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10 players to watch as Galway, Limerick, Antrim and Wexford chase U21 hurling glory

The scene is set for Saturday’s Bord Gáis Energy All-Ireland U21 hurling semi-finals at Semple Stadium.

1. Conor Whelan (Galway)

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Whelan has made a sensational impact in the senior colours of Galway in recent weeks.

He marked his full debut with a 1-2 haul against Cork and clipped over another two valuable points during last Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final victory over Tipperary.

Whelan was a key member of the Galway intermediate set-up en route to All-Ireland success but he was naturally pulled from that squad ahead of the final due to senior commitments.

The Kinvara clubman is still only 18 and has plenty of U21 fare ahead of him over the next few years, along with a burgeoning senior career.

2. Ronan Lynch (Limerick)

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Lynch played three years at minor level for Limerick, winning two Munster championships, and is now in his debut year as an U21.

An outstanding talent, Lynch scored 0-6 for winners Ardscoil Rís in the first all-Limerick Harty Cup final against Scoil na Tríonóide Naofa, Doon, last year.

While still eligible for the U16 grade, Lynch banged over 0-11 against Cork in the opening round of the 2012 Munster minor championship, before going on to claim provincial medals in 2013 and 2014.

Lynch sat his Leaving Cert this summer and the Munster senior club medallist with Na Piarsaigh hit 0-13 in the Munster U21 final victory over Clare.

3. Conor McDonald (Wexford)

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Leinster final hero with a staggering haul of 1-10, McDonald is the man that Antrim will be most wary of.

It might not have been the season that McDonald and Wexford had hoped for at senior level but the Slaneysiders retained their Leinster U21 crown to make it three-in-a-row in the province.

McDonald took the hurling world by storm last year as the Wexford seniors progressed to the All-Ireland quarter finals and in 2013, he made his senior debut as a substitute against Clare in Thurles.

Marked out as one to watch for many years, McDonald was nominated for the Young Hurler of the Year award in 2014.

4. Conor Johnston (Antrim)

Source: Presseye/John McIlwaine/INPHO

Antrim have won the last seven Ulster U21 hurling titles and shocked Wexford at the All-Ireland semi-final stage two years ago.

It’s unlikely that lightning will strike twice but the Slaneysiders must still keep a close eye on Antrim hitman Conor Johnston.

He scored 1-4, including a goal after five minutes, in the provincial final victory over Derry, having notched 2-2 in the semi-final rout of Armagh.

Dual star Johnston, from the St John’s club, is already an established senior player with the Antrim hurlers.

5. Jason Flynn (Galway)

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Flynn was superb against Tipperary in last Sunday’s All-Ireland senior semi-final at Croke Park, finishing with five points.

An All-Ireland minor medallist in 2011, Tommy Larkins hitman Flynn is producing some scintillating form in the senior ranks this summer and will hope to carry that through to the U21 grade.

Flynn was a member of the Galway team that lost the 2013 All-Ireland U21 semi-final against Clare, and featured against Wexford in last year’s semi-final defeat to Wexford.

Accurate from play and dead ball situations, Flynn is a key figure for Galway’s U21s in their local derby with Limerick.

6. Darragh O’Donovan (Limerick)

Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Doon clubman O’Donovan is a graduate from the minor ranks who lined out for the county’s intermediate hurlers this year.

He’s also a key member of the U21 set-up at midfield and has been very consistent this summer.

O’Donovan scored two points in the Munster semi-final victory over Tipperary and added another as the Shannonsiders stunned Clare in the provincial decider.

A Munster minor medallist in 2013, O’Donovan will now hope to push on and claim an All-Ireland underage medal.

7. Liam Ryan (Wexford)

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

With Conor McDonald and Cathal Dunbar busy shooting the lights out at one end of the pitch in the Leinster final victory over Kilkenny, Liam Ryan was doing his stuff in the Wexford full-back line.

The Wexford defence held the Cats to just 1-9 in the provincial decider and Ryan brought a huge degree of nous and know-how to the table.

Ryan’s series of excellent displays in 2014 saw him nominated for an Allstar award and the Rapparees clubman made his senior championship debut against Antrim last year.

Ryan’s grandfather hurled for Wexford and the bloodline is strong as the tenacious defender has emerged as one of the county’s stand-out young talents.

He’s also a cousin of Kilkenny’s 2014 All-Ireland winning captain Lester Ryan.

8. Cathal Mannion (Galway)

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

It’s been a remarkable season at senior level for Mannion, who’s the hot favourite to land the Young Hurler of the Year award.

The Ahascragh-Fohenagh clubman, 20, has scored 3-20 in six senior championship outings this summer, including that 3-3 haul against Dublin.

Mannion’s last two championship outings against Cork and Tipperary have yielded 12 points from play, including five last Sunday at Croke Park.

Along with fellow senior forwards Jason Flynn and Conor Whelan, he presents a massive threat to Limerick’s hopes at Semple Stadium.

9. Cian Lynch (Limerick)

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

No list of players to watch in the U21 grade this year would be complete without Cian Lynch.

The two-time Munster minor medallist made the step up to the senior ranks this year and scored 0-3 on his championship debut against Clare.

Lynch found the going tougher for the remainder of the campaign but will have learned so much from his debut senior summer.

In the U21 grade, he scored a fine goal against Tipperary before chipping in with a point in the victory over Clare at Cusack Park.

10. Cathal Dunbar (Wexford)

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Dunbar’s brilliant goal in the Leinster semi-final victory against Offaly is one of the scores of the year.

And it earned the sub on that occasion a start in the provincial final victory over Kilkenny.

Source: breakingthrough/YouTube

Dunbar, from the Ballygarrett club, lined out at midfield for the Wexford minors in 2014 but has a real eye for a score.

And he helped himself to 2-1 against Kilkenny, finishing as Wexford’s leading scorer from play as seven points of Conor McDonald’s 1-10 haul came from placed balls.

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