Who will be the next set of U20 players to lay down their markers as future Limerick hurling superstars?
The Limerick production line shows no signs of stopping with Diarmaid Mullins naming a star-studded squad for Wednesday’s Munster Championship opener with Waterford.
Included are Limerick senior pair Adam English and Shane O’Brien with both playing starring roles in the league already in 2023. Team captain Ethan Hurley is into his third year on the panel while others have been heralded from a young age.
However, Mullins squad is littered with lesser known lights who have performed exceptionally for their clubs in the Limerick Hurling Championships over the last number of years.
And ahead of Wednesday’s clash we look at some who are ready to make the next step on the national stage for the reigning Munster Champions.
Con Hayes (Newcastle West)
Newcastle West’s rise through the Limerick hurling ranks is reflected in the fact that they are one of only two clubs with a pair of starters this Wednesday. Furthermore, the Magpies provide the captain of the side with Etan Hurley into his third year of intercounty U20s. However, his exploits are well known with a pair of Munster minor titles, Limerick IHC and a Freshers 1 All-Ireland crown to his name.
It’s a teammate of his, Con Hayes who is a lesser known quantity outside of Limerick circles but a star in the making. Hayes was. a key figure on the Newcastle West U16 team that won the premier county title in 2021, a first at the grade for the club, bagging a goal in the 4-11 to 3-11 win over Monaleen. He was named from the start for the Limerick minors later that year in their defeat to Cork, their only game due to the pandemic.
But Hayes was an ever present for his club in the Premier Intermediate championship last year in his first season of adult hurling as the Magpies fell to Bruff in the semi-finals. This Wednesday he has the chance to further showcase his immense talent.
It will also be a busy week for the Hayes family with Con’s younger brother Cathal at full forward for the minors on Tuesday.
Fintan Fitzgerald (Mungret St Pauls)
While Newcastle West are one of the teams with two men on the starting XV, Mungret St Pauls are the other with Barry Duff named at midfield and Fintan Fitzgerald at wing forward. Duff started in each of his sides games en route to the Premier Intermediate title in 2021 and was named at midfield when Limerick last won the minor championship in 2020. However, his club mate is less experienced with Fitzgerald yet to play an adult game of hurling such is his young age.
The Mungret man captained their U17s to the county title last year before lighting up the Premuer U21 Championship where they were denied in the final. He continued that form into the new year for Ardscoil Rís in the Harty Cup, with last year’s minor midfielder thrust into the deep end on Wednesday evening.
However, his showings over the past 12 months indicate he will flourish as he will also continue the lengthy lineage in his family with cousins Cian O’Brien (Munster MHC 2013 & ’14) and Brian O’Meara (Munster U20HC 2022) winning provincial titles with Limerick in recent years.
Evan O’Leary (Ahane)
Evan O’Leary burst onto the scene with Ardscoil Rís when they claimed a first-ever Croke Cup final on St Patrick’s Day in 2022. Since he hasn’t looked back in becoming a key figure on the 20s squad as he prepares for a second year at the grade. He is one of seven that remains from last year’s All-Ireland final XV and the only one from the full-back line.
However, he is joined by John Fitzgerald, who was full-back beside him for Ardscoil Rís in their All-Ireland win while Ronan Lyons comes in at the corner having missed the final last year’s campaign through injury.
Still, O’Leary will likely take the mantle as the team’s main man marker, fulfilling the “Sean Finn” role for the Limerick 20s, something he has excelled at for club and county over the past couple of years.
He will take on a leadership role as one of eight players in the squad to pick up an All-Ireland medal alongside five of his former Ardscoil teammates, Fitzgerald, Cian Scully, Shane O’Brien and Oisin O’Farrell as well as Liam MacCarthy winner Adam English and Monaleen duo Ronan Lyons and Joe Fitzgerald.
Joseph Fitzgerald (Monaleen)
Speaking of Joe Fitzgerald, even though he is not named from the start for Wednesday’s clash, there is no doubting his importance to the Limerick U20s following an incredible 12 months for his club where he starred at midfield in their first-ever All-Ireland win. With clubmate Ronan Lyons operating at wing-back, the duo often dovetailed duties, belying their youthful age and lack of experience.
Both were named in the corners for the Munster Minor triumph three years ago but Fitzgerald didn’t make the cut for the 20s panel. Not dismayed by missing out, the Monaleen man went on to have a stellar year with his club and continued that into the new year with the UL Freshers, starting in midfield where he was a regular scorer as they came up just short in the All-Ireland final.
It will be more a matter of when he is introduced and where on Wednesday night as a swiss-army knife kind of player. And Mullins hasn’t been shy of making changes throughout the course of a campaign with Fitzgerald ready to take advantage should that opportunity present itself.
Patrick Donovan (Effin)
There were few as unlucky as Patrick O’Donovan last year with the Effin man’s upwards trajectory halted due to injury. His ascent to the Limerick Senior team was remarkable and after assisting a goal in his debut against Kerry, O’Donovan wouldn’t feature again for the seniors, missing out on an All-Ireland title due to persistent injuries.
He just returned in time for the U20s All-Ireland final, starting his first game of the season in the decider against Kilkenny, showing a glimpse of his exceptional talent from the off, striking over a glorious point on the wing. Two from play came from the Effin man who was replaced after 50 minutes with Limerick losing by a single point.
But he is back for the 2023 season as the team’s vice-captain and is named at centre-forward for tomorrow’s tie. Granted, he is more familiar at corner forward where he was inspired for his club in his debut year at the adult grade, powering the South side to the Intermediate title in 2021, scoring 2-20 between the semi and final.
Three years ago, he bagged 1-1 in the Munster final and back among the vast majority of that side, O’Donovan is poised to make up for lost time.
Limerick face Waterford in the first round of the 2023 Munster U20 Hurling Championship on Wednesday at 7pm in the Fraher Fields.
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