GAA Football

Ulster Schools react angrily to GAA relaxing U20 eligibility rules

The MacRory Cup final is set for March 17, but the GAA's decision to relax its rule on counties calling up players for U20 championship duty could lead to a clash with the planned All-Ireland U20 semi-finals the same day.

ULSTER Schools have reacted angrily to the GAA’s decision to allow counties leeway on a rule to give schools priority on players ahead of inter-county U20 squads, which could lead to a potential clash for players on St Patrick's Day.

The GAA had imposed a rule in November that “players involved in the ‘A’ and ‘B’ post-primary football championships are ineligible to play for their county team until such time as their school has been eliminated from its own championship”.

However, following an original representation from Fermanagh claiming that they could not field an U20 team without their 13 school-tied players, the GAA granted an exemption and permitted other counties to apply for the same.

“As a result, 17 counties applied for, and have been granted, that exemption, and other counties have been told that they can apply this week,” Ulster Schools’ secretary Seamus Woods told schools in an email on Monday night.

Among them are Derry and Armagh, while Cavan also applied but theirs is no longer required after St Patrick’s Cavan were eliminated from the MacRory Cup.

The move to soften the rules could lead to a potential fixture collision on March 17.

Without the guarantee of their players available, the schools’ final could now be interfered with by the All-Ireland U20 semi-final involving the Ulster champions, which is due to be played the same day as part of a semi-final double-header in Croke Park.

Woods told The Irish News that Ulster Schools would not consider moving their showpiece game away from March 17, as much down to “the principle” as the fact that they already have a contract drawn up with BBC NI for live broadcast.

The GAA says it has no plans at the minute to reschedule the U20 semi-finals.

Ulster Schools have also had to rip up their plans for the latter stages of this year’s blue riband competition because of the GAA’s decision to relax its rules on the eligibility of U20 players.

That includes changing the structure of the competition, which had originally been drawn up so that teams who had already met in the group stage could not meet again in the quarter-finals.

That proviso has had to be abandoned to allow the quarter-final draw to take place before the last eight teams are known.

The quarter-finals have been brought forward by a week “to avoid the U20 championship”, and will now be played from February 6-12.

“We now have the absurd situation where 17 counties claim they can’t field without schools’ players to augment their numbers,” said Woods.

“Where then is the dividend from the fortunes that have gone into the propagation of elitism from the age of 14 through development squads? And yet then when they come to U20, you have counties claiming they cannot field without a couple of U19 boys still at school.

“It’s a sad reflection on individual counties who would claim they don’t have those numbers after all the investment they’ve made in development squads up through the years.

“Because the U20 competition is a development competition, does it have to be a fully-fledged, full-strength county team? If a couple of schoolboys are unavailable, that’s creating an opportunity for a couple of others to play on the inter-county stage.

“It’s also addressing the burnout issue as well, yet counties will want to have absurd numbers in squads and boys warming benches from one end of a competition to another without the remotest chance of game-time.

“There’s a lack of appreciation for the school sector. We have six senior championships involving 133 schools. To do this shows complete disregard for the players and their schools.”

In a statement to The Irish News, a spokesperson for the GAA said: “By the time the remainder of the Ulster Counties (outside of Fermanagh and Derry) begin the U20 football championship on February 15, only 4 teams will be left in the MacRory Cup.

“Thus Central Council at the weekend agreed to a number of requests from deviation to the ruling as long as a load management plan is in place and on the basis that that by the time the U20 competitions commence, only a small number of schools will remain in the 2nd level provincial championships and it is likely only a very small number of players will be affected by the recent ruling.”

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