Cork scored a hugely comprehensive 0-18 to 2-8 win in Wednesday night’s Munster quarter-final, the fourth consecutive spring the green and gold were downed by the Rebels, and O’Neill says Kerry are now playing catch-up at U21 level.
Moreover, O’Neill acknowledged Kerry’s underage factory is being hampered by the decision of successive senior management’s not to bleed the county’s emerging talents at senior level before they graduate from the U21 ranks — not one of Darragh Ó Sé’s starting 15 has senior experience.
“At this level, yes, you would say we are playing catch-up [by] the fact they have won the last three Munster U21s on the trot and beaten us the last four years,” said Hayes.
“Four of their team would have National League experience from playing with the Cork seniors. If you go through their team they have a lot of lads coming through who are being fed into their senior team.
“Maybe when Graham Canty and all those lads were there they mightn’t have been getting a look in, still they were winning U21 Munster championships and that has them a step above where out lads are at.
“We still have a lot of good players, though. Look at the younger guys that we saw at Fitzgerald Stadium last Sunday — Paul Murphy, Pa Kilkenny, Fionn Fitzgerald, James O’Donoghue, Peter Crowley; Peter and James were part of the U21 team that were given an awful hiding in Páirc Uí Rinn in 2011. They bounced back. Perhaps the lads I have mentioned just needed an extra year or two to develop, but you can see the progress they made.”
Evident also from Wednesday’s clash was the sheer gulf in the physique of both teams — Cork quite literally standing head and shoulders above their opponents.
O’Neill, however, insists this is an area which Kerry are in the process of remedying.
“This is my third year involved with the U21s and I would have to say the guys that came in from the minor set-up last year were definitely a good bit ahead of what was coming in the year before with regard to conditioning.
“There is a lot of work going in with the minor and development squads back down the line. So I think now it is starting to bear fruition.
“While we haven’t been winning a whole pile at underage the work is going on and I do believe it is changing. This was the first year I saw lads coming in that were more bulk, looked bigger. Greg Horan and Gary O’Leary came in this year in excellent condition and will be even better again next year. Definitely prior to this we were a bit behind, but I think that has been addressed.”