Prior to last year’s All-Ireland U21 hurling decider, Waterford selector Paul Flynn opened up on why the grade is his favourite competition
Flynn hurled U21 for four years, winning an All-Ireland medal as a 17-year-old in 1992.
“I loved it. The knockout hurling, you have butterflies in your stomach,” he recalled.
“I think the senior championship is now dead in the water until the quarter-finals. At U21, you have fit young men flying about the place who might want to make a point to a senior set-up and lads who are already on senior panels who want to use the U21 to showcase their talents.
"I went to the Cork-Limerick Munster U21 final in 2011. Aidan Walsh was catching balls out of the sky. It was just brilliant. People car pooling on a Wednesday going off to matches. U21 is man-on-man. It is unpredictable. It is hurling. It is instinctive.”
This evening at the Gaelic Grounds, All-Ireland favourites Limerick host a Clare team who have spent the past six months preparing solely for this fixture. For the winner, there’s a place in the Munster final. For the loser, their summer is over.
No backdoor, no second round qualifier. You get one audition and you better make it count.
“It is championship in its purest form,” says Clare manager John Carmody.
“You have to bring a performance because it is all about that one hour.”
Flynn is spot on in his assessment that U21 is a most “unpredictable” grade and Clare will be hoping this semi-final throws up a result no one is predicting.
They have form, mind you, in upsetting the apple cart. Two years ago, Waterford travelled to Ennis for a Munster U21 semi-final that was supposed to be nothing more than a procession.
The visitors boasted a team packed with household names, even if most were no more than 19 and 20-years of age. The side included Tadhg de Búrca, Austin Gleeson, Tom Devine, Stephen Bennett, Shane Bennett, Colin Dunford and Patrick Curran.
The home outfit, though, refused to be intimidated and won through by two points.
The parallels to this evening are many. Clare, again, branded virtual no-hopers. Limerick, with eight members of the senior panel, six of whom featured against Kilkenny at Nowlan Park (Sean Finn, Cian Lynch, Kyle Hayes, Peter Casey, Tom Morrissey and Barry Nash), are overwhelming favourites.
David Fitzgerald, Ben O’Gorman and Ian Galvin are the survivors from the Clare 2015 class and Carmody doesn’t believe this current crop, chasing as they are a seventh Munster U21 final appearance since 2009, will be unnerved by the challenge.
“There is a proud tradition in Clare, not just our recent U21 record, and we see no reason why a Clare hurling team should feel inferior to anyone in this competition.
That is how we will approach it and if the guys leave it all on the field below in the Gaelic Grounds and believe in themselves, who knows?
There’s a lot of good hurlers in this Clare team. They might not be household names but we’re hoping a lot of them will be putting their hand up on Wednesday evening.”
Centre-back David Fitzgerald and full-forward Aaron Shanagher both started Sunday’s Munster final defeat to Cork, while midfielder Jason McCarthy was introduced late on in the first half. Bouncing back 72 hours later, added to the fact that they will be expected to lead the visitors’ challenge, won’t be easy.
“When you taste defeat, the best medicine is to have the opportunity to go out and play again as soon as possible,” Carmody continues.
“We’d be hoping that this being a fresh competition, and they haven’t been with this U21 squad all year so this is the first proper time we’ll have been together as a full squad, there will be a bit of freshness there.
"We’d be confident too that these lads, along with Ian Galvin who is also in with the seniors, will have benefited from the training they have had with the senior squad and show us leadership against Limerick. At the end of the day, our job is to help in the development of these players.
“We’re lucky to have four guys on the senior panel. And we hope in the years to come that four or five more might progress to the seniors.”
E McNamara (Doon); S Finn (Bruff), D Fanning (Pallasgreen), D Joy (Kilmallock); R Lynch (Na Piarsaigh), K Hayes (Kildimo/Pallaskenry), T Grimes (Na Piarsaigh); R Hanley (Kilmallock), C Ryan (Pallasgreen); A Gillane (Patrickswell), B Murphy (Doon), C Lynch (Patrickswell); P Casey (Na Piarsaigh), T Morrissey (Ahane), B Nash (South Liberties).
K Nugent (O’Callaghans Mills); C Cooney (O’Callaghans Mills), D Walsh (Éire Óg), C O’Halloran (Éire Óg); C Smyth (Feakle), D Fitzgerald (Inagh-Kilnamona), R Hayes (Wolfe Tones Na Sionna); J McCarthy (Inagh-Kilnamona), M O’Malley (Kilmaley); B O’Gorman (Wolfe Tones Na Sionna), I Galvin (Clonlara), B Cahill (Kilmaley); C Corbett (Tulla), A Shanagher (Wolfe Tones Na Sionna), B Connors (Cratloe).
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