Kilkenny minor hurling team manager, Richie Mulrooney
It’s not often that losing a game can be looked upon as the decisive moment when a team’s season changed, but defeat proved to be the spur that has driven the Kilkenny minor hurlers into the All-Ireland final.
“The second half of the round robin match against Galway was a turning point,” was the view of Kilkenny manager Richie Mulrooney when speaking in the build-up to Sunday’s clash with the Tribesmen. “It gave us something to discuss at the end of the game, even though we had been beaten.
“There wasn’t time for disappointment or for heads to drop; the lads just got on with it,” he continued. “They realised after togging in against Galway that they had put in a very strong second half and used it as a platform for the Limerick game.
“They knew if they won that game, they were going to Croke Park. And, when they got there, that mature performance against Tipp brought us to the final.”
In a season of change, a new age grading for minor hurling - not to mention round robin games at both provincial and national levels - have made for a busy campaign but the Cats’ manager stressed there was nowhere his side would rather be.
“It’s fantastic to be looking forward to an All-Ireland final,” he said.
“When we set out at the start of the year the aim was always to get to Croke Park. When we achieved that by beating Limerick to set up the semi-final against Tipperary we asked the players ‘do you want to play there once or twice?’ You can imagine the response!”
It was an emphatic answer from the minors in the manner they saw off Tipperary to set up their final clash with Galway.
“We had a good performance against Tipp,” he said. “Perhaps we could have scored a bit more, given the possession we had, but we were very pleased with how the team went about their business in the semi-final.
“For a team of 16 and 17 year olds they gave a very mature display, as well as in the lead-up to the game,” he said. “I thought that they were really ready to go at it from the start.
“The first 10 minutes we could have had a few more scores and been further ahead at half-time (the Cats led by 1-7 to 0-4). Tipp were always going to come with a rallying call in the second half but the way we defended in the last 10 minutes was really workmanlike.
“It showed character and unity in the team, proof of the spirit in the side. They have bonded well, something we knew after having them for two years (the management team led the young Cats to Arrabawn success in 2017). We didn’t doubt that they would dig in after Tipp got the second goal, but we’re thrilled to be in the final.
“We know there is a massive challenge ahead of us,” he added. “Galway have been the form team and on the challenge match circuit earlier in the year everyone found out how good they are.
“They carried that form into the All-Ireland round robin qualifier, scoring emphatic wins over Limerick and ourselves, before beating Dublin in the semi-final.
“We’re very realistic here,” he said. “There’s a massive task ahead of us, but we’re thrilled to be the team who have that chance.
“Training is going really well. The lads are working hard on different aspects of play. We hope that we can eat into the seven-point gap we had in Semple Stadium (Galway won the round robin game by 1-21 to 2-11) and keep ourselves right in this game.
“Hopefully the situation at half-time will be that it’s there for both teams,” he added. “We have great confidence in the lads that they can give a really big performance.”
It has been a fascinating championship for Kilkenny, who are facing into their 10th game of the season on Sunday. It’s been a long road but, despite their young years, the players have reacted positively.
“Normally four or five matches would have you in the final but this year, particularly with the new round robin qualifier, we ended up playing six weekends out of seven,” the manager said. “That’s heavy going for 17-year-olds, especially as there was huge importance placed on each match.
“From the Leinster quarter-final right through to the All-Ireland semi-final we only had one week’s break and that was about trying to get over the disappointment of losing a Leinster final.
“It really shows the character of the panel that they held it all together,” he added.
“After we lost to Galway, maybe a lot of people thought that was the end of it, but these lads were back out the following weekend and gave their best performance of the year against Limerick and carried that on against Tipperary.”
Sealing their final berth has given the players an extra charge.
“There’s been a great buzz about the panel in the build-up to the final,” said Mulrooney. “They’re in great form and they realise that the pressure they may have had on themselves to reach the final has gone. They’re training well and while there may be a view that we’re going into the final as underdogs we don’t see it that way.
“We see it as we see every game,” he said. “It’s 50-50. We’re going to give it absolutely everything.”
Given the county’s hurling pedigree there has always been a high level of expectancy on Kilkenny minor teams. However, rather than shield players from it, the management team (Mulrooney, Adrian Finan, Martin Carey, Niall Bergin and Sean Kelly) have harnessed it.
“We keep encouraging them to use their ability with hard work and work-rate,” the manager said. “We explain to the players that while we’re all aiming for an All-Ireland final on August 19 for many of them there’s under-20 and senior careers ahead that will also bring pressure.
“They’ve really responded to that - they’re a great bunch to work with. Even in the dark days of the loss to Dublin in Portlaoise and Galway in Thurles we never lost track of where we wanted to end up. When those players were required to dig deep, they did so.
“They just don’t quit,” he said of the panel. “You can play badly any day - these things happen - but the message you try to get across to players is that you don’t give in. We were in deep, deep trouble at half-time against Galway (the Cats trailed by 1-14 to 2-3) but they just refused to quit. I thought they acquitted themselves really well in the second half of that game and it’s been on an upward curve since then. We’re determined to continue on that path right to the 60th minute of this final.”
That resilience will be tested by a Galway side who have swept all before them this year. The game is on a high out West, but the Cats have experienced that too.
“When I was last involved with the minors (Mulrooney led the Cats to three All-Ireland finals between 2008 and 2010, winning two, in a three-year spell in charge) we were on the crest of a wave at all levels - in 2008, the county won the Grand Slam (senior, intermediate, under-21 and minor All-Ireland titles).
“The current situation sees Galway in the senior and minor finals for the second year in a row - and both teams are unbeaten all year. That shows the game in Galway is in a really healthy state.”
That might sound ominous for the Cats, but Mulrooney has a more positive spin on proceedings.
“Isn’t it fantastic to be the ones who have the chance to take on the challenge of beating them on All-Ireland final Sunday?” he asked. “If we don’t, so be it - but we’re going to give it absolutely everything.”