Under-21s look to lift the gloom in Tipp

TIPPERARY'S U21 hurlers will be looking to lift the air of deepening gloom that has enveloped the county in recent years by capturing their first title at this grade in almost a decade, at Nowlan Park tomorrow.

1995 was the last time the Munster county captured the U21 All-Ireland title with a team boasting Paul Shelley, Brendan Cummins, Tommy Dunne and Eddie Enright. A year later, John Carroll, Declan Browne, Paul Kelly and Eugene O'Neill emulated them with a senior All-Ireland of their own.

With the seniors failing to impress since their last Liam McCarthy success in 2001, furrowed brows are on the increase in the Premier county.

It's a point U21 manager Séamus Power accepts, as Tipp look for their ninth crown at the grade, which would take them one ahead of their opponents on Saturday and bring them to within just two of Cork who hold the record.

"It is a long time. '95's team produced a lot of good players for the Tipp senior team but we were unlucky in Munster in about four years since that, being beaten by a point or two points by Limerick in a Munster final.

"That's just the luck of the game," said Power yesterday. "Going back years we were beaten by a superb Cork team by a few points in Munster finals, but '95 is a long time to wait for an All-Ireland final.

"Our boys know that too well and we know we're up against a serious team in Kilkenny. The whole county will be behind us and that will be a major influence."

The U21 grade, in both hurling and football, has become an integral part of the blooding process for youngsters hoping to make it at senior level. Despite that, the competition, now sponsored by Erin, has struggled to find its own niche in the GAA calendar, a fact Power lamented yesterday.

"I personally think that the U21 grade is a fantastic grade. You see some fantastic games of hurling and the GAA could probably look at doing a little bit more for it than they are already. Everything is geared towards the senior and I suppose that's natural enough. In our own county this year the U21 championship was run off in two months, which I thought was a bit unfair. There's a lot of young fellas playing U21 and then when that championship is over they might not get their place on the senior team. They could lose out."

The competition's importance has been highlighted best by Kilkenny whose recent lack of national success at minor level hasn't hampered their hunt for honours with their U21s.

"You could do well at minor and it could have no bearing on the club or county at senior," said Power's opposite number Martin Fogarty. "If you look at the current Kilkenny senior team, very few of them have U21 All-Ireland medals because we went ten years on the trot without a minor All-Ireland.

"On Saturday, I can guarantee you that lads that do well will be getting on senior panels or at least getting looked at straight away. At minor you're a long way from being an adult and someone who is not a key minor could turn into a key U21 and senior." For Kilkenny - and Tommy Walsh, Cha Fitzpatrick and Conor Phelan in particular - tomorrow's game offers them the perfect opportunity to bury the disappointments of last Sunday's senior defeat to Cork. Yet, even before the loss Fogarty urged his panel not to get caught up in the after-match hoopla and he has no concerns over the mental welfare of the three senior panellists.

"The homecoming for the seniors was on Monday, training for us was on at 6.30 the next night and three seniors were on the field at 6.15. That's the calibre of those fellas. They're happy to have another match ahead after the defeat to Cork. You don't need to motivate those fellas."

Tipperary's concerns are of a different nature. Both sides won their semi-finals on August 28 but, while Kilkenny were pushed to the pins of their collars by Galway, Tipp crushed Down by 27 points.

Tipp's only competitive game this year was the three-point win over Cork in the Munster final, while Kilkenny were asked serious questions by Laois and Dublin, as well as the Tribesmen. "It is a worry going into a major final without a serious test in a while under our belts," said Power.

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