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Slipping away from the favourites’ mantle

LIKE most Kilkenny inter-county hurlers, Michael Walsh has been part of a number of title-winning teams. The son of the legendary Ollie, the team’s outstanding goalkeeper in the ‘60s, Michael followed in his father’s footsteps and played at all grades for the Noresiders.
There is one medal missing for the Kilkenny U-21 manager’s collection, however. “I played in two All-Ireland U-21 finals but we lost both,” he said as he looked ahead to Sunday’s All-Ireland U-21 final date with Clare when he will be hoping to manage Kilkenny to a second successive title at this level.

Like most inter-county hurlers, Walsh turned to coaching and managing when his playing days ended. He took charge of the Carlow senior hurlers for a few seasons before being appointed as Noreside U-21 manager last year. They are unbeaten in the championship under his stewardship.
When I suggested to him that they are the hottest of favourites to retain the All-Ireland crown, he questioned how people could arrive at that conclusion. “We played Clare in a really good challenge game about six or seven weeks back. We saw that evening how good they are. Okay, both teams made changes in the second half of that game but it was an excellent contest from the start. It was played at a great pace and we certainly got a lot out of it and we needed it at the time. I am sure Clare did as well,” according to Walsh. That game was played in Nowlan Park and it ended in a draw. “I have seen both of their games in the championship since then and they have again shown how good they are. “It’s crazy talk that we are being made hot favourites,” he added.
Kilkenny can call on seven of last year’s All-Ireland winning team together with a number of substitutes from that team. The only member of the squad that is part of the current Kilkenny senior panel is the talented Ritchie Hogan who has been running up big scores. There is no doubt but that he will pose a huge threat to Clare in this decider.
“People seem to be of the opinion that we have had an easy passage to this final but that is not the case. We beat Laois in a preliminary-round game before we had a real battle with Offaly in the Leinster semi-final when we managed to come through with just three points to spare. We had another tough game against Dublin in the Leinster final,” the Kilkenny boss said.
Clare’s performances in getting to the final have alerted the Kilkenny management to the challenge they face.
“We have seen the level and intensity of Clare’s play this year. They are very strong. We will have to be at our best, otherwise we will be in trouble. We are wary of what we are facing which is a good thing,” commented Walsh.
“Clare were very unlucky last year and everyone knows that. It is their first time in the final and we know that they will have huge support. All we can do is focus on our own position,” continued Walsh.
He confirmed that he has a full squad from which to select the final team. “We are free of injuries so far. We would usually have club games in the weeks before the final but with the involvement of Kilkenny teams in the intermediate, minor and senior finals in the weeks before the U-21 decider, this resulted in no club fixtures,” he said.
The Kilkenny senior All-Ireland medal winner is opposed to any proposal to remove the U-21 championship from the GAA calendar. “That would be crazy. Look at the matches we have had in this championship this year. Look at the standard of the games which were televised. They have brought a new interest to this particular championship and TG4 must be complimented here. There are a number of teams that could be in this final. Ourselves and Clare are the lucky ones to have come through. This championship must be retained,” he concluded.


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