Dan Ravenhill with the Leinster MHC cup.
OFFALY will have one of its biggest hurling games in years when they play Clare in the All-Ireland Minor Hurling Championship semi-final in Thurles on Friday evening.
Offaly have been excellent so far this year, capturing the Leinster Minor Hurling Championship with great style and they have their hearts set on an appearance in the All-Ireland final.
The performances of this team has created a wave of excitement in Offaly. It comes on the back of a sensational win by Offaly in the All-Ireland U-20 Football Championship last year and it is creating a new mood of optimism about both codes in Offaly.
The prospects of this minor hurling team has been spoken about in quiet circles for some time and they have lived up to expectations so far. They have won all their games quite comprehensively, getting their toughest test from Laois in the round robin stage, and their confidence is sky high.
Offaly will be entering new territory against Clare. It is the unknown to an extent as they have had a few weeks to prepare while the Munster men have had the advantage of competing in a round robin series for a place in the semi-final.
Those extra two games will be of definite benefit to Clare but Offaly have had the opportunity to fine tune things, to get quality work in. It has also allowed one of their top forwards Daniel Hand to recover from an illness. That dose knocked the Kilcormac-Killoughey youngster for six and he missed the Leinster semi-final and final as a result.
He is now back training and playing and his return increases Offaly's options. It also presents management with a dilemma. He would have been on the team only for his illness but Offaly played so well in the Leinster final that it will be difficult to make any changes – dual player Niall Furlong came in and has impressed with his work rate and energy.
No matter what Offaly do, Hand's availability is great and he will see action at some stage. Apart from that Offaly have no problems and are selecting from a full strength squad.
It has been a great year for Offaly minor hurlers this year. Managed by Leo O'Connor, a member of the Limerick squad beaten by Offaly in the 1994 All-Ireland senior hurling final, they have been playing excellent hurling. They are fit, skilful and are playing to a clear plan.
Friday's game will be their sixth of the campaign and this volume of matches has really brought them on. They were fancied from the start in Leinster and sharpened up in the round robin stage of the Leinster campaign.
Offaly were grouped with Laois and Kildare in tier 2 and with no county bowing out at this stage, the stakes were not big but the quality of performacne was still important.
Offaly did all that could be expected of them here. They hammered Kildare in their first game, 3-23 to 0-8 and then had to work hard before beating Laois by 1-20 to 1-17. This sent them into the quarter-final where they pulled away to a facile 3-22 to 0-11 win over Antrim.
Offaly have got better and better since then. They performed very well as they beat Dublin by 3-18 to 1-15 in the Leinster semi-final in Tullamore and gave their best performance of the year as they pulled away to a 0-21 to 0-13 win over Laois in the Leinster final. This was a mighty occasion in Portlaoise – played in front of a huge crowd as both counties threw the kitchen sink at each other. It was a real test of character for Offaly and they passed with flying honours.
It has been a roller coaster year for Clare but they are also a very good side and will probably be favourites for Friday evening. They were drawn in group 1 of the Munster Minor Hurling Championship, losing 2-13 to 0-13 to Tipperary in their first game and then playing very well as they beat Waterford by 1-22 to 1-8.
They had a very easy 2-31 to 0-7 win over Kerry in the Munster quarter-final and had a season defining 2-17 to 1-17 victory over Cork in the semi-final. The Munster final against Cork was a sensational, epic battle. It went the whole way to penalties after they finished level – Tipperary 1-22, Clare 0-25 – at the end of extra time. Tipp prevailed there by 3 penalties to 0 but in many ways that defeat has served Clare well.
It has given them a couple of extra championship games while Offaly have been seeking out less than meaningful challenge games around the country. Yet those games also leave some question marks hanging over Clare.
They received a very bad beating, 0-25 to 0-9, from Galway in their first game. A 0-21 to 1-12 win over Laois secured their place in the All-Ireland semi-final and Clare are a very serious team.
Yet there is real grounds for optimism for Offaly. That Galway defeat is one plus the fact that Offaly beat Laois by more – eight points compared to six. It suggests that Offaly will be fiercely competitive, at the very least, and there is justification for making them favourites.
Minor, however, can be a strange grade and all sorts of strange results can crop up. There is a big difference between the old U-18 and the U-17 that it now is. In previous years, players were a lot more mature than they are now, both physically and mentally. It is only a year of a difference but it does seem to be a big one.
Offaly, however, have shown real maturity in their performances this year. They have stood up to be counted when the stakes were huge and demonstrated an ability to perform under pressure.
It has been great to witness an Offaly hurling team perform at this level. They have a very well balanced team, oozing quality all over the field.
That balance is important but any successful team needs outstanding players performing well and Offaly have two gems in forwards Dan Ravenhill and Adam Screeney. Their influence and importance are similar, though they are very different types of players.
Centrre half forward Ravenhill is a physically strong player with a great engine. He will rove out the field and his ability to win dirty ball, power forward and strike on the run will cause a lot of problems for Clare.
Screeney is a delightfully skilful hurler. He is small but his level of skill is breathtaking. He has the ability to do something magical, conjure up scores out of nothing.
Two players won't win this game for Offaly and it will take a huge all round effort but they will find it very difficult to win without Ravenhill and Screeney hitting top form, getting really important scores.
Full back James Gorman also has real prospects of a long career. He is a physically strong player and doesn't suffer fools. His ability to win ball and deliver long clearances can often lift his team mates and he is an important player.
Leigh Kavanagh and Cillian Martin will be asked to empty the tank at midfield. Martin's work rate and foraging has been a feature of Offaly's displays to date and he will be ruffling Clare feathers at every opportunity.
A key element of Offaly's success to date has been their work rate and honesty. It has been fantastic and Offaly will be bringing that approach to Friday's game.
It is the biggest game of these young players' lives and the stakes are huge. Offaly won't be looking beyond Clare but an All-Ireland final is a huge incentive. An All-Ireland win could really change things for hurling in the county. As Offaly senior hurling manager Michael Fennelly and Clare legend Davy Fitzgerald have observed, one team won't change things on their own but an All-Ireland title could ignite a lot for hurling in the county.
It would help raise standards across the board and there would be a big domino effect from it. As it is, these young players have done a huge body of work. They have excited supporters, restored pride to hurling in the county and helped build optimism about the future.
You just don't know what way this game will go. It could be a titanic battle that will go down to the wire and this is more likely but a comfortable win for either Offaly or Clare can't be ruled out either. Time will tell but as things stand, Offaly have an excellent chance and their form and confidence levels suggests that an All-Ireland final place against Tipperary or Galway is achievable.
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