Thursday 22 August 2019

Cody's kittens: The five exciting young guns who fired Kilkenny back to the top

Kilkenny supremo has seen faith in youth repaid with Mullen leading talented bunch whose time has arrived

Kilkenny's Huw Lawlor. Photo: Sportsfile
Kilkenny's Huw Lawlor. Photo: Sportsfile
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

Everyone knows Kilkenny's older guard and what they bring to the table for the Cats but Brian Cody has introduced fresh faces to the fold in recent seasons as he looks to guide them to a 12th All-Ireland SHC crown under his stewardship.

It could mark the greatest hour for the Kilkenny maestro were he to do so and the 65-year-old's faith in a host of young stars has already been repaid in spades with upset defeats of Cork and Limerick securing their final place, despite being branded a beaten docket by many at the outset of the year.

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The likes of Eoin Murphy, Pádraig Walsh, Walter Walsh and captain TJ Reid are household names having led the charge for the black and amber in recent years but who are the young kittens hoping to bring Liam MacCarthy back to Noreside for the 37th time?

Huw Lawlor

Having joined the panel last year, Lawlor made his 'competitive' debut at full-back in the unusual surroundings of Sydney during the Wild Geese Trophy defeat to Galway last November and has manned the No 3 shirt ever since when fit.

The 23-year-old comes from good stock with his father Paddy winning an All-Ireland club title with St Martin's of Muckalee in 1985 but Lawlor was a late developer and only began to show his true promise after a growth spurt in his late teens.

Kilkenny's Adrian Mullen. Photo: Sportsfile
Kilkenny's Adrian Mullen. Photo: Sportsfile

Winner of a Kilkenny SHC medal with O'Loughlin Gaels in 2016, Lawlor performed admirably in the early rounds of this year's league before being forced to the sidelines with injury and he only came back into the side after replacement full-back Conor Delaney suffered a broken foot in club action in April.

The towering defender, a student dietitian in UCD, has been a revelation this summer and more than held his own against some of the best attackers in the country with Conor McDonald, Patrick Horgan and Aaron Gillane his most recent opponents.

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His battle with Tipperary captain Seamus Callanan - who has scored a goal in each of their seven championship games this summer - will go some way to deciding the winner.

Conor Browne

Kilkenny's John Donnelly. Photo: Sportsfile
Kilkenny's John Donnelly. Photo: Sportsfile

Browne's hurling bloodlines are strong with his mother Angela Downey winning 12 All-Ireland senior camogie medals with Kilkenny and the 23-year-old already holds his own distinctive piece of GAA history.

Captain of the Cork IT side which claimed All-Ireland Freshers hurling honours in 2016, Browne switched to city rivals UCC before helping the Cork college to Fitzgibbon Cup glory earlier this year as vice-captain so his leadership qualities are obvious.

Having joined the Kilkenny panel last year, the James Stephens midfielder bided his time until last month's All-Ireland quarter-final with Cork before making his championship debut in good style with a tenacious display against the Rebels.

Also in the engine room when the Cats won their last All-Ireland minor title in 2014, his game is built on athleticism and he has ploughed through a serious workload in the past two games.

He helped to nullify Cian Lynch's influence in the semi-final and could be detailed to pick up Tipp playmaker Noel McGrath.

Richie Leahy

Leahy has been earmarked for senior success since giving one of the finest minor displays in recent memory during their drawn All-Ireland semi-final against Galway in 2015 and the call came from Cody just two years later.

Winner of minor and U-21 'A' county titles with The Rower-Inistioge, his all-action style saw him get plenty of game-time in the past two years but this has been his best season thus far, although he struggled in their semi-final defeat of Limerick.

The 22-year-old - who is understood to have carried a knock into the game - only lasted 34 minutes and is the most likely to lose out for the final with his place under threat from last year's captain Cillian Buckley.

Winner of an All-Ireland minor title five years ago as well as an All-Ireland senior colleges title with St Kieran's, the crafty left-hander could be held in reserve as the Carlow IT student has a great record of delivering a couple of points off the bench and that could tip the balance in their favour.

John Donnelly

One of the most naturally talented players in Cody's squad, it has been an interesting season for Donnelly as he didn't feature in their Leinster final defeat to Wexford before coming in from the wilderness to start against Cork.

The Thomastown attacker - always known as a beautiful stick man with great hands and a keen eye for goal - has grabbed his chance and shown a savage appetite for work with two outstanding displays making the wing-forward position his own.

Unusual in the sense that he didn't attend second-level level nurseries like St Kieran's or Kilkenny CBS - he went to Grennan College in Thomastown - the 21-year-old has struggled to nail down a starting berth until recent games and he has been on and off the team in the past two years.

The DCU student, who won a Freshers All-Ireland in 2017 before playing in last year's Fitzgibbon Cup final for the Dublin college, put in some ferocious hits to set the tone in their last-four defeat of the Treaty and his influence will be crucial on Sunday to shut down Tipp's half-back line.

Adrian Mullen

A first cousin of Michael and Colin Fennelly, Mullen was in regular company with the Liam MacCarthy Cup growing up and he gets his own chance to land hurling's holy grail after a scintillating debut season.

His name was in lights as a teenager, contesting four All-Ireland senior colleges finals with St Kieran's - winning three, including one as goalkeeper and two in attack - and he continued in that vein at club level helping Ballyhale Shamrocks to an All-Ireland club title in March.

This year's Club Player of the Year, the 20-year-old is a red-hot favourite to be crowned Young Hurler of the Year in spite of a rocky start to the championship having been taken off scoreless before half-time against Galway in their Nowlan Park clash.

He has been outstanding ever since with 1-3 from play the following week in their round-robin tie against Wexford, while he has followed that up with three more stellar displays against the Model men, Cork and Limerick to mark him out as the biggest find of the summer.

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