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The Electric Ireland Minor Hurling Championship draws to a close on Sunday when Galway and Kilkenny meet in Croke Park.
The two teams know each other extremely well having met at the same stage of the competition last year while also locking horns earlier this season in the quarter-final round-robin series. Galway and Kilkenny have been dominant at this level for a number of seasons now with at least one of the counties present in eight of the last ten finals.
The two counties also met in the decider back in 2009 which gives this final an eerily familiar feel to it as the senior final that season involved Tipperary and Kilkenny and managers, Brian Cody and Liam Sheedy, so there’s a real feeling of déjá vu to this Sunday’s hurling showpiece.
Galway are the undoubted favourites going into the game having won three of the last four titles while Kilkenny are gunning for their first All-Ireland at this grade since 2014.
The holders will look to the experience of All-Ireland winners, Sean McDonagh, Ian McGlynn and Colm Cunningham to spearhead their defence on Sunday while Kilkenny are hoping that the firepower provided by the likes of Timmy Clifford, Billy Drennan and Pierce Blanchfield can put them on the road to victory. The pair crossed paths a month ago with Galway squeezing past the young cats on a scoreline of 3-16 to 2-16 in what was a bizarre game of hurling to say the least.
Galway came out of the blocks firing despite it being their first championship game of the year and led by 12 points at the short whistle, however, Kilkenny rallied in the second half with Ian Byrne’s haul of 2-2 after coming off the bench bringing Kilkenny level before Galway sneaked home.
Ahead of the game, Pundit Arena sat down with Derek McGrath to get his thoughts ahead of a hugely exciting final but despite his role as a panel member for this year’s Electric Ireland GAA Minor Star Awards, McGrath will find it hard to remain neutral this Sunday.
The former Waterford manager has a direct link to this Kilkenny side in the form of captain James Aylward who is a pupil at De La Salle College where McGrath teaches, however, he feels that Galway’s experience might just be too much for Kilkenny.
“An interesting one is that the captain of the Kilkenny minor team is actually in our school. We’re claiming him anyway in Waterford, James Aylward from Mooncoin. He’s playing midfield with Kilkenny,” said McGrath
“I hope Kilkenny make it for the sake of James but I think Galway might have too much. With Sean McDonagh in the form he’s in and Shane Morgan at full-forward I think Galway will have just a bit too much strength but I’m hoping Kilkenny do it.”
McGrath admits that he didn’t see Kilkenny making it this far earlier in the season but reiterates the point that, in typical Kilkenny fashion, they are now at their most dangerous.
“It’s interesting, I saw all of Waterford’s group games, they played Limerick and I thought Limerick were going to be the standout team and then I saw the Limerick/Kilkenny semi-final and after seeing Kilkenny get beaten by Galway in an earlier round I said to myself; ‘Jesus, Limerick will take these fellas.’ Next minute, typical Kilkenny, they’re in another final. You have forwards like Timmy Clifford, James Aylward is driving it from the middle of the field and you have some serious players like Billy Drennan, serious players! Now is when they are at their most dangerous.”
McGrath highlights the news of Ian McGlynn’s inclusion after receiving a red card in the semi-final as influential for Galway while also crediting both managers who bring a wealth of experience to this year’s decider.
Richie Mulrooney will lead Kilkenny into a fifth minor decider having won two out of three finals during his first stint in the role between 2008-2010. Brian Hanley, meanwhile, is in his first year as Galway minor manager but he brings with him a serious pedigree having guided the county’s U16s to a national title last year. He’s also managed the Westmeath senior hurling side, assisted Anthony Cunningham when he guided Garrycastle to an All-Ireland Club football final as well as being one the country’s most decorated club players himself following a hugely successful playing career with Athenry.
“Ian McGlynn is now available for the final so that’s great news for Galway as he is very influential. The management teams, I think Richie Mulrooney, this is his fifth final, fifth final! That’s a massive achievement. Brian Hanley, it’s his first year as Galway manager but he comes into it with a wealth of experience. The interesting dynamic there is that they’ve met recently and none of them won provincial honours this year but they’re back in the final. It’s a toss of the coin really.”
McGrath himself was a three-year minor with Waterford, reaching the All-Ireland final in 1992 only to be defeated by Galway. Looking back, he offers some advice to the minor stars of today following his experience of being at this stage of the competition. However, he doesn’t believe that players today will fall into the traps that he found himself in.
“Yeah, I suppose you look back on that loss in ’92 and the mistake I made was that I thought I’d be back here every year and then you never really make it then as a senior player and then you are saying; ‘what’s it all about?’ I was more caught up in where are we going to go after and the banquet. So, there’s probably a message in that for any minor but I think they’re more aware now, and I think their number one focus will be on the game itself.
“No better machines than Kilkenny or Galway in terms of their approach to it, whereas we were just concerned with what gear we were getting or where was the banquet after or homecomings and all that kind of craic, thinking you were it do you know what I mean? I was 10 stone with a full head of blonde hair which probably helped too!”
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Minor players are embarking on their adult lives. They have hopes, dreams, pressures, distractions and ambitions, but for this one moment in time, the Electric Ireland Minor Championships is the major thing in their lives.
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