JAMES KEATING and Sean O’Leary Hayes have been two of the pillars of the Cork minor side this summer.
Keating, from Kildorrery, occupies the number six berth, with Midleton’s O’Leary Hayes manning the square behind him. Those roles have been interchangeable depending on the opposition, but the strength and leadership they’ve offered hasn’t.
Given their consistency and maturity they were the obvious candidates to speak to the media at CIT ahead of Sunday’s All-Ireland against Galway. They headed back to school this week, now Leaving Cert students, Keating in Mitchelstown CBS and O’Leary Hayes to Midleton CBS, though it’s safe to say exams weren’t high on the agenda with the test against the Tribe looming large.
The current crop were highly rated even before they took out Waterford, Tipp, Clare and Dublin at minor, going unbeaten from U14 to U16 in All-Ireland tournaments while on Development Squads. That – and Cork’s wait for a provincial title since 2008 – heaped pressure on these young guns.
Yet Keating insists it was never an issue. They demand enough of themselves.
“A lot of us have been there since U14 and we’d been fairly successful but you still have to put it together at minor, mix with the age below you and cope with the step up.
“We wouldn’t see it as pressure. It gave us confidence going out this season, to know you are good enough.
"It’s down to performance then on the day, whoever you come up against. We know we’ve good players.
“We’re together about 10 months now and this has always been our aim so to be looking forward to it is just unreal.”
O’Leary Hayes has enjoyed his year so far, which included a good run in the Harty and an impressive debut at wing-forward for Midleton’s seniors.
The All-Ireland was always his ultimate target though.
“It’s great to get this far but the All-Ireland was always the main goal.
"We’re so close to it now we just can’t wait. Hopefully we’ll be used to the surroundings this time. We were a bit off it against Dublin. I don’t think it was nerves.
"We’d had Tipp and Clare in the previous couple of matches and maybe we just weren’t as pumped up as we should have been because it was Dublin.
“For Galway we’ll be ready. We’re raring to go, just need to tear into them now.”
Keating agrees that Cork weren’t at their best against Dublin last month, but feels it just adds to their motivation.
They’ve been training in the new Páirc, a mini Croker, to ensure they hit the ground running this time.
“It’s a good way to come into a final, with plenty to prove and with very few of us happy with how we performed.
"It was a bit strange. Going up the night before even, but it’s a great run-in for this match. We’ve been in Páirc Uí Chaoimh training… the dressing rooms, warm-up area, it’s all very similar.”
For all that, this Sunday will be a major step up.
Rather than fear the occasion, Keating and O’Leary Hayes are embracing the challenge, something manager Denis Ring, coach John Dwyer and the selectors have encouraged them to do.
“Sure look there’s definitely a buzz there, for hurling in general,” said Keating, who grew up in a hurling-mad household and whose sister Áine plays at U16 in both codes for Cork.
“The seniors have been a great support for us all year and every young kid is pucking all around the place.
"Everyone in our village has a hurley in their hand but that’s the same all across the county.”
His idols in Kildorrery were Mikey Walsh and Peter O’Brien and he got to hurl alongside them recently in the club’s intermediate side, even if they did fall short against Aghada.
“It’s great for Kildorrery. Austin Walsh would have won a minor All-Ireland in 1995 (alongside current minor coach Dwyer incidentally).
"Ian Butler is there as well now so to have two on the panel is very good going for our club.”
O’Leary Hayes comes from a hurling powerhouse in East Cork – a production line of talent – but he’s enjoying the countdown to Croker, with backing from family, including his three sisters and two brothers.
“The management have organised everything so we can just concentrate on the game.
"The good luck signs are starting to go up now down my way – I’ve a bit of catching up with Aaron Walsh Barry (Carrigtwohill) and Liam O’Shea (Lisgoold) – but it’s a great place to be.”