Last year Dublin were crowned Leinster champions at this grade, and Kilkenny weren’t even at the party – they were beaten by the Faithful County in the semi-final, thus ending the Cats’s quest for five-in-a-row in the grade.
You won’t keep the Cats down for long in Leinster, however, and as they face into this evening’s challenge, Offaly U-21 manager Pádraig Horan is a worried man.
“I’d be worried, yes, he admitted.’’ ‘‘Worried and yet quietly confident. The fact that we’ve had the two All-Ireland senior qualifier games (against Limerick and Waterford) since our last U21 game upset things a fair bit. We didn’t get in as much work as we’d have liked but we’re there and we’ll have a fair crack at it.”
Four of his starters this evening – including his son Diarmuid – got plenty of experience in those two senior matches, which is a bonus. But, there are drawbacks too, Horan stresses.
“A lot of other lads have been idle, so there’s swings and roundabouts. I love to see young lads involved in the senior panel, but only if they’re fully involved getting games. Sometimes you see lads on inter-county panels like that and they’re only just making up the numbers. That doesn’t do anything for them.”
Nevertheless, a second Leinster U21 final in-a-row, a couple of good championship performances in the All-Ireland qualifiers by what’s a very young side, the common perception is that Offaly hurling is very much on the rise.
Horan’s view? “Yes and no, I mean we’re still in Division Two of the National League next year, and people would want to remember that. Another thing, we were beaten by 18 points by Kilkenny in championship hurling. All we’ve done is beaten Laois and Limerick and I wouldn’t rate either of those as being of the highest calibre.
“Offaly people were coming out of Thurles last Saturday happy, after being beaten by Waterford – I certainly wouldn’t be happy. I felt Waterford were there for the taking, they were quite poor. People who are happy with a moral victory – I certainly wouldn’t be happy.”
That’s the attitude heading into Tullamore then. Horan is taking his U21 side to the north of the county to win a Leinster title, not to gain further respect. “I think we’re in with a good chance. I’ve seen Kilkenny play, I know they’re good but then I’ve never yet seen a bad Kilkenny team. We have a big job to stop their forwards, TJ Reid, Richie Hogan, Ruth, Cleere, Fennelly, they’re all good hurlers – you have to worry about all of them. I’m not sure if Mark Bergin is going to be there but I’d be very familiar with him from underage hurling so he’s another one. They’ll be hard beaten but we’ll give it a fair shot and we’ll be there or thereabouts at the end.”
Of the four who played for the seniors, Derek Molloy, Conor Mahon, Joe Bergin and Diarmuid, it was his son who came closest to missing this game. An ankle injury suffered in the win over Limerick caused Diarmuid to miss the Waterford match, and though he’s been named to start this evening, there’s no guarantee yet that he’ll make it.
“He had a fitness test a few evenings ago, he’s going to have another one before the game, at six o’clock, just to make sure. His ankle swelled up again last night after training, still swollen this morning, so it’s still not right. He’s gone off to get physio on it today, so if he does make it tomorrow evening it will be with heavy strapping.”
It’s a hard situation for a man to find himself in, father and coach; down on the sideline, as the game reaches its climax, which role is harder? “It’s hard on the sideline no matter what you are! To me it makes no difference, one of them playing, two of them playing (another son, Cathal, was on the senior team last year but opted out early this year to concentrate on his final exams in Galway, just qualified as an Electronic Engineer), it doesn’t matter to me.
“I try to treat them the same as everyone else but maybe they think I’m even harder on them.”
Sounds like Horan is very much the same man on the line as he was on the field – hard, tough, determined, demanding, but above all, a winner. He will be well tested this evening.
KILKENNY (U21 HC v Offaly): C. McGrath (St. Martins); P. Murphy (Danesfort), K. Joyce (Rower Inistioge), E. O’Shea (Clara); N. Prendergast (do.), P. Hogan (Danesfort), L. Ryan (Clara); J. Dowling (St. Martins), N. Walsh (Slieverue); C. Fennelly (Ballyhale/Shamrocks), N. Cleere (Bennettsbridge), TJ Reid (Ballyhale Shamrocks); M. Ruth (James Stephens), J. Mulhall (St. Martins), R. Hogan (Danesfort).
OFFALY (U21 HC v Kilkenny): J. Dempsey (Kinnitty); C. Hernon (St. Rynaghs), B. Watkins (Birr), S. Wynne (St. Rynaghs); J. Treacy (Tullamore), B. Leonard (Kilcormac/Killoughey), D. Morkan (Shinrone); C. Mahon (Kilcormac/Killoughey), D. Horan (St. Rynaghs); D. Molloy (Shamrocks), C. Egan (Belmont), D. Currams (Kilcormac/Killoughey); C. Coghlan (Kinnitty), J. Bergin (Seir Kieran), F. Kerrigan (Tullamore).