Is playing inter-county intermediate hurling after your senior career finishes starting to become fashionable? In certain parts of Munster, it seems that it is. Three years ago, 38-year-old Ciarán Carey joined the Limerick intermediate team and helped them reach an All-Ireland final. This year Clare followed in the footsteps of their neighbours by calling on the services of former senior players Niall Gilligan and Tony Carmody to strengthen their side.
Gilligan is 34, he has an All Star, two Munster titles and an All-Ireland to his credit and for the last two years the Sixmilebridge man has been the top scorer in the Clare championship. A few months ago he got a call from the Clare intermediate manager Kevin Kennedy to join the squad and he didn't think twice about it.
"Some people look on it as a blow to the ego to play intermediate but I don't at all," said Gilligan.
"When I decided to play I got a few calls off people telling me I had nothing to prove and I know I don't. I play hurling because I like it. It's an amateur sport, if you don't want to play you don't have to."
And Gilligan does love playing but admittedly at the top. Two years ago when Ger O'Loughlin took over the Clare senior hurling team, he asked Gilligan to return for winter training. At 32 and with almost 15 years of inter-county hurling behind him, Gilligan felt that mid-league would be a better time for him to rejoin the panel.
O'Loughlin didn't agree and Gilligan never returned to play for the Clare seniors. Since then he has made no secret of his desire to hurl for his county.
"I would have gone back and would have been delighted to go back," said Gilligan.
"The Clare senior management keep reiterating that they are bringing on youth but it would be much better for them to be playing Division One hurling rather than Two. You need to strike a balance between youth and experience and be competitive."
Would he like to be playing against Tipperary today? Of course he would, but he concedes that the time comes for everyone to finish. So now for Gilligan playing intermediate hurling is a viable alternative to senior. He still gets to represent his county and play the game he loves to a decent standard.
The club championship in Clare is on hold for a few months so it fits into his schedule perfectly. Gilligan's club-mate and former inter-county star Tony Carmody also signed up with the intermediates for the year. The 30-year-old finished playing senior hurling three years ago and in many ways sees the intermediates as a good barometer of his ability to still cut it at inter-county level.
"I know there is a huge difference in standards when playing senior and intermediates but it will be a good gauge of where I am personally," said Carmody.
"If I am good enough or even almost there at the end of this it will tell a lot for me. The big thing about playing senior is whether or not you are up to the level and the only way you will know that is by playing."
And while Gilligan and Carmody have added a new dimension to the Clare intermediate team, they have also raised its profile. Before they joined the squad, manager Kevin Kennedy struggled to get players to commit and public interest in the team was low.
"It's the first time I've seen a real interest in it for a long time, from both players and public," admitted Kennedy.
"A lot of people in the county feel that Carmody and Gilligan still have a lot to offer the Clare senior team. I'm getting a lot of calls from people inquiring how they are doing. And the young lads have a mighty interest since the two lads joined. We have 32 on the panel now whereas before we'd be stuck for numbers."
Although two players don't make a team, having players of their calibre and experience can make all the difference. As Limerick found out in 2008 when stalwart Ciarán Carey joined their side. They reached the All-Ireland final, losing to Kilkenny by six points but Carey raised the profile of the team and helped the side gather the momentum needed to make the breakthrough.
At that stage, Carey was 38 and had been absent from inter-county action for almost four years. The three-time All-Star was still hurling for his club Patrickswell and thought his inter-county days were behind him. He got a call from the Limerick intermediate manager Gerry Molyneaux but thought it was his friends playing a joke on him. It took a lot of convincing and eventually Carey agreed to play a challenge match against Kerry and after that he committed.
"I was very mindful that I was leaving myself open to be skinned by lads 20 years younger than me," said Carey.
"But once I made my decision I was extra vigilant in my preparation so that I wouldn't be cleaned. It put an extra spark in me really. I took a massive chance and it worked out."
Playing in Thurles was a also a factor in Carey's decision to return. He never thought he'd get the opportunity to play there again but in his year with the intermediates he managed to make three appearances on the park. Ego or pride never came into play for Carey, he signed up purely for the love of the game and the love of his county. Ultimately, it changed his perception of intermediate hurling.
"When I was playing senior the intermediates were always on before us but I was so focused on my own game so I would only see maybe five or 10 minutes of their game. Back then I probably took intermediate hurling for granted, all those guys loved the game as much as I did but I wouldn't have seen that before I played with them."
On paper, the intermediate championship looks imbalanced. Certain counties are playing by different rules and using the grade for different purposes. For example, Clare and Tipperary are allowed play a second-strength senior team, they can use whatever players they want provided they didn't play senior inter-county last year.
Cork, on the other hand, are restricted to selecting players that play for intermediate and junior clubs in the county and seem to operate a development squad philosophy. But these rules have to be upheld to keep the competition relatively balanced.
When it comes to numbers of senior clubs Tipperary and Cork are almost on a par but the All-Ireland champions have very few intermediate clubs. Whereas Cork have a very strong intermediate and junior championship, they even have two levels of the intermediate grade.
Secretary of the Munster Council Pat Fitzgerald would like to see the intermediate grade continue but in a different role or shape to the way it is at the minute. It's an integral part of their programme on big match days and has a place within the GAA. He believes that it would be best served as an under 25 competition.
"Whether intermediate survives or not I don't know, there isn't agreement on it in the association," said Fitzgerald
"Nobody wants to get rid of it yet nobody knows what shape it should take. It was debated nationally in the recent past and I have no doubt it will be revisited again and again. I believe Cork will be resistant to change because it serves their junior and intermediate players well," he added.
Although the intermediate championship may be up for debate, the desire of players like Carey, Carmody and Gilligan to play for their county is not.
"I'd love to get another shot at babysitting Gilly," said Carey and if the intermediate championship keeps changing, maybe he will.
Sunday Indo Sport