There’s a blue and gold hue to hurling’s future

Thus Tipperary yesterday.

Speaking to a knowledgeable Kilkenny person recently we were struck by the worries they expressed and by the depth of that concern.

If Kilkenny lost the senior game, his argument ran, and Tipperary won the U21 All-Ireland final next weekend, then the hurling landscape would change utterly.

Leaving aside the change to the topography wrought by a team which won four titles in a row in the first place, it does pose an interesting question: is the future blue and gold?

Tipperary have a younger team than Kilkenny but challengers – which Tipp were, up to yesterday – are by definition trying to break in. The significant thing isn’t just that Tipperary had five U21s on their starting team yesterday, brought on another one and a 22-year old.

The really significant aspect to the youth on show is the balance it affords the team. Those U21s are sprinkled nicely throughout the field: Michael Cahill at corner-back, Pádraic Maher on the left wing, Brendan Maher in midfield, Patrick Maher on the half-forward line and Noel McGrath at top of the right.

Though Cahill may not have the heft to make it as a full-back, all of the others have the size to occupy central positions, as does substitute Seamus Hennessy.

You would certainly have to say that any team which could pick Pádraic Maher at centre-back, Brendan Maher in midfield and Noel McGrath at centre-forward, for instance, would be a force to be reckoned with at any level. At senior inter-county level, it’s a formidable core of strong, fluent hurlers that one would expect to progress from yesterday’s victory.

It’s not as if they’ll lack company, either. Apart from Hennessy there were two other U21s on the panel; and two more 22-year-olds. That gives a team plenty of scaffolding to use in construction.

For a rough equivalent, Cork won the All-Ireland – also against Kilkenny, also on a wet day – in 1999 with a very youthful team as well, nine of whom were 22 or younger.

Leaving aside the All-Irelands won – three – and other finals contested – two – the county used those players as a basis for over a decade’s worth of senior teams, and three of them figured in the opening round of this year’s Munster championship, of which more anon.

Any betting we’ll be writing about Pádraic Maher and Noel McGrath in 2020?

The challenge for manager Liam Sheedy is obvious.

Next year his players will operate in a different context from the throw-in for the first game in the Waterford Crystal League, as All-Ireland champions. If you want the equivalent convention from a thriller movie, then think of a red dot from the laser sight on a sniper-rifle appearing on the hero’s chest.

Everybody wants the top scalp; every team raises their game against the kingpins.

Managing his side’s approach will be a challenge because in their opening game in this year’s championship Tipp lost to Cork by a wider margin than they won by yesterday. They weren’t right and they were caught; next year he’ll have to ensure they’ll be right, or they’ll be caught again.

There’s another challenge that he might bear in mind – when Cork won that 1999 All-Ireland, team trainer Teddy Owens thanked the players for their contribution before the traditional GOAL charity match the following Wednesday.

Owens also thanked those who wouldn’t figure in the 2000 season because of how they would live their lives in the winter of 1999-2000. The Tipp manager will encourage his players to celebrate, and deservedly so, but he’ll also have half an eye on next year, and kicking on.

He seems to be dealing with players who have the right attitude: asked if a Tuesday night return to training with the county U21s was over-optimistic, given the celebrations in Tipperary, Noel McGrath was adamant.

“Ah no. I’ll be there alright. We’ll be thinking about Saturday (the All-Ireland U21 final) then.”

Mmm. The future could be blue and gold after all.

* We’re well aware, before angry Tipp fans react, that the words refer to an evil empire; any resemblance is accidental, rest assured.

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