Rise of hurling's young guns
In the lead up to the Limerick-Tipperary Munster quarter-final in May, there was huge focus on Limerick's Declan Hannon.
Although Hannon is not yet 20 and was in just his second season of senior inter-county hurling, a significant share of Limerick's prospects seemed to hinge on whether or not he would be fit to start.
When he wasn't, the spotlight switched to Shane Dowling, a 19-year-old in his first season playing senior for the county. Yet that mix of youth and inexperience didn't insulate Dowling from the weight of expectation heaped on his shoulders.
Precocious young talents are always flagged well in advance, but there has never been more expectation surrounding young senior inter-county hurlers. That stems from the fact that hurling is undergoing a significant transition.
Precocity doesn't always beat the odds, but there has still been a very encouraging trend in hurling in the last 12 months. Gifted young players have emerged, the majority of which are forwards.
Conor Lehane (Cork), Niall Burke (Galway) and Danny Sutcliffe (Dublin) were three of the best players in this year's league. As the championship has progressed, the supporting cast has been beefed up further with a host of last year's minors -- Dowling, Darren Sweetnam of Cork, Clare's Aaron Cunningham, Seadna Morey, Colm Galvin and Tony Kelly, Gavin O'Brien of Waterford and Wexford's Jack Guiney.
It's no surprise because last year's minor championship produced some of the best young forwards seen in that grade for years including Tony Kelly (Clare) and Padraic Brehony (Galway) -- although both played as midfielders -- Galway's Shane Moloney, Ciaran Kilkenny and Cormac Costello of Dublin and Stephen Bennett of Waterford. Brehony and Jonathan Glynn (another of last year's Galway minor team) have both played senior championship this season.
This influx highlights how the game's age profile is radically changing. For example, in the 2007 championship the top nine counties used just 46 players under the age of 23, 17 of whom were still U-21. In last year's championship, the top nine counties used 69 players under 23, 28 of whom were still U-21.
Yet, in the space of just one season, those figures have spiked considerably. In this year's championship to date, the top nine counties have used 82 players under 23, 42 of whom are still U-21. In the space of just five years, the number of U-21 players featuring in the senior champion-ship has increased by 248pc.
Some of those figures are skewed because of the rebuilding jobs undertaken in counties like Clare and Waterford and the subsequent young talent at their disposal. When the counties met in last week's Munster U-21 semi-final, 14 of the 30 starting players had already played senior championship. One of the Clare subs, Cathal McInerney, had started both of Clare's senior championship matches last season.
Apart from the isolated example of the heroic 39-year-old Tony Browne, more players now are falling away before they are 30 and are being replaced by young guns ready to make the step up. And that whole culture of blooding young players has dramatically changed due to increased levels of strength and conditioning training.
Last year's Dublin and Galway minor teams could have passed for U-21 teams. Dublin hurling has benefited hugely from conditioning training at a young age, but that has become a staple practice of development squads all over the country.
That brings a lifestyle and a professional mindset, but strength and conditioning coaching is now a fundamental aspect at all inter-county levels because it requires a huge level of anaerobic fitness for tackling, breaking tackles, off-loading on the shoulder and forcing turnovers. And young players have never been better equipped to adapt to those evolving requirements.
Making the step up, though, is still a huge ask with the physical demands. Lehane was the outstanding young player in the spring, but he has struggled this summer. He only struck the ball cleanly on two occasions in the league final, he made just three plays in the second half against Tipperary, while he hit three wides from nine plays against Wexford. Yet Lehane is a brilliant player and it's only a matter of time before he explodes.
The current batch of young players coming through, especially forwards, is the best crop produced since 2008. Hurling's last real golden batch arrived in 2001 with the likes of JJ Delaney, John Mullane, Eoin Kelly (Tipperary), Lar Corbett, Rory Hanniffy and Jerry O'Connor.
As the game changed during the last decade, young players were often left behind by the power game because they hadn't the physicality to compete when it mattered during the summer. Yet the current high tide has allowed managers to throw young players into the deep end now as soon as they can swim.