U20s look to follow path already paved by all-conquering seniors

There is much similarities between the current U20’s and the senior side as the former prepare for the U20 All-Ireland final.

Labelled by many as the best ever player to grace the Limerick jersey, Cian Lynch is already the GOAT in many people’s minds.

Lynch’s prodigious talent was obvious from an early age as he was just fifteen when he first represented the Limerick minor team, at a time when it was an U18 grade.

The following year, Lynch was a key member of the minor side that clinched a first provincial title in 29-years as they fell at the All-Ireland semi-final to Galway in a game infamously remembered for a hawk-eye glitch.

23 July 2013; Limerick captain Richard English lifts the cup. Electric Ireland Munster GAA Hurling Minor Championship Final Replay, Limerick v Waterford, Semple Stadium, Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Picture credit: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE

Twelve months later, this time as captain, the Patrickswell native was back in Croke Park, as captain as Limerick reached the All-Ireland final where they were paired with Kilkenny.

Limerick were hot favourites for the 2014 title, and deservedly so with a stellar line up that included eleven future All-Ireland senior winners.

But Limerick couldn’t bridge the gap to their previous national title at the grade in 1984, with the Cats prevailing by four points.

Five years later, the Limerick minors were back in Croker for an All-Ireland semi-final meeting with Kilkenny as Munster champions.

The Cats had lost the Leinster championship final the previous month but once again proved too strong for the Shannonsiders in GAA HQ, winning out 2-24 to 0-18 in a dreadful day for the Treaty as the Seniors also lost to Brian Cody’s men later in the evening.

Diarmuid Mullins’ side were well in the game, heading into the dressing rooms, with the contest finely poised at 1-12 to 0-13 in Kilkenny’s favour.

But a second half blitz followed from the Leinster outfit as they outscored Limerick 1-12 to 0-5 in the second period to make it back to a first final since they won against Lynch and co.

GAA Hurling All-Ireland Minor Championship Semi-Final, Croke Park, Dublin 27/7/2019 Limerick vs Kilkenny Limerick’s Fergal O’Connor and Ethan Hurley with Ian Byrne of Kilkenny Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Three years on, these sides will do battle once again, this time with U20 All-Ireland honours on the line.

Mullins’ has made the step up to the grade as manager, winning a Munster title in his sophomore year in charge, his third provincial title in four years.

With him, he has brought a number of that side that fell to the Cats in Croke Park in August 2019. From the team that started this month’s Munster final win over Tipperary, eight were among the XV for the clash three years ago.

Cathal O’Neill is the obvious absentee from that team with the Crecora Manister man ruled ineligible after featuring in the senior championship following his round one exploits against Clare in the 20s championship.

Ronan Lyons, Liam Lynch and Paddy O’Donovan all started that day and are a part of the current squad but have been dogged with injury. The latter, who is also a member of the senior panel, is the only one of those three to get minutes in the championship this year.

Similarly, Kilkenny had ten of those that featured in the 2019 game involved in their Leinster final win over Wexford last week.

For the players that were involved in that game from three years ago, Limerick will be desperate to get one over the Cats while Kilkenny will be confident in their ability to get the job done.

But, for three of Limerick’s expected starters, Evan O’Leary, Cian Scully and Shane O’Brien, a win over a Kilkenny outfit in an All-Ireland final was achieved just two months ago as they were crowned Croke Cup Champions with Ardscoil Rís after victory over St Kierans college who supply four starters to the current Kilkenny U20s.

17 March 2022; Ardscoil Rís joint-captains Shane O’Brien, left, and Vince Harrington lift the cup after their side’s victory in the Masita GAA Hurling All Ireland Post Primary Schools Croke Cup Final match between Ardscoil Rís, Limerick, and St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny, at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

That experience should help buoy Limerick with the aforementioned trio all playing their part in the run to the Munster title with O’Leary and Scully as solid in defence as O’Brien has been devastating in attack.

Nonetheless, the final pairing just demonstrates how the production lines in Kilkenny and Limerick are continuing to prosper.

Limerick have been the dominant team in the country since John Kiely’s appointment in 2017, with Kilkenny’s last Celtic Cross win coming in 2015.

However, Kiely’s past two knockout championship losses have come against Kilkenny, his maiden year in charge and 2019 as they ended Limerick’s hopes of retaining the title with many pointing to that victory as the solitary reason Limerick are chasing three on the bounce this summer and not seeking to go one better than the Kilkenny side of the noughties who fell just short of five.

And few would bet against the sides meeting in the senior final in just a couple of months, even fewer neutrals would be against the idea of the giants facing off for the ultimate honour.

But that’s for July as the 20s take centre stage on Sunday.

9 September 2017; Limerick players, from left, Barry Nash, Tom Morrissey and Cian Lynch celebrate at the final whistle of the Bord Gáis Energy GAA Hurling All-Ireland U21 Championship Final match between Kilkenny and Limerick at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Co Tipperary. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Yet, for the crop of ’96 that not only includes Lynch but current senior stalwarts Sean Finn, Tom Morrissey, Barry Nash and Aaron Gillane, there is some precedence with Sunday’s opponents that bodes well ahead of this weekend’s final.

It hasn’t all be been bad when it comes to the Cats as that team followed their reversal in the minor final, with a win over Kilkenny in the 2017 All-Ireland U21 final and eleven months later, five of that side were named from the start as Limerick ended a 45-year wait for senior All-Ireland honours.

A similar path for Mullins’ side would certainly be welcome on the banks of the Treaty.

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