Tommy Walsh not surprised by Cork’s rise as they target first minor in 20 years

Defending champions Galway are looking to win a record fifth straight title at the grade

Electric Ireland Minor All-Ireland Hurling Championship Final: Cork v Galway, Saturday, Semple Stadium, 7.30pm – Live on TG4

These are strange and curious times for the minor hurling championship, and Tommy Walsh is here to help make sense of it with some symmetry to boot.

Saturday’s final showdown between Galway and Cork at Semple Stadium is already striking on two fronts: Galway are seeking to win a record fifth straight title in the grade, having made it a record fourth just last month in the Covid-delayed 2020 final; Cork haven’t won a minor title in 20 years, when by neat coincidence they beat a Kilkenny team in the 2001 semi-final that contained this same Tommy Walsh.

Indeed Walsh never actually won a minor All-Ireland, his nine All-Ireland senior and two All-Ireland under-21 titles helping to make some amends. It means Walsh knows too that minor success doesn’t automatically transfer far beyond; still he’s got several reasons for putting Cork in pole position to win this one.

"For Cork, trying to win their first since 2001, when they actually beat us in the semi-final that year, I think the signs are good," says Walsh. "I remember it well, my first big day in Croke Park, and Cork had a fantastic team that went on into the senior set-up, the likes of Setanta Ó hAilpín, John Gardiner, and Tomás O'Leary who went on to play with Munster, the two Kieran Murphys. Many of those went on to achieve great success.


"For Cork this year, they've been coming since under-14, winning the Tony Forristal, beating Kilkenny in the final, won under-15 A and B, and that's the reward for the effort Cork are putting into Rebel Óg.

"It's the first big challenge, since then, and they've won all their games over Clare, Limerick and Waterford by 10 or 12 points, and if you look at Jack Leahy, he's scored 3-9, 1-14, and 0-11 the last three games. Phenomenal for a minor.

"Galway are actually the surprise package, even though they're going for five in a row. There's actually only one player, Darragh Walsh, their goalkeeper, who is still there from last year, which was only won in July. I think Galway expected this to be more of a developmental team, and they didn't expect to beat Kilkenny, but instead beat them off the mark and that was a resounding success."

That defeat last month left Kilkenny still chasing a first minor title since 2014; on top of no All-Ireland under-20/21 since 2008. For Walsh that long absence certainly isn’t great, although he’d be more worried if Kilkenny were no longer competitive.

“This year’s group [in the 2020 final], with time up, they were beaten at the death. That was hard for them, to be snapped away like that. And maybe that transferred on again this year. We’d a good few players back again this year, in the semi-final last week, and again Galway got a lead, and definitely that was a disappointing one to Kilkenny.

“It’s definitely a help when it’s going well, even though we didn’t win minor, the team that backboned Kilkenny in the noughties was the 1999 All-Ireland under-21 team, and then we won two under-21s. So I think at minor it’s more about developing players now, especially since it’s gone to under-17, some of these guys are only 15, or 16. That’s still very young, so I would say minor now as more about development, about seeing the players to come, as opposed to success itself.

“I think under-20 is more important, if you look at this Cork senior team playing on Sunday, they’ve been in the last four under-20/21 All-Irelands, the Limerick team have won a couple at under-21. If you can see players coming, from my experience, it’s about the players coming through.”

Indeed Walsh is evidence there's no great losing at minor level: "I think at that stage you're happy to play into Croke Park, we'd a good few who still came through, David Herity, Michael Rice, Willie O'Dwyer, Conor Phelan. So at minor level if you're competing, that's the important thing."

It seems too that the closer Sunday comes, the better hope Walsh is giving the Cork senior team: “I think Cork have a great chance. It’s not one year only, Cork are coming here. Limerick are favourites, but Cork have a game plan to take it to them. Cork can’t go warrior-versus-warrior, they have to go speed, cuteness of the brain. Jack O’Connor is probably the fastest hurler in Ireland right now. I still have Limerick down to win, but I give Cork a great chance.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics