Waterford hammered Galway last night in Thurles to claim the U21 All-Ireland Hurling Championship for the first time since 1992. The county is rising, and they will surely be there or thereabouts for a senior title in the coming years.
The Déise were clearly the best team this year, but last night raises serious questions about the U21 championship as a whole. They hammered Galway on a scoreline of 5-15 to 0-14 points, and it was a result that never looked in doubt after DJ Foran raised a green flag for the opening score of the game.
Is it time for a restructure? Surely, a fair competition would dictate that the two best teams usually reach the final, or are knocking around the business end of the championship. This has not been the case at U21.
Mismatches in finals have become all too frequent at this grade. The average winning margin in the seven finals this decade has been 15 points. It is clear that there is something inherently wrong with the format.
This writer has already spoken about Galway’s role in underage competitions. To paraphrase, being sent straight into semi-finals and quarter-finals at U21 and minor respectively is doing nobody any favours, not even Galway. When the Tribesmen have a good team, they are given an unfair advantage, while a weaker year leaves them like lambs to the slaughter, à la this year’s minor side who lost to Tipperary on a scoreline of 7-12 to 2-12 in the semi-final.
Meanwhile, the Ulster champions, usually Antrim, go straight into a semi-final and are unfortunately and invariably out of their depth.
It is time for a restructure of this championship.
Either send Galway into one of the provinces, or scrap the provincial championships altogether.
While there is clear value in these competitions at senior and minor, do we really need them at U21?
Intercounty U21 is not the premier grade for most players. Some are involved in senior county and a high majority in senior club, so U21 is an afterthought, which does not have training sessions as frequently.
The straight knock-out format means that many counties’ seasons are over after one game.
So what is the point of the provinces? Good teams are not being rewarded. Why not have an open draw?
Why not have four groups of four teams, with the top two from each qualifying for quarter-finals? If there is an issue with too many fixtures, ease it back to the four group winners going straight to the semi-finals.
The fixture overload cannot be an argument here though, as the All-Ireland winners will have played five games, the same as most Leinster/Munster teams will have to do under the current structure.
The benefits of this system are clear for all to see though. Every side has an equal and fair chance, and it is far less likely for there to be a mismatch in the final.
With the grade moving from U21 to U20 in the coming years, a restructure could be executed seamlessly with the change.
It is time to act, or we could see more and more final demolitions in the coming years.