By Cian O’Connell
These are encouraging times for Limerick hurling, who are eager to secure a second Bord Gais All Ireland Under 21 title in three years at Semple Stadium on Saturday.
Kilkenny will provide a stern test in Thurles, but manager Pat Donnelly is encouraged by the progress being made in Limerick.
Donnelly guided Limerick to an Electric Ireland Minor Final appearance in 2016 and talented hurlers continue to be manufactured.
“There are pools of players, that is the whole Academy structure which is there seven or eight years now,” Donnelly says. “There is continuous progress being made so players are coming through every year. “You are going to get that. This is a combination of three teams, last year’s minors and the previous two teams.”
The future appears bright at senior level with Donnelly expecting Limerick to be a seriously competitive outfit by 2020.
“I said a few years ago, 2020, this is the best opportunity, these lads have been there since Under 14, they are very disciplined, they do all of the right things and if they stay together and stick with it, which they have done,” Donnelly remarks.
“I know minors is a crossroads in fellas lives, but these fellas have gone beyond that. I think there is a hunger there to do well, I think there is a structure within Limerick.
“It is getting better year on year. Fingers crossed we will be knocking on the door. Waterford have been there this year, Limerick at this age group were competitive with them all up along, probably even better than them so there is no reason why they can’t.”
Donnelly highlights Waterford’s emergence as a sign of what can be achieved. “Waterford have shown the way,” Donnelly states.
“In underage Limerick have passed them out now so there is no reason why they can’t bring it on to senior level.”
Ardscoil Ris are an established Harty Cup force now, while UL, LIT, and Mary I remain Independent.ie Fitzgibbon Cup contenders. Donnelly feels that a combination of factors is assisting Limerick hurling.
“Without a doubt, the colleges are huge,” Donnelly says. “I know they are coming from everywhere, but Limerick is the base and it creates the interest as well as everything else. There is a want for playing hurling, there is an appetite to go playing hurling at colleges level, it brings you up to senior inter- county so Limerick has been prominent in all of that.
“Ardscoil Ris as well and having four or five teams playing Harty Cup in Limerick. You have Doon, Kilmallock, Charleville which is on the border, Ardscoil Ris, it is great for hurling.”
John Kiely introduced several young players to the Limerick panel and team in 2017. “Probably six Under 21s started,” Donnelly says. “It was a very young team. New management came in, they decided on that policy, they are trying to integrate the young lads as quickly as they can.
“It is gone to a young man’s game now, the Kevin Morans and Brick Walshs are few and far between now. The balance has gone back towards the younger players, Limerick are no different.”
Nine of the Limerick Under 21 panel were involved with the seniors this year so a decent standard of player is being crafted in the south west. How critical is it for Limerick to raise silverware this weekend?
“I see Waterford after Sunday’s game and the devastation after losing is phenomenal,” Donnelly responds.
“This is different because these lads have a goal in life to win a senior All Ireland. They have beaten Tipp, Clare, Cork, Galway, to me that is huge in itself. The icing on the cake would be to win the All Ireland, but it is not the end of the world if we don’t.
“It is very fickle, a puck of the ball can make you a hero or it can go the opposite way. Definitely winning for Limerick is great, but it isn’t the be all and end all. Getting these lads experience and being competitive, showing they are as good as everybody else.”