Eoghan Cormican picks three players to watch in tomorrow's All-Ireland U21 Hurling semi-finals, featuring Kilkenny v Derry and Limerick v Galway.
Austin Gleeson aside, it isn’t too often you see an U21 player being touted as the potential hurler of the year. Alongside Joe Canning, Conor Whelan has been Galway’s most impressive performer during championship 2017. And whatever about nabbing the main gong, he’s a racing certainty to be crowned young hurler of the year.
The savage work-rate he tabled during the league final win back in April – the pressure applied by Whelan on Tipperary's Seamus Kennedy, which forced the latter to over-carry, was a microcosm of Galway’s intensity that particular afternoon - has been replicated on each championship outing. The 20-year old is moving nicely in the scoring department too, hitting four points from play in the recent All-Ireland semi-final win. Galway mightn’t have as many standout forwards as their opponents this evening, but this one is sure to concentrate the minds of a couple of Limerick defenders.
Despite seeing plenty of game-time during the league, including that pulsating tussle with Tipperary at Semple Stadium, Cleere didn’t see action during Kilkenny’s relatively short championship campaign.
With All-Ireland minor, intermediate, junior club and junior intermediate medals in the back pocket, the Kilkenny U21 centre-back had already amassed a tidy haul despite his young age. Well-built and confident in the air, he’ll be keen to use the U21 shop window to reinforce his ability to Brian Cody and the rest of the Kilkenny senior management.
Much of the commentary surrounding this Limerick team has centered on their forward unit. More specifically, that five of their front six played championship for the Limerick seniors this summer. Kyle Hayes, a minor last year and full-forward for the seniors in 2017, has been stationed at centre-back by the U21 management.
There were periods during all three of their Munster championship games where Hayes found himself as the spare man. It was a role he played superbly, sitting deep in front of his full-back line, putting paid to a number of opposition attacks and, most importantly, serving as the starting point for several Limerick scores such was the accuracy of his deliveries out of defence. Unlikely that Galway will employ a sweeper so Hayes can expect company. He may even have to patrol Whelan.