Limerick begin the defence of their All-Ireland U21 hurling title on Monday against Clare (Cusack Park, 5.40pm), and Hayes points to the Shannonsiders’ focus on underage as a driving force in their recent success at the grade.
“There’s an academy there - Cian Lynch’s age group was the very start of it - but it’s really about hard work being put in, it’s all done in a professional manner, so there’s not much of a change from senior to U21 to underage, from U14 up it’s all regulated and planned.
“You’re bound to get players coming off that conveyor belt if that’s the system in place. You’re prepared from the age of 14 to play senior, obviously the training schedules and so on change, but basically it’s what you do the whole time.”
It’s been a fruitful 12 months or so for the Kildimo-Pallaskenry club man. That U21 All-Ireland, a county intermediate title with his club, and a Fitzgibbon Cup medal with the University of Limerick, where he’s a business student.
At UL it was a serious team with stars all over the pitch, so it was a matter of clicking. Once you clicked we went on and won it. With the county, I was part of the only crop of (recent) Limerick minors not to win something but it was very nice to win the U21 All-Ireland, to finish the year on a winning note.
Winning U21 All-Irelands can generate expectations for a county senior team, but Hayes doesn’t allow that to have an impact on his thinking - though he does have a touch of regret about the decision to change the U21 grade next season.
“It’s constantly adding (pressure) to it but as players you don’t listen to outside influences or anything like that. We work as best we can and when we get out on the pitch we express ourselves as best we can and see where that takes us.
“I’m U21 next year as well but it’s U20 next year — and we’d have a very strong team next year, we’d have gotten to All-Ireland finals with that age group.”
The U21s are helped by good communication between the management teams in the county - Hayes says they’ll need all that support as defending champions: “There are seven of us on the senior team from the U21s and that’s a big chunk. Pat Donnelly is over the U21s and he and John (Kiely) are constantly talking about what time is needed for training and so on.
“I’ve never experienced this feeling before, but we’re champions as it stands and we’ll do everything we can to defend the title.
“All teams are going to be gunning to take the champions down, but we’ll welcome all challenges, we’re confident in ourselves.”
At senior level Limerick had a good springtime, finally getting out of Division 1B and back to the top tier.
“It was a goal for the last seven years to get out of that division, finally we did this year, but we made great strides. We had three really tough matches and came out on top in two of them, so there are a lot of positives there. Going up a division, it brings in bigger crowds, which brings in more money for the county board, that’s always a big factor. The players will get real tough games as well, so it’s win-win.”
He’s also a fan of the new championship format: “Very much so.
“As a player you want to play as many games as possible. I think it’s a great idea. Four games in five weeks — I can’t think of much that would be better than that. Munster is very tight this year, but that’s what makes the championship so good.”