Tipperary, without overextending themselves, collected the silverware with seven to spare. Limerick, as was the case when the two counties clashed in a desperately one-sided Munster final earlier that summer, came off second best. Throw in Tipperary’s 15-point rout of Galway in between the meetings with Limerick and all told, the Premier youngsters enjoyed a remarkably comfortable ascent to the summit.
They hadn’t got it so easy when visiting Páirc Uí Rinn on June 30 for the Munster semi-final. In fact, they found themselves in a spot of bother three minutes into the second-half with the scoreboard reading 1-12 to 0-9 in favour of Cork.
What materialised thereafter has been recounted on several occasions and O’Leary Hayes would rather stay clear of this old wound, particularly given he spent most of last autumn and winter stewing on that 0-23 to 1-15 defeat.
“All winter long I was thinking about it and even when I went back with the club ahead of the 2017 season, you’re not really motivated. It was just absolutely sickening to lose that game and see them then go on and win the All-Ireland,” says the Cork minor captain.
As fate would have it, the counties were once again pitted against each other in the Munster semi-final. Same rules applied; for the winner, a provincial decider and All-Ireland quarter-final, at worst, for the vanquished, nothing.
“I was just so motivated to get back and prove everyone wrong that doubted us last year. In 2016, we probably had too much done before the semi-final and it is not worth putting in so much work to be gone by the semi-final stage. This year, we were fresher, hungrier, more motivated. We weren’t going to lose another semi-final.”
Two injury-time Robert Downey points rescued Cork from the brink of defeat and forced extra-time, but elimination looked inevitable when Tipperary’s Darragh Woods goaled in the 78th minute.
We’ll let the Cork full-back pick it up from here.
“When you look back to the last couple of minutes of that game where you’re thinking, ‘we’re gone’, to be sitting here talking about an All-Ireland final is unbelievable. I looked around Thurles and there were people leaving. We got the close in free right at the death and I couldn’t watch.
“I had a weird feeling when Evan [Sheehan] was taking it, I don’t know what it was. I just knew it wasn’t going to happen again that we’d be knocked out. It was a mad game, really. We came home from Thurles and we were all bursting for the replay. Nothing was going to stop us.”
Over 8,000 filed into Páirc Uí Rinn for the replay, Denis Ring’s charges holding on a for a three-point win.
“You could sense there was something special about the size of the crowd. We were kind of half expecting it because there was a lot of talk after the first match. You would hear down the town that there are a lot of people going.
“You can’t beat that feeling when everyone comes together and you get over the line, as was the case for the replay.”
And no more than Tipperary last year, the Cork youngsters haven’t once looked back since negotiating the semi-final hurdle.
“Those were our hardest games of the year and hopefully, they will stand to us. We know Galway are a really good team, they’ll be similar to Tipperary.”
As mentioned elsewhere on this page, Cork came through their All-Ireland semi-final with several players turning in below-par performances.
The Midleton teenager knows they cannot again be as reliant on Brian Turnbull.
“Everyone is going to have to deliver if we’re going to win. One man won’t be enough. Everyone is going to have to turn up. I know I will. All the work that has been put in is not going to go to waste.”
To that end, he and manager Denis Ring are keen to heap praise on the backroom team of Stephen Casey, Johnny Dwyer, Liam Martin, John Mortell, Fergus Ryan and Brian Hurley.
Concludes O’Leary Hayes: “The goal is to get an All-Ireland medal. I want to get something out of this year. With our team, if we play well, we are going to do it.”