A TEAM with lashing of game time in the bag in recent weeks will mount the huge obstacle as the Kilkenny minor hurlers bid to qualify for the All-Ireland final.
The Cats haven’t contested the final since current senior player Cillian Buckley led them to a 2-10 to 0-14 win over Clare in 2010. Croke Park on Sunday, September 8 is now the only thing on the minds of a determined group of youngsters.
In Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park, highly rated Waterford will bid to bridge the gap back to 1992 when they last contested the final by qualifying for the big showdown.
“The Leinster final was five weeks ago, and in the meantime Waterford have seen plenty of action,” explained Kilkenny manager, Pat Hoban when he filled in the background to Sunday’s big clash.
“We will have to hit the ground running because Waterford are most certainly in championship mode because of all the action they have seen lately.
“The players are really focussed. They want to make the final.”
Since Kilkenny won the Leinster final the Suirsiders have played Limerick in a sizzling draw and enthralling replayed Munster final, and then Antrim in the All-Ireland quarter-final. The additional game time and uplift in form has left them mad keen to charge forward.
“They have the advantage in terms of championship game time but we are ready to blast into action,” Mr Hoban added.
The Suirsiders haven’t been in the final since 1992 when they lost to Galway (1-13 to 2-4). Indeed, their record at this level is not all that great. They won the All-Ireland only twice (1929 and 1948) while their opponents head the table with 20 victories.
Waterford have been a hot tip for this championship all season. The game in the county got a huge lift earlier in the season when the Dungarvan College team won the All-Ireland colleges’ senior hurling championship final, beating a good Kilkenny CBS team in the decider (1-12 to 1-7).
The Suirsiders recognised early on in the season that they had the makings of a good team, and the County Board didn’t spare any effort in the effort to assemble the best squad available.
Three key players from that Dungarvan Colleges side, Kevin Daly, Cormac Curran and Patrick Curran have been huge performers for the Deise, and they have been backed up by a bevy of star performers that includes driving centre-back, Austin Gleeson, a mighty hurler, Mark O’Brien, Stephen Bennett, a deadly finisher, and Sam O’Neill.
“From the start of the year Waterford were the favourites of many to win the All-Ireland,” Mr Hoban continued.
“Their season has been a bit up and down, however, but they are a very nice team. They probably should have won the Munster championship.
“In the Munster final the first day I thought they left it behind them. The second day they were just out-worked by a great Limerick team. They have a very good forward line. If they click they are very good.
“The fact they have played extra hurling will be an advantage. The more a team at this level can play together the better, because, if they avoid injuries, the players learn each others ways.”
The Cats suffered a defeat against Wexford in their second outing after showing great promise during the first round win over fancied Laois. They got back on track by hammering Kildare before scoring a major win in Parnell Park over champions, Dublin.
The Leinster final victory followed, and the players really enjoyed the success, and being part of the big occasion.
“The lads have been so dedicated it is a pleasure working with them,” said Mr Hoban, a former All-Ireland winning manager at intermediate level.
“From the word go, and I am not just saying it, the attitude has been super. We have organised training for say 6.45pm. They are on the field at 6.15 and we have to start training early.
“Their attitude is really, really good. There is no whinging. They just get on with things. The enthusiasm has been super. They are young lads who are delighted to get the chance.
They were thrilled to win in Croker Park, and they are mad to get back there.”
Such an attitude augurs well for the future of Kilkenny hurling.
“They simply get on with things,” the manager continued. “We are tight with the panel and pick only 24 for games. The lads drive themselves to make that 24 cut off mark.”
Hit by injuries
The Cats have been hit by injuries. Centre-back James Maher is troubled by an ankle injury; Gary Kelly’s season has been destroyed by an ankle injury while Robbie Fitzpatrick, who played in the Kilkenny senior final with Dicksboro last season, is still troubled by a hamstring problem that has hampered him for months.
On a brighter note, Darragh Joyce, Jason Stanley, Stephen Farrell, James Tyrrell, Evan Cody, John Walsh, Alan Murphy and so on have been moving nicely.
“Like most minor teams do, this group is growing into the season,” the manager explained. “You can see the group dynamic building. The school groups are breaking up. The club groups are breaking up and all of that.
“The players are gelling together nicely as a squad. The players have been active at minor and junior level with their clubs recently, so they have been active.
“The Leinster win was big for us. At the start of the year our goals was to win the Leinster title. That was the benchmark we set for ourselves and we said we would take it from there.
“That was a big, big win. We didn’t win it for the last few years. We have silverware as we go back to Croke Park. That should help the confidence as we return there for the semi-final.
“An All-Ireland semi-final for young lads is a huge occasions. Semi-finals are there for the winning. It is a huge opportunity for the players.
“We pick the lads who show form in training, and the practice games have been hectic.
“This is a winnable match for us, absolutely. At minor grade it is similar to the senior this year in that everyone has a really good chance of winning the title.
“There are teams who are vulnerable, but at the same time they are well capable of winning. There is no obviously outstanding team.
“Waterford are the bookies favourites, but it is a wide open competition and we think we have as good a chance as anyone. The players believe everything is possible.”
The Paths to Croker
Kilkenny 3-20, Laois 1-9
Wexford 3-7, Kilkenny 1-10
Kilkenny 7-16, Kildare 1-9
Kilkenny 0-17, Dublin 2-7
Kilkenny 1-18, Laois 0-8
Tipperary 2-18, Waterford 1-15
Waterford 4-18, Clare 1-10
Waterford 3-19, Cork 1-20
Waterford 2-19, Limerick 2019
Limerick 1-20, Waterford 4-8
Waterford 4-20, Antrim 1-9