would be lost to the county's senior set-up.

Thank heavens then for the common sense that prevailed at Congress last month and the rule change allowing talented youngsters such as the Déise pair to co-exist at U20 and senior level in the weeks ahead.

No longer are U20 managers wondering at what point in April or May they will lose their marquee player(s). No longer will a 19 or 20-year-old making their senior championship debut during the provincial round-robin put a significant dent in the ambitions of that county’s U20 side.

There’ll be no more Cathal O’Neill’s or Ciarán Joyce’s, youngsters punished for their ability by a rule that nobody on the ground had any time for.

Waterford U20 centre-back Mark Fitzgerald started three of the seniors’ five League outings this spring, while his namesake, corner-forward Patrick, was introduced as a sub in four of them. The pair are expected to make their senior championship bow at some point from April 23 onward, when Waterford begin their Munster SHC round-robin campaign, but crucially, any senior game-time will not bring the curtain down on their U20 involvement.

“The lads want to play with their own age group, as well as senior. So even from their point of view, it is a great move,” said Waterford U20 manager Gary O’Keeffe of the eased restrictions between U20 and senior eligibilities. The sole stipulation is that an U20 player cannot line out for both his U20 and senior teams in a specific seven-day block, Friday morning to Thursday evening.

“From a management point of view, it allows us to play our strongest hand each time. Davy Fitz has been very good in allowing us access to Patrick and Mark. They have played a number of challenge games. I know the two lads really appreciated that because they want to be playing among their own age group.” 

O’Keeffe stressed the importance of talented U20 players being allowed to grow in a space that is not as cutthroat as senior.

“Senior is such an intense environment that they need a bit of space and time to allow themselves to develop their own game outside of that environment.

“Mark is in his third year playing U20. Only for an injury last year, he probably would have missed playing U20 because of the old rule. Patrick is U20 again next year so, at the age they are, there is time enough for them in the senior.

“U20 is vital for them to develop their game. At the intensity that is required for senior, U20 gives them a chance to play their own game and figure things out for themselves.” 

The other outstanding change this season with regard to U20 is the restructured Munster championship. Where last year there were two groups of three, guaranteeing counties a minimum of two games, this year’s format mirrors the senior round-robin and means counties will play at least four games.

The round-robin winners will progress directly to the Munster final on May 15, with the second and third-placed sides meeting in the semi-final on May 8.

“At their age, some of them will take time to progress and so the more games the better,” O’Keeffe continued.

“The issue with preparing for this championship has been all the lads have been involved with Freshers and Fitzgibbon. So, it is really only the last few weeks that we are getting them together in challenge games.

“The number of championship games ahead of us will definitely improve us and allow us to get our playing style together more so than the challenge games because we didn't have a full squad available each time, whereas now we do.” 

Waterford host reigning Munster champions Limerick in Round 1 at Fraher Field on Wednesday evening (7pm).

Limerick (v Waterford): J O’Reilly (Ballybrown); R Lyons (Monaleen), J Fitzgerald (Na Piarsaigh), E O’Leary (Ahane); D Fitzgerald (Kildimo/Pallaskenry), C Scully (Dromin/Athlacca), E Hurley (Newcastle West); B Duff (Mungret/St Pauls), A English (Doon); F Fitzgerald (Mungret/St Pauls), P O’Donovan (Effin), J Kirby (Patrickswell); C Hayes (Newcastle West), A Fitzgerald (Templeglantine), S O’Brien (Kilmallock).

Waterford (v Limerick): C Troy (Ballygunner); J Power (Modeligo), C Cantwell (Ballygunner), A O’Neill (Ballygunner); J Booth (Colligan), M Fitzgerald (Passage), MJ Mullaney (Stradbally); J Fitzgerald (Clashmore/Kinsalebeg), W Beresford (Abbeyside); L Ó Siothcháin (An Rinn), C Keane (De La Salle), T O’Connell (Brickey Rangers); P Fitzgerald (Ballygunner), C Treen (Abbeyside), J Twomey (De La Salle).

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