By John Harrington

Limerick’s Kyle Hayes looks every inch the senior inter-county hurler when viewed from a distance.

He’s roughly 6’3’’ in height, has huge skill to complement his natural strength, and plays a heads-up brand of hurling that’s a testament to his mature game-sense.

It’s only when you view him up close and personal with his hurling helmet off that you remember again just how young the fresh-faced 19-year-old Kildimo/Pallaskenry club-man is.

It’s a reminder that Limerick’s resurgence this year is being powered by a generation of rookie senior hurlers that are in a hurry to make their mark at the highest level.

Manager John Kiely estimated that the average age of his panel during the League was just 21.3 years old, but Hayes sees no reason why youth should be an impediment to ambition.

“Yeah, it’s very young, we really don’t have anyone old on the team,” he said at the launch of the Bord Gáis Energy All-Ireland U-21 hurling championship.

“Even if you look at a lot of other teams, the average age is not quite as young as that but it is quite young.

“I think the game is adapting and changing to suit more guys who are in college. It’s very hard to juggle that lifestyle if you have a full-time job GAA as well.”

Hayes is a relatively seasoned player at senior inter-county level now having played throughout Limerick’s League and Championship campaign last year in his first year out of the minor grade.

He took a well-earned three month break from the game over the winter to allow a niggling groin injury to heal and to refresh mentally, and since he’s returned to the Limerick team this year he’s looked like a man on a mission.

“This year I feel a lot more comfortable,” said Hayes. “There was a lot of us new guys in last year and even a few more this year, but everyone’s comfortable now and you can see that out on the pitch, that everyone’s gelling together.

“Fellas have definitely stepped up. You see especially Aaron Gillane this year, he really came into himself.

“Seamus Flanagan and Barry Murphy, all these guys that wouldn’t have been playing senior last year are after really coming into themselves. It’s just a matter of time, adapting and getting comfortable.”

Limerick’s young guns proved their worth during the League when they finally secured promotion from Division 1B for the Treaty County after years of near-misses and hard-luck stories.

The achievement was all the more laudable considering Limerick had to do without their sizeable Na Piarsaigh contingent who were on All-Ireland club duty.

“Yeah it was massive,” said Hayes. “They’ve been there the last seven or eight years trying to get out of there and it’s been a goal every year to get out.

“Fortunately this year we made the extra step and we did well to win up in Galway, because that was a real, tough match that’ll really stand to us. We got Clare and Tipp in really good matches after that so hopefully all these games will stand to us in the coming weeks in the championship.

“People are saying Limerick are building over the last few years but this year anyway you’ll see that there’s been a bit of success already with getting out of 1B. Hopefully that’s a stepping stone to what we can actually achieve this year.”

Their Na Piarsaigh contingent are now back in the fold and there have been some ferocious training matches behind the scenes as players jockey for position within a highly competitive panel.

It’s hard to remember the last time Limerick have had such an abundance of quality hurlers, which is probably why there’s such a sense of excitement building in the county ahead of their Munster Championship opener against Tipperary on May 20 in the Gaelic Grounds.

“It’s really building up to be a great match,” said Hayes. “Especially after the battle we had down in Thurles in the league as well.

“Limerick is always a very tough place to come and play but we’ll still be the underdogs. We kind of relish that as well.

“Yeah there’s a bit of expectation and pressure but as a team we’re only going to relish that. We love that feeling that gives a bit more to it on the day of championship.”

That match isn’t currently uppermost in Hayes’ thoughts right now, though. He and many of his fellow senior Limerick panellists are focused on the Limerick U-21 team’s Munster Championship quarter-final against Clare next Monday.

The Shannon-siders are reigning All-Ireland Champions and have five starters and a number of substitutes to still call on from last year’s side, so they’ll be serious contenders again this year.

“Yeah, it’s a strong team and we’ve all confidence in ourselves, but the first game we have to get over is Clare,” said Hayes.

“It’s kind of our All-Ireland final first, it’ll be a very tough game down in Ennis.”