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Mulrooney: Young Cats will rise to Banner test

AS was the case in the All-Ireland U-21 semi-final against Galway, Kilkenny manager Richie Mulrooney leads his side into tonight's decider against a side that boasts a host of players who have already tasted senior championship action.

Clare have placed great faith in their young stars, with Davy Fitzgerald opting to throw them in at the deep end this year.

Four of Mulrooney's squad -- Cillian Buckley, Walter Walsh, Richie Doyle and Willie Phelan -- are part of Brian Cody's senior panel but none saw action in the drawn All-Ireland final last Sunday, giving the Banner a definite edge in experience at Semple Stadium.

"The two counties who have been to the forefront of promoting players at a young age are Galway and Clare," Mulrooney agreed.

"They are both building for the future and they are both building quickly. Galway have already contested the senior final and seven U-21s saw action in the senior final.

"But to be fair to the players on the Kilkenny U-21 team, it isn't as straightforward to break into the senior panel with so much experience there. It's just a matter of how your county is fixed at any particular time.

"It's the very same situation for us as the Galway match.

"The Galway match was huge for us and Saturday is the same. Nobody can call Saturday's match as anything other than 50/50."

Clare emerged from Munster thanks to a late Niall Arthur goal that helped them see off Tipperary in the decider, while Kilkenny came through Leinster after beating surprise packets Laois.

Kilkenny haven't won an All-Ireland at this grade since 2008 but Mulrooney, having also steered the Cats to minor success, insists that preparing players for the senior grade remains the priority, pointing out that some of the current senior squad weren't part of winning underage teams.

"Brian Cody gets the credit that he is due, which is massive credit for what he has done for Kilkenny hurling and hurling in general. Many of the current seniors didn't win All-Ireland minor medals yet they have pockets full of senior medals.

"There is no conveyor belt at all. There is just improvement of the players through sheer hard work. It's about attitude and being grounded and treating the Kilkenny jersey properly. They're the core principles of being a Kilkenny senior hurler.

"The ultimate aim of any underage manager is to say at the end of the year the players developed, and I think the U-21 players have developed this year.

"But we're in the final on Saturday and hopefully we'll be good enough to win it."

Despite Clare's greater experience, Kilkenny go into the game as slight favourites. "We played Clare in a challenge match back in May and they left us in no doubt as to the standard that would be required to get back to the final.

"We were thinking of Leinster first of all, then Galway. We were naturally delighted with that result and the composure that the lads held in the last few minutes of that game against a very strong Galway team.

"And I think now we have the ultimate test. There is no better hurling team at U-21 level than this Clare team.

"They're phenomenal hurlers, as they will be next year and hopefully we will be too. The standard of player that is available to both counties at the moment really augurs well for the future.

"I was asked during the week was there a rivalry being created between Kilkenny and Clare because we played them in the 2010 minor final and my answer was, 'I sincerely hope so', because it means if there is a rivalry, both counties are near the top."

It looks like those who make the journey to Thurles will see that healthy rivalry in all its glory.

Irish Independent