Kilkenny to capitalise on Galway doubts in U-21 final

DEFENDING CHAMPIONS Kilkenny - and Galway - will have their own special reasons for wanting to win the Erin Under-21 All-Ireland hurling championship at the Gaelic Grounds, Limerick tomorrow.

Kilkenny, because of their defeat at the hands of the Connacht side in the senior semi-final, and Galway following their defeat by Cork in the final.

A month ago Galway were in line to win all four All-Ireland hurling titles. However, they came a cropper in the intermediate to Wexford and senior to Cork, and the under 21 title may also be a bridge too far for them.

Despite an emphatic victory over Cork in the semi-final, Galway must shake off the disappointment of the intermediate and senior defeats because 14 of their U21 side were involved in both - 10 with the intermediate team.

However, Galway coach Vincent Mullins argues those statistics may work in their favour: "Those players involved last Sunday are being given the opportunity to come back and win an All-Ireland and if they're worth their salt they'll avail of the chance to redeem themselves," he said.

"They are young and by the time the final comes around, they'll have forgotten about those two defeats and will focus on this final," Mullins said.

Both counties have dominated the minor grade in recent years, building up a healthy rivalry.

There are a number of duels to look forward to: "Niall Healy on John Tennyson is one tussle I'm looking forward to. They'll know one another from their minor days and Healy will have something to prove after Sunday's senior disappointment. The outcome of that duel could have a big bearing on the destination of the spoils.

"One of the big things Kilkenny have going for them is that they've had no disruption to their preparations for the last four weeks while our players have been pulled in different directions.

"Tomorrow's final is also an opportunity for a number of our lads to stake a claim for a place on the senior squad. There are, in my view, four or five places up for grabs if fellas want to raise the bar and move up there.

"Obviously we will be under a certain amount of pressure going into the final as we are up against a very strong Kilkenny side backboned by a host of senior players.

Kilkenny coach Adrian Finan is cautiously optimistic: "There could be a backlash from Galway after the senior and intermediate defeats with so many of their under 21 team involved.

"Galway are wounded and will be very dangerous. They'll see this as an opportunity to make amends somewhat, but so will we.

"The hurt from the senior defeat by Galway hasn't gone away in Kilkenny. This under 21 grade is the gateway to the next level and it gives players the chance to impress the senior management.

"This is a very important final for Galway as they try to raise the spirits of the county after the senior defeat but we're ready for whatever they throw at us. We're the defending champions, chasing a hat-trick of wins and have no intention of giving up our title easily.

"We've had some titanic battles with Galway at minor level in recent years and players on both sides are bound to carry that into the under 21 grade. It's going to be a great final, hopefully we'll come out on the right side of it.

"Without wishing to sound arrogant, I've the utmost confidence in our lads. They are an exceptional bunch, totally committed to the cause, and given an even break, should win," Finan said.

These two counties have met four times at minor level over the last three years and there has never been more than two points between them. Last year's minor final replay was, arguably, one of the best ever played with victory going to Galway by a single point. Another statistic worth noting: Galway have lost six finals since their last success in 1996, two of them to Kilkenny.

Key player for the westerners in that final was Kerril Wade and he could have a big say again tomorrow. Niall Healy is getting the chance to put the disappointment of being substituted last Sunday behind him and his joust with John Tennyson, a player he ran up against in the 2003 minor final, should be worth seeing.

Apart from Wade and Healy, Galway captain Kenneth Burke, Aengus Callanan and Joe Gantley are lethal around the square as they showed in the semi-final.

Kilkenny will include James "Cha" Fitzpatrick, Richie Power, Willie O'Dwyer and Eoin Larkin in their attacking formation and this quartet will test the Galway defence to the limit.

The seeds of doubt may well have set in for Galway, and Kilkenny are given the nod to emulate Limerick's feat in 2000-2002, and win their third title in-a-row.

KILKENNY: D. Fogarty; S. Maher, J. Tennyson, D. Cody; J. Dalton, PJ Delaney, C. Hoyne; M. Rice, M. Fennelly; J. Fitzpatrick, A. Murphy, E. Larkin; E. Reid, R. Power, W. O'Dwyer.

GALWAY: A. Ryan; P. Flynn, A. Gaynor, K. Briscoe; G. Mahon, B. Cullinane, A. Garvey; B. Lucas, D. Collins; J. Gantley, A. Callanan, E. Ryan; K. Burke, N. Healy, K. Wade.

Referee: John Sexton (Limerick).

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