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Interpretation of U-21 ruling leaves clubs at risk

17-year-old GAA players could face less than half the game time of their rugby and soccer playing equivalents in 2019.

Last Saturday, the GAA’s annual congress voted to allow Dublin to continue playing two of their Super 8’s games in Croke Park. This decision attracted the majority of the media coverage from Congress and was widely cited as another example of the top brass of the GAA’s disconnect with the people who are playing and organising the games on a local level.

I think there’s a total disconnect between the rule makers and the players and the people on the ground – Tomás Ó Sé

This decision may have been the one that garnered headlines but it was far from the gravest example from Congress 2019 of this disconnect.

The following information has been circulated to clubs nationwide in the last few days:

Ard Chomhairle at its meeting today, in accordance with Rule 3.43 T.O. 2018, gave an Interpretation of Rule 6.17 T.O. 2018 as follows:

Club: Under 21

A player must be aged 17 (or over) on 1st January of the relevant Championship Year to play U21 Club. 

This new interpretation of an age grade ruling is a double blow to many clubs throughout Ireland.

Firstly, it will place a ridiculous limit on the amount of competitive games a 17-year-old will have access to in the GAA this year. For example, a hurler turning 17 in Galway this year is guaranteed just five competitive games. A soccer player in the same county will play at least 12 league games in the Galway and District League in addition to also playing in cup competitions. A rugby player at U-17 level will play at least nine league and cup games with the option of also fielding with his clubs U-18 team.

This is a situation that will be mirrored throughout the country. These sports already hold a major advantage over the GAA in having a defined fixture schedule where players actually know when and where they will be playing games well in advance. For GAA clubs who are trying to keep players interested at a stage when many who are on the fence about the sport begin to permanently drift away from it, limiting the number of competitive outings that these players will be involved in is not a wise direction to take.

These players are limited now to only representing their club’s minor teams. This may be beneficial to the small few who are involved in county U-17 or Celtic Challenge squads but for the majority, there will be a major deficit in playing time afforded to them by the GAA in comparison to the other mainstream sports.

The second worrying aspect of this directive will lead to many clubs throughout the country struggling to field teams in U-21 competitions.

Up to the middle of the last decade, the pathway for young players into adult hurling or football was a kind of unregulated wild west where for example, any player under the age of 21 on January 1st could play U-21 in that year. This led to many unprepared 14 and 15-year-olds manning the goals or being shunted in as emergency corner forwards on U-21 teams far ahead of when they would be physically ready. This permeated into adult levels too and many players now in their late 20’s would have made their senior or junior debuts with their club while still playing at U-16 level. This was clearly wrong and has been a high level contributor to both burnout and excessive levels of injuries.

Eventually the GAA took action and in April 2005, moves were made at congress to ensure that a player would be turning 18 in the calendar year of his debut season with an U-21 team. The Tynagh Abbey Duniry club in Galway brought a motion to their own County Convention later that year proposing an amendment to this ruling to allow all players turning 17 in a calendar year to be eligible for that year’s U-21 championships. This has been the eminently sensible situation since then with 17-yearold players playing both minor and U-21 with their clubs throughout the country in preparation for the move up to adult grades in the following year.

At a time when a number of smaller rural clubs nationwide are being forced into underage amalgamations due to falling numbers, this extra year of eligibility has proved a lifeline to many in fielding teams at U-21 level while sufficiently protecting underage players from both burnout and being exposed too early to the rigours of adult sport. It also afforded players an appropriate gateway to adult hurling or football without throwing them straight in at the deep end.

The GAA may be motivated by the hope that all counties will bring their championships into line with the new U-20 grade at county level and this will give access to more games for the aforementioned 17-year-olds but clubs will still be picking teams at U-20 from a four year window. That window may seem reasonable on paper but in practical terms with a high drop off rate evident for many years in this age bracket, many clubs will struggle desperately to field regardless of whether it is at U-20 or U-21 level.

Rural Ireland as it was once known is becoming a relic of a bygone age with the closure of shops, pubs, post offices and many small schools. The GAA club is in many cases the last of the traditional bastions of Irish society still thriving in these communities and it is curious why the people tasked with regulating it would continue to place unnecessary obstacles in its path.

The disconnect is real.

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