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8 players to watch as Derry, Kilkenny, Galway and Limerick chase All-Ireland U21 final spots

Both semi-finals are down for decision at Semple Stadium on Saturday.

THE RACE FOR 2017 Bord Gáis Energy All-Ireland U21 hurling honours has been whittled down to four teams.

The two semi-finals are down for decision at Semple Stadium on Saturday, as Ulster kingpins Derry tackle Leinster champions Kilkenny at 4pm, before outright favourites Limerick take on Galway at 6pm.

Here, we take a look at 8 players, two from each county, who will have a big say in the weekend double-header…

1. Conor Whelan (Galway)

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Conor Whelan’s come a long way in two years.

In the 2015 All-Ireland senior hurling quarter-final, he was sprung by Anthony Cunningham for a debut against Cork, and responded with a 1-2 haul for Galway.

Now, he’s a leading Hurler of the Year contender, having racked up 0-16 from four outings.

Source: GaelicShintyHurling/YouTube

Whelan bagged 0-5 in the Leinster SHC opener against Dublin and added 0-7 in the Offaly win, before he was held scoreless in the final victory over Wexford.

Whelan (20), was still effective in the Wexford game, and he’s filled out considerably to become a physically imposing forward with a scoring touch.

His All-Ireland semi-final performance against Tipperary earned rave reviews, as Whelan picked off four crucial points from play.

He’ll hope to carry that good form into the U21 ranks – and Galway will need him firing to cause an upset against pre-match favourites Limerick.

2. Jason Cleere (Kilkenny)

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Cleere’s no stranger to winning big prizes, having won two Croke Cups with St Kieran’s and AIB All-Ireland club medals with Bennettsbridge in the junior and intermediate grades.

He’s made big progress since those more formative days, and was drafted in for a Kilkenny senior debut in this year’s Allianz Hurling League, starting against Cork in March.

A 2014 All-Ireland minor winner, Cleere stayed at centre back for the rest of the League campaign, lining out against Tipperary, Dublin and Wexford.

Cleere didn’t feature for Brian Cody in the senior championship but he’s been a tower of strength for Eddie Brennan’s U21s in their run to Leinster glory.

He picked off three points from play in the comprehensive provincial final victory over Wexford, including a stunning late effort when he shrugged off numerous tackles before firing the ball over the bar.

3. Peter Casey (Limerick)

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Peter Casey has already enjoyed some great days for club and county – and there’s surely more to come.

The Na Piarsaigh player was an AIB All-Ireland club winner in 2016 – and he was also a member of the Ardscoil Rís Harty Cup winning team last year.

Casey was a 2015 Bord Gáis Energy All-Ireland U21 winner with Limerick, when he came off the bench to score 0-3.

He’s now an established senior player too, having shot 1-9 on his debut in a comfortable Munster senior hurling league victory over Kerry at the start of the year.

Casey’s progress was rewarded by his old U21 boss John Kiely, who handed him a senior championship debut against Clare in Munster.

Casey scored a point – and clipped over three in the qualifier defeat to Kilkenny.

4. Cormac O’Doherty (Derry)

Source: Presseye/Jonathan Porter/INPHO

Derry’s recent Bord Gáis Energy Ulster U21 title win was the county’s first since 2008.

At the semi-final stage, the Oak Leafers halted Antrim’s quest for nine-in-a-row in the province – and Cormac O’Doherty had a big say.

He scored 2-5 to floor the Saffrons – a haul that included penalty goals in each half.

O’Doherty was also a dual Ulster senior club medallist with Slaughtneil in 2016.

And he went on to line out in an All-Ireland football decider against Dr. Crokes last March, when the Kerry men came out on top at Croke Park.

5. Sean Loftus (Galway)

Sean Loftus lifts the trophy Sean Loftus was Galway's All-Ireland minor winning captain in 2015. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Galway’s 2015 All-Ireland minor winning captain Sean Loftus is one of four senior panellists in Tony Ward’s U21 squad.

Loftus joins Conor Whelan, Thomas Monaghan and Jack Grealish in Ward’s set-up, as they go in search of a first All-Ireland U21 crown since 2011.

Loftus made the move up to the U21 ranks last year, and played in the half-back line on the Galway team overwhelmed by Waterford in the 2016 All-Ireland decider.

A member of the Turloughmore club, Loftus earned a call-up to Micheál Donoghue’s senior county squad late last year.

And he did enough to make two senior summer appearances – coming on as sub against Dublin and Offaly in Leinster during the closing stages of both games.

6. Richie Leahy (Kilkenny)

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Richie Leahy certainly made an impression on Kilkenny senior manager Brian Cody, when the young Cats stormed to Bord Gáis Energy Leinster U21 glory in July.

Leahy scored six points from play against Wexford in that game, and walked away with the man-of-the-match award.

He was parachuted into Cody’s squad for the senior qualifier against Waterford and while the Noresiders bowed out, Leahy came off the bench to score two points.

The Rower-Inistioge clubman featured for Kilkenny in the Allianz League, and caught the eye against Cork with a three-point haul.

Source: stkieranscollege/YouTube

He suffered with a hamstring injury after that but returned to fitness to make his mark in the U21 and senior grades.

Leahy was a member of Kilkenny’s 2014 All-Ireland minor winning squad – and he was a Croke Cup winner with St Kieran’s in 2015.

7. Eoghan McNamara (Limerick)

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Eoghan McNamara’s a highly-rated young goalkeeper who’s tipped for a senior Limerick call-up sooner rather than later.

A 2014 Munster minor winner, McNamara is now enjoying his second season in the U21 ranks, having been drafted into the grade by current senior boss John Kiely last year.

The Doon clubman can also boast a scoring touch and in the 2015 Munster minor clash against Waterford, he lofted over five points from placed balls (three frees and two 65s).

McNamara is so highly-rated in terms of leadership that he captained the Limerick minors two years ago, and he’s made a seamless step-up to the U21 grade.

The Doon man is capable in all facets of his game, and a noted shot-stopper.

8. Shane McGuigan (Derry)

Source: Presseye/Jonathan Porter/INPHO

 

Source: Social NWNG/YouTube

Shane McGuigan made headlines late last year when he scored five points for his club Slaughtneil in the AIB Ulster senior club football final victory over Down outfit Kilcoo.

But like his club-mate Cormac O’Doherty, who’s featured above, McGuigan’s also a noted dual player.

He lined out at full-back for the hurlers as they won the Ulster title – and he featured in the All-Ireland semi-final loss to eventual winners Cuala.

McGuigan turned his attentions back to inter-county duties after that – and he contributed six points (five frees) against Armagh in the EirGrid Ulster U21 football semi-final.

Derry were beaten by Donegal in the final – but McGuigan still managed to register two points.

When Derry’s U21 hurlers ended a nine-year wait for provincial honours in July, McGuigan scored a point in a 3-17 to 1-9 victory over Down.

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