Thursday 18 January 2018

Under 21 action a grade above anything seniors produce

'Cian Lynch, for instance, got 20 possessions against Tipp in their semi-final clash'
'Cian Lynch, for instance, got 20 possessions against Tipp in their semi-final clash'

Damian Lawlor

Endless thrills stem from focus on skills rather than systems.

Next Thursday's Bord Gais Energy Munster under 21 hurling final between Limerick and Clare is an all-ticket affair and it's pretty easy to see why.

The under 21 competition has outshone its senior equivalent this season with a succession of thrilling games, from Carlow making Kilkenny sweat and then Dublin's late collapse to the Cats, to last week's defeat of Tipperary by Limerick.

Along the way we have watched players like Cian Boland and Bobby Duggan put in colossal individual displays, but what we like most about the competition is the level of teamwork involved and the wonderful naivety of the fare.

While Waterford put a sweeper in front of Shane O'Donnell for their semi-final, Clare counteracted it by giving O'Donnell something of a roving role, and it made for compelling viewing. The point is they didn't just respond by implementing a sweeper of their own.

Indeed, this grade is now pretty much the only one that caters for teams going at each other on a 15 against 15 basis. Even at minor level, managers are way more cautious and opt for stacked defences for certain occasions.

But there seems to be an unabashed freedom about the under 21 series where teams like Carlow and Offaly - who are a negligible force at senior level - can come close to pulling off a shock on any given night.

Offaly showed that they have some hope for the future by pushing Wexford hard in their Leinster quarter-final.

It took an unfortunate goalkeeping error for Kilkenny to finally seal a win over Dublin and reach the final where they were beaten by Wexford, a county still in mourning following their senior championship exit just a few days earlier.

Wexford badly needed a boost and their under 21s responded by delivering a third provincial crown on the trot. Those youngsters played with an openness and creativity that they couldn't produce for the seniors days beforehand. Perhaps there was less pressure on their shoulders, perhaps there was more room too.

This year, there is no denying that the series is more competitive than its senior counterpart; another element to the competition's worth is how under 21 games can be timely tonics after a bad day at the office at senior level. It might be the same in Ennis on Thursday night when Limerick go into the lions' den hoping to restore some morale to the county.

Down through the years and into recent times there has been a long list of classic matches in this grade and it's no coincidence.

Maybe it's because there is less pressure on the tournament, with a Fitzgibbon Cup-like feel to the games. Maybe players know each other better and get on better with each other than they do with some of their senior colleagues. And, of course, there is much less scrutiny at this level that at senior inter-county.

It's more carefree and less physical too, even if Waterford have shown that it also serves as a useful bridge to the top level. Cian Lynch, for instance, got 20 possessions against Tipp in their semi-final clash. In the senior game between the same two teams he would have struggled to get on the ball seven times. Still, the players are not afraid to put in a shift. Clare's tackle count against Waterford was the highest achieved since Donal Maloney became involved with the county under 21s four years ago.

It shows that you can successfully infuse an unrelenting work ethic with open, attractive hurling.

In the under 21 championship you are also more likely to see free-running forwards targeting isolated full-back lines and trying things without fear of failure. The ball control of the players on view in many cases is exquisite and players have the room and space to manipulate wonderful team scores like the goal that Conor McDonald helped create for Wexford against Offaly. At senior level a sweeper would have prevented McDonald from even touching the ball.

Such openness and desire to play what is in front of you has endeared the competition to all of us. TG4 has done very well from it too, with a series of crackers on their screens and a high viewership.

We have lost count of the number of times we meet people in the middle of a week who lament the conservative route that senior hurling is on. They compare that road to the path the under 21 series is taking: a path incorporating equally sublime skills, only with more room to roam, and more creativity.

It's only a matter of time before hurling gets back to its roots at the top grade, but until then it's no harm to catch an under 21 championship game where the basic qualities of the game are still alive and well.

Ground hurling can even be seen from time to time and there is little or no need for overhead striking because the deliveries are so accurate. It's even refreshing to see the number of players who still use two hands to jab-lift.

At the top, the game is about keeping possession; if things continue, soon there will be no direct ball into forwards at all for fear of losing possession. At under 21 level, however, man-for-man is still present, link-up play is a joy to behold and teams are not afraid to mix it up short and long.

Combining under 21 hurling with senior inter-county duty and college and club teams is tough going, but there are surely many players delighted to get back to their under 21 teams after the seniors exit simply because of the brand of hurling that is being played.

Not so long ago the Football Review Committee urged changes in structure. There was a case made for under 17 and under 19 grades to replace minor and under 21 levels. There was talk of a redevelopment of hurling grades too.

Anyone at the top level would be mad to consider any change at this juncture.

Right now the under 21 championship is keeping us all going.

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