Hurling's young guns lead way
Anthony Cunningham barely had the seat warmed as Galway hurling manager last November when the bombshell of massive squad upheaval was dropped across a startled county.
There were no trials, no probationary periods, just a straight judgment that a dramatic overhaul was required. And some big names fell to a ruthless axe.
Out went 10 of the more established players, some of whom had formed the cornerstone of the previous management's three years in charge, including two former captains -- Shane Kavanagh and Damien Joyce. Ger Farragher, Adrian Cullinane, Joe Gantley, John Lee, Colm Callanan, Donal Barry, Alan Kerins and Eoin Forde were also on the hit list.
Gantley had shown promise in the match against Clare in Pearse Stadium that briefly illuminated Galway's flagging 2011 season, while Lee was once considered by another previous manager, Ger Loughnane, to be the closest thing Galway had to a centre-back in the Seanie McMahon mould.
But in the end, reputations mattered nothing to the new men. The bitter disappointment of defeat once more to Waterford in an All-Ireland quarter-final convinced Cunningham and his fellow selectors Tom Helebert and Mattie Kenny that they would have to start drawing on the vast reserves of young talent in the county. It was the right time to buy some time.
The yield has come earlier than expected, but the success of those decisions taken last November point to a trend that is being replicated in so many counties with similar ambitions.
In Cork, John Gardiner, not yet 30, and Sean Og O hAilpin, were not among the 20 players used by Jimmy Barry-Murphy as Cork grappled and finally overpowered Offaly in Pairc Ui Chaoimh.
Niall McCarthy, another veteran with more than a decade of service behind him, had just a couple of minutes at the end with only Tom Kenny and Brian Murphy from what could be considered Cork's 'old guard' -- survivors from the 2003 to 2006 teams -- included from the start.
When Clare and Limerick meet for the fifth time in competitive action this year on Saturday evening in Thurles, the average age of both squads will be somewhere between 23 and 24, a further reflection of how counties are sowing the seeds to position themselves properly for an era of post-Kilkenny dominance.
Like Cunningham, John Allen didn't deliberate long before performing a similar 'spring clean' of the squad he had inherited from Donal O'Grady last November.
Barely a week in the job, and with just one fitness test behind them, eight players had their ties cut with the squad, while Damien Reale retired of his own accord.
Like Cunningham, Allen said all the right things about open-door policies and great service given. But the rapid nature of the decision to cull so many with so much experience reflected the direction they were keen to take.
Nine players from last year's Munster U-21 championship winning side -- Conor Allis, Declan Hannon, Kevin Downes, Shane Dowling, Mark Carmody, Aaron Murphy, Sean O'Brien and Michael and Tomas Ryan -- are currently in Allen's squad. From that nine, only Allis is not eligible for U-21 against this season.
With Brian Geary and Donal O'Grady the oldest on the squad at 32, it makes for an average of 23.3 for the 30-man Limerick outfit.
The flourish of youth is behind growing anticipation in Clare that a more promising decade than the last stretches out in front of them.
The average age of their starting 15 against Dublin in Cusack Park on Saturday night was just over 24. The team that finished was 22.6, as two of last year's Munster minor championship winning side, Colm Galvin and Aaron Cunningham, joined two more of that team -- Tony Kelly and Seadna Morey, who had started.
Significantly, these players were on the field when the comeback began and it was Kelly who had the courage to step up to the 20-metre free that Darach Honan had won and hammer it home.
At 30, Fergal Lynch was Clare's oldest starter, followed by Pat Donnellan (28), Brendan Bugler (28) and Jonathan Clancy (27). But who would bet on all four being together at the start on Saturday evening?
Donnellan and Bugler for sure, after heroic displays, but the temptation to spring more youth and continue the process must be very tempting.
With the thrust of the 2008 and 2009 U-21 teams and the minor teams that have won the last two Munster titles, Clare are positioning themselves impressively.
Like Limerick, Galway and Cork this is a team being created with the future in mind, a future beyond Kilkenny's current grip, which weakened considerably last weekend.
"We have lads there from 18 to 21 and that's the way we have to go in Clare, to build on these lads," acknowledges selector Louis Mulqueen.
"It's the spirit they're playing with. They're up at half-five in the morning some days for training -- these lads will do anything for the Clare jersey.
"They're so proud of that crest -- it says, 'First into battle, last out' and that's the motto of this crop of players, this is what we hope to bring forward."
The confidence they can now attach to the substance and style of their play should be visible now according to Mulqueen.
"Clare hadn't won a game in nine championship matches," he said. "We had to break that sequence, just to beat Dublin and bring on the confidence.
"The 'ifs' and 'buts' that were there after the Waterford game that we should have won, those were all put to bed by winning."